When you think about it, all storytelling is a confidence game. The person spinning the yarn is trying to draw the spectator so deep into his or her narrative that he or she will forget the story isn't real and believe it's actually happening.
Thus, it makes a certain amount of sense that stories about con men are awesomely entertaining. The crook at the center of the story weaves a tale for his mark, creating a story within his own story, allowing the teller of his tale to give his or her audience a double run for the money. Not only will they believe the overall tale of the con man at work, but there's a good chance the con he is running will mess with their perceptions, as well. (Whereas true-to-life movies about writers would actually be pretty boring--writer gets up, makes coffee, shuffles to desk, maybe puts on pants, etc.)
Lasse Hallstrom's new film, The Hoax, is based on the real life con pulled off by Richard Irving in 1971, when the struggling author convinced a major publishing house, Life Magazine, and most of the world that he was working with Howard Hughes to write the reclusive tycoon's autobiography. A venerate liar who had authored a book about one of the greatest art forgers of all time, Irving created an elaborate series of events that played into his own delusions of grandeur, tossing all notions of truth out the window in pursuit of one of the more infamous literary pranks on record.
The Hoax was adapted by William Wheeler from Irving's book of the same name. (Wheeler also wrote The Prime Gig, another film about a con man). It stars Richard Gere as Irving, Alfred Molina as his nerve-wracked research partner Richard Suskind, and the specter of Howard Hughes himself. The billionaire is always watching, always reaching in to stir the waters, a living presence even when in hiding. In one of Hallstrom's most effective shots in the movie, Irving steps up to a podium to speak to a room full of skeptics at a launch party for the book. A massive photograph of a young, accusing Howard Hughes looms behind him, the slight twinkle in his eye reminding Clifford that he sees all. I can't imagine the shot's resemblance to Charles Foster Kane's political rally in Citizen Kane is a coincidence. It's an ironic play on an iconic image, and a tip of the hat to Orson Welles, another famous huckster who teamed up with Clifford Irving in 1974 for the sleight-of-hand cinematic essay F For Fake.
I'm not normally a Richard Gere fan, but this is a great role for him. The Hoax chronicles Irving's freefall through his own scheme, and Gere plays it with a fine blend of manic energy and foolhardy confidence. He's a seductive talker, thinking on his feet. With nicely chopped flashbacks, Hallstrom, who also directed My Life as a Dog and Chocolat, shows how each lie is built using pieces of Irving's reality. In Vegas, a note is slipped under his hotel room door inviting him to a secret romantic tryst, but later the same note provides inspiration for how Clifford claims he and Dick were contacted by Hughes' people. Half the battle on such a long-term con is being able to stick with it, no matter what comes, and taking whatever falls in your lap and flipping it into something you can use. For Clifford, there are no coincidences, just fortuitous happenstance. For Dick Suskind, however, it's not so easy. He's the opposite of his wild friend. He spends his life researching, dealing with the known and the contained. Molina snatches a lot of laughs portraying Dick's inability to handle a crisis.
Irving, on the other hand, has to believe at least some of what he is saying in order to pull off the lie. Mimicking Hughes' speech patterns to accurately portray him in the book leads to him eventually dressing as the man, slicked-back hair and fake moustache and everything. As things progress, certain events maybe happened, or they might have just been things Clifford told himself to justify his actions. Then again, given that Clifford Irving wrote his own story, all we have is his word to go on. Considering how much that is worth, the hallucinations may have been fictions invented much later to sell the book and, eventually, the movie. (This isn't territory Hallstrom veers into, it's more the kind of thing that intrigued Welles; if it's the sort of thing that floats your boat, then all the more reason to go rent F For Fake.)
Regardless of the veracity of Irving's account of events, it's a kick to watch it unfold. When the lie begins to take shape, the story rolls along on pure kinetic energy. Naturally, part of the fun of these kinds of tales is watching the house of cards tumble. To mix metaphors, someone always has to pull the ripcord so we can see that there is no parachute in the pack, just someone's picnic lunch. The climax of The Hoax concerns itself with Irving's downfall, the things he learned from it, and his theories as to what really happened. What he, Wheeler, and Hallstrom come up with both surprises and amuses, and if we're being duped all over again, it really doesn't matter. It's a victimless crime, and one I'd happily participate in any time.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.