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Hoax, The

dir: Lasse Hallstrom
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I’m no fan of Lasse Hallstrom’s films (spits to the side) or of Richard Gere in any capacity (spits twice), but I was very interested to see this film. I find almost anything about crazy, dead American billionaire Howard Hughes fascinating, and the story of one of the most impressive literary hoaxes of recent vintage even more so.

Clifford Irving (Gere) is a hack, a plagiarist and a compulsive liar. He tries to palm off rip-offs of Philip Roth novels as his own in his desperate desire to be taken seriously as a writer and to make some of the sweet do-re-mi that he so craves. His Swiss wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) has forgiven much of his lying and infidelity in the past, but, as an artist herself (not of the bullshit variety), she has a high tolerance for even more of the same.

With the rejection of his rip-off of Portnoy’s Complaint (which he stupidly calls Rodrick’s Problem - subtle, that) by illustrious publishers McGraw Hill, Irving hits upon an idea fiendishly foolproof in its intricacies: a fabricated autobiography of reclusive billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes.

By this time in his life (the 70s), Hughes was living in isolation away from the general ickyness of humanity, holed up in his various hotels and mansions storing his urine, injecting unholy concoctions of hardcore drugs on the hour, and wearing Kleenex boxes on his feet. A staff of loyal Mormons did his bidding through a system of notes scrawled on yellow legal pads, since he disdained the presence of others almost entirely. A pending lawsuit in an anti-trust case meant that, at least temporarily, for Irving’s purposes, Hughes would avoid the courts to be able to sue Irving should he go through with his masterful plan.

It must have looked like the perfect score. And with the help of his best and seemingly only friend Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), he sets about convincing sceptical publishers, journalists and the world in general that he has achieved the unattainable: a direct line to the madman himself, who has chosen Irving to be his conduit to the world.

Through forgery, through desperate prankery and the collusion of greed (on the publisher’s part) and bluster (on his part), he manages to get everything to a stage where it looks like its actually going to happen. Like it’s all going to come together.

Like he’s going to walk away with a million dollars and the credibility he so desperately craves.

And Richard Gere almost makes you believe it. There are large sections of the movie where I just kept thinking, “You were one of the main characters in Pretty Woman: you do not deserve to be ever taken seriously by anyone for anything. You don’t even deserve to have your car parked or your dry cleaning done, and you are entirely unconvincing in this and every other role you perform.”

And perform is the word, since he is so much of a performing seal in this and every other role that he deserves to have his own pool at Seaworld. But my natural dislike of him at some point gave way to a grudging respect when something fairly odd happens.

To substantiate his and his co-author’s work, Irving has to fake some recordings of alleged conversations between themselves and Hughes. To do so he locates and uses information and recordings from various existing but not-well-known sources, including recorded testimony from some Senate hearings Hughes fronted in the 30s. To start sounding like Hughes, he has to start getting into his headspace, in order to get the cadences of speech, the aphorisms and the tone right.

See, the thing is, none of us really know (or give a stuff) about Clifford Irving. He’s a footnote in history, linked to a famous fraud that will ever eclipse any other achievements. Most of us feel the same way (hopefully) about Richard Gere. Gere trying to approximate Clifford Irving is like me telling you an anecdote about the doorman of my building, replete with a splendid imitation of a man you’ve never heard of and will never meet.

But when Gere is playing Irving, who becomes obsessed with Hughes, and starts thinking he practically is Hughes, then it becomes more than an act of imitation: it gives the film a phenomenal boost.

There are very strong moments in this film (which, to be fair, is usually pretty good from beginning to end), and many of them are courtesy of this shadow personae / madness that Irving develops when everything seems like it’s going great but it’s really getting ever closer to falling apart.

The primary relationship in the flick is between Irving and his friend and accessory Dick: a big, bulky, childish guy who seems to be into the crime more because he wants to make Irving happy rather than as an attempt to make it big. He dreams of writing a biography of Richard the Lionheart, but can’t figure out how to incorporate the two sides of Richard’s lifelong obsessions (war and sodomy) into a compelling text.

Irving also has a co-dependent / emotionally abusive relationship with his wife, but that’s mostly because, as with most compulsive liars, he cannot help but serve the needs of his own ego first and foremost, regardless of the cost to the people around him. Two crucial scenes in the film show him dealing much damage to the people closest to him; with Dick in a manner designed to make him more pliable (through the judicious use of alcohol and hookers), and then later when given that crucial last chance at honesty with his wife.

Some strange scenes are interspersed which indicate two things in a somewhat nebulous fashion: was Hughes in on the game in an attempt to ruffle Nixon’s feathers, and / or was Irving going slightly mad? Anything is possible in a Hollywood movie, especially ones about liars and madmen.

The truth is that the truth is unapproachable in such circumstances. Irving (the real Irving) decries the film, from which he didn’t make a cent, as a complete fabrication which has nothing to do with what happened. The film clearly (though it’s played more for humour than verisimilitude’s sake) glosses over many elements of how they did what they did, making it seem like a somewhat low-key espionage action thriller (almost), and no doubt is far more entertaining that the real story, which probably was little more entertaining than watching two sweaty, greedy men bashing at some typewriters for a few months in order to make up whatever shit they could to get paid.

I don’t begrudge the makers going in that direction, because this isn’t a documentary, though it remains a fascinating story. Even though Hughes is effectively tangential to the story, and never makes an appearance, his legend, his aura permeates almost every scene until it becomes almost unbearable. A late scene at the book’s launch has a huge picture of his yet again, and it drives it home (again) in a manner which reminded me of pictures of Big Brother in 1984. Ubiquitous and ever-vigilant, always watching us to see if we screw up, always ready to send his Mormon goon squad after us if he feels, rightly or wrongly, that we’ve done him wrong.

I also don’t begrudge them showing Julie Delpy somewhat naked, in a minor role as a shallow nouveau riche aristocrat / musician / actress with an inexplicable hankering for some of Irving’s red hot love. Her character is shallow but knows it, and that makes it okay. I guess.

As a student of Howard Hughes lore, such a film is necessarily of more interest to me than the general public, but I guess it also has interest in the sense that films like Shattered Glass and Breach, about flawed men and the horrible deceptions their characters (or lack thereof) lead them to commit, has interest. They’re all intense character studies of deeply flawed beings and the people who they exploit or are brought down by. I still have to emphasise that I have a hard time accepting old Squinty Eyes Gere in any role, but that he didn’t destroy the flick for me. Far from it, he seemed to do really well with a fairly complicated character and a pretty brazen set of brass balls that he needed to adapt to make the film believable, even as it deals with the worst sorts of liars: those who eventually forget they’re even lying.

As hoaxes go, The Hoax is a pretty entertaining one; like the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot sightings, like the last election, like marriages in general even the final uncovering of the sham doesn’t detract from the enjoyment derived along the way.

7 times a man fighting the choice between having sex with Julie Delpy and having sex with Marcia Gay Harden isn’t really fighting much of a choice at all.

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“Think about this: Henry Miller was 38-years-old, unpublished. His wife left him for a lesbian.” – The Hoax

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