What is it about liars that makes them the focus of so many movies? In the past few months alone we’ve had Breech (from the same writer/director who gave us another real-life liar story, Shattered Glass) and Colour Me Kubrick: A True…ish Story. And now we have “The Hoax,” based on one of the most famous liars of the 1970’s, Clifford Irving, who got a $1 million advance for writing “the most important book of the century,” the authorized biography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. The lie? Well, he made up the whole thing, including forged handwritten letters and having his wife pose as “Helga R. Hughes” to cash that million-dollar check.
Irving knew quite a bit about big-time fraud. His previous books included Fake! about art forger Elmyr De Hory, whose “Vermeers” and “Modiglianis” were considered masterpieces until it was discovered that they were forgeries.
Irving was apparently more inspired by the fraud part of this story than the consequences. According to this film, based on Irving’s own book written after he got out of prison, his frustration at having his publisher first accept and then reject the book he hoped would make his fortune created a sense of entitlement fueled by a bitter wish for revenge. Irving (Richard Gere) was also an accomplished liar — he had affairs and lied about them, he spent more than he had, and he was something of a fabulist, drawn to characters like de Hory and an aspiring novelist.
And so, with a combination of denial, bravado, audacity, research, forgery, and (poorly) calculated risk, and with the help of researcher/sidekick Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), he told McGraw-Hill that he had made a deal with Hughes, figuring that Hughes was so reclusive he would never bother to refute it. And he quickly learned that the more outrageous his demands, the more believeable they were. When his materials passed a handwriting test and an evaluation by someone who knew Howard Hughes, Irving figured he was unstoppable.
But it turned out that Hughes had his own ideas. And that Irving was not the only liar around.
Richard Gere is superb as Irving, capturing the brio and smooth charm but also the barely subliminal anger, neediness, and desperation. Irving worked as hard on this project as if it had been legit. In one of the movie’s most interesting choices, he actually dresses up as Hughes to be “interviewed” for the book. It isn’t clear whether this is his imagination, the way that any writer must dissolve his individuality into the subject of his story, some momentary fantasy that he really was writing the Hughes story, or some elaborate real-life strategy like the way they stole files from the Pentagon.
The film is less successful in trying to make the case that Irving’s lies were related to and even dwarfed by the other big lies of the era, like Watergate. But he does gain our sympathy. We almost hope he will get away with it. For a moment, as he and his editor wait for Hughes’ helicopter to land, we almost believe it ourselves.
Parents should know that this is a movie about a massive fraud, and many of its characters are unabashed liars and cheats with no consideration for the people whose lives and reputations they are damaging. Characters drink and smoke and use strong language. There are sexual references and non-explicit situations, including adultery and prostitution. And there are tense and emotional confrontations and betrayals.
Families who see this movie should talk about what motivated Irving to commit fraud and what this version of the story, based largely on his own book, tells you about how he feels about it now. What do you think about his efforts to put it in perspective by bringing the Nixon administration into the story? Families might want to read or see other movies about Howard Hughes, including the straight biopic, The Aviator and the imaginative fable Melvin and Howard, which deals with another story of possible fakery and fraud.
Audiences who enjoy this movie will enjoy seeing a much younger Richard Gere acting opposite the real-life Nina van Pallandt in American Gigolo. She can also be seen in Orson Welles’ fascinating documentary about lies and frauds, F for Fake. It was inspired in part by Clifford Irving’s book about art forger Elmyr de Hory, Fake!. The Criterion edition of Welles’ film includes as an extra Howard Hughes’ press conference denouncing Irving’s book. Irving’s own book about the Hughes book fraud might also be of interest.