The most inscrutable and comic line in The Hoax comes at the start. Approximating and teasing a familiar claim, the movie asserts that it is “based on… actual events.” That is, the events associated with Clifford Irving’s infamous assertion that he had written a biography based on interviews with Howard Hughes, interviews that never took place. As embodied by Richard Gere, Clifford Irving is here seemingly convinced by his own accumulating lies, to the point that they do seem rather “actual.” To him, anyway.
While Lasse Hallström’s movie evokes something of Irving’s early ’70s — the lapels are wide and the dresses mini — its surface remains more mocking rather than insightful. He and screenwriter William Wheeler have augmented the “events” to suit a movie’s expected shape, such that their Clifford is both selfish and, at least nominally, sympathetic. His lapse into twitchy self-delusion — whether you read it as pathological, pathetic or just annoying — is in the end prosaic.
The focus on Clifford distracts from what’s most intriguing in the story, the fact that such a humungously public scandal erupted at the very moment when Richard Nixon’s war-making secrets were increasingly a function of self-proclaimed presidential prerogative. This business is ends up a kind of footnote, which is too bad. Clifford’s focus is sex and money, his means to both being his dupes’ fascination with celebrity for its own sake. Hughes never “actually” appears except as archival testimony footage, though the film suggests he’s on the phone. And yet he’s the object of everyone’s whirling obsessions. Clifford has the gall to take advantage of that obsession, but the movie uses him as Bad Example more than it understands him as Predictable Symptom.
Clifford’s public deviance is, according to the film, initiated by his private needs. At the start of the film, he’s desperate to cut a book deal and get back at his publisher, who has recently screwed him (dropping a novel it had promised to do). Known at the time as the “man who wrote Fake” (subtitled The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time), he’s considered a best-selling “expert” on forgery even as he sees himself as a philosopher, meditating on the value of originality over imitation. “What is art?” he smiles, trying to insinuate himself into the boardroom full of McGraw-Hill execs who only want him to make them some money. At once appreciating corporate desires and determined to make his name (in a manner at least vaguely respectable), Clifford attempts to seduce his editor Andrea (Hope Davis) and her unctuous boss Shelton (Stanley Tucci), though neither of them quite hears what he’s saying. All they want to know is that he has a promise from Hughes. And for that they offer seven figures.
Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, Alfred Molina as Dick Susskind and Stanley Tucci as Shelton Fisher
Richard Gere as Clifford Irving
It’s not a terrible scheme as such schemes go, though it’s inevitably going to blow up. What makes it not terrible is that Hughes is so isolated that, as Clifford and his agent and sometime research assistant, Dick (Alfred Molina) reason, no one will be able to tell if the promise they claim is “real.” And Hughes won’t want to put the kibosh on it, because that necessitates his coming forth, which everyone knows he is loathe to do. As Hughes thus represents the mythic paranoia of the time (and yes, he’s much like Nixon, even as he reportedly hates him), the very idea of Hughes allows the scheme to go forward. No one wants to miss an opportunity and no one quite comprehends what opportunity he’s assuming.
As Clifford and Dick embark on the project, they make an effort to locate a version of truth, in the form of interviewees’ memories of Hughes. Almost immediately, they’re granted an opportunity they would never have imagined, when disgruntled former Hughes employee Noah Dietrich (Eli Wallach) hands them his own unpublished memoir and naïvely asks Clifford, the professional writer, for a crit. The liars proceed to secure (steal) the MS, then incorporate it into their own, Clifford dictating and Dick typing, as if they’re conjuring a product that might, in the end, be viable (i.e., profitable).
To make their own fiction work (and produce tapes that might or might not be used to document their contact with the recluse), Dick and Clifford begin to perform it. Clifford dons a pencil mustache and natty jacket, speaking into a tape recorder, remembering bits of Noah’s text but also elaborating — stories that no one will check because no one could imagine such an outrage.
Occasionally, they are reminded of their moorings, usually in the form of Clifford’s longsuffering wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden). She’s got him on probation following a long-time deceit with Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy). Even as Edith believes Clifford’s pledge that the affair is now over, he can’t seem to help himself, spending much of his New York hotel rendezvous worrying about what he’s doing. (As the film notes, Van Pallandt becomes famous for revealing the hoax to the world and to Edith, whose surprise at the truth looks decidedly faux.)
As Clifford’s lies begin to catch up to him, the movie suggests he suffers something — guilt, remorse, maybe even a sense of responsibility. In this he mirrors the movie’s background figures, the men who masterminded Watergate. Or at least, you can imagine that he does, as his paranoiac behavior and seeming punishment (kidnapping, threats, and assaults by shadowy figures who may or may not be dispatched by the Hughes in his head) stretches out over lengthy minutes. Instructed by one such figure that the book must now include information that indicts Nixon, Clifford is beside himself (metaphorically, literally, however you wish). This is his book, he insists, his lie, and no one should be telling him what fictions must be included to arrive at his own truth.
The moment — and it is brief — offers a nifty summation of what’s at stake in all this churning dishonesty and desire. Even as The Hoax works to wring emotional consequence from its many layers of lies, you’re hard-pressed to believe it.