The adventures of con men, swindlers and cheats usually make for engaging movies. They're adult fantasies, after all, opportunities to experience (within the safe confines of the darkened theater) the exhilaration of trickery and rule-breaking. Lasse Hallström's The Hoax mines that fertile territory in its telling of the one of the great con jobs of the 20th century, the saga of Clifford Irving and his bogus memoir of Howard Hughes.
Irving shook up the publishing world in 1971 with the announcement that he'd been asked by Hughes to help write the billionaire's autobiography. There was no celebrity at the time who fascinated the public more than Hughes, a recluse who had not been heard from in more than a dozen years. Irving's pronouncement was met with some skepticism -- who was Clifford Irving to land such a coup? -- but he was persuasive enough to convince the publishing giant McGraw-Hill, which paid him an advance of more than $750,000.
It would have made a blockbuster book -- had it been true. Perhaps McGraw-Hill execs should have taken ironic note that Irving's most highly regarded book until that time, Fake!, was about an art forger. Irving was no closer to Howard Hughes than any schmo on the street. He and his writing partner, Dick Suskind, had concocted the entire hoax on the assumption that Hughes, who was facing a likely court judgment of more than $130 million over a prolonged lawsuit, would never brave the public eye long enough to denounce the book.
Irving proceeded with his outrageous scheme, convincing McGraw-Hill's handwriting experts with letters he had forged. He and Suskind set up phony "interview sessions" with Hughes and cribbed information gleaned from a multitude of sources. Their greatest asset was the sheer audacity of the enterprise. As Clifford tells Dick in The Hoax, reporting on his meeting with McGraw-Hill bosses: "Man comes in, he says something completely implausible. For that exact reason, he's believed."
Richard Gere gives the performance of his career here as Clifford Irving, a man so cocksure of his considerable charm and so ravenous for success that he cooks up one of the more outlandish crimes in literary history. But Gere, impressive as he is, does not have to shoulder the weight of the film. He is matched by Alfred Molina as Dick Suskind, whose sweaty nervousness is the perfect comic foil to Clifford's unflagging self-confidence.
The Hoax achieves a giddy high as their con takes them to the Library of Congress, the Pentagon and the home of longtime Hughes associate Noah Dietrich (Eli Wallach). One lie leads to another lie, which leads to another. And throughout it all, Clifford Irving barrels ahead with an almost crazed self-assuredness, the sort of gung-ho spirit that can make heroes on a battlefield. The film boasts its share of top-notch supporting performances, particularly Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci as McGraw-Hill executives, but it positively soars on the chemistry of Gere and Molina.
The Hoax is so much fun, in fact, that its occasional lapses of fact are forgivable. Sure, it's a bit ironic that a movie about a hoax is itself so fast and loose with the truth -- Irving himself has called the motion picture "a hoax about a hoax" -- but the filmmakers maintain the spirit of that astonishing time. Perhaps the most notable invention of screenwriter William Wheeler is his suggestion that Clifford concocted the swindle because McGraw-Hill had reneged on plans to publish a manuscript of his. Not true. Irving actually had a four-book deal with McGraw-Hill at the time of the Hughes bio. Hallström and Wheeler obviously believed that their antihero needed to be a bit more sympathetic, and this reviewer has no problem with that. This is a movie, not a history lesson.
Most tantalizing, perhaps, is the impact that the Hughes memoir might have had on the presidency of Richard Nixon. The film speculates, as have several Nixon aides in post-Watergate tell-alls, that Nixon feared Hughes was about to spill incriminating information about the president that dated back to the mid-1950s. A staffer at the Democratic National Committee headquarters had a connection to Howard Hughes, and Nixon (so the theory goes) worried that the DNC offices had a copy of the Irving manuscript -- a concern that partly fueled the Watergate burglary.
Did a bogus autobiography partly lead to the self-destruction of a president? That's a plot only Clifford Irving could have devised.
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 screens, The Hoax boasts a clear and clean image with no problems such as aliasing or edge enhancement. Colors are rich and vivid, and blacks are nuanced.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital doesn't get much of a workout in this dialogue-driven movie, but there are no complaints with the sound quality. Audio tracks are available in English and Spanish, with subtitles available in English, Spanish and French.
The DVD features some good supplemental material, albeit with a few disappointments. A commentary by Hallström and Wheeler is informative, particularly when it comes to discovering what elements were in the script and which were contributed by the director. Wheeler is an impressive writer who did his homework, but it's surprising to hear Hallström, a veteran filmmaker whose credits include What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules, admit his lack of knowledge about what parts of the screenplay were fabrications.
A more fluid and energetic commentary comes from producers Leslie Holleran and Joshua D. Maurer. The two detail what attracted them to the story and are well-versed on both the real-life hoax and the creative license taken by the filmmakers.
The nine-minute, three-second Stranger Than Fiction is a standard making-of featurette with interviews of cast and crew. Mike Wallace: Reflections on a Con (4:33) features the veteran newsman talking about having interviewed Irving on 60 Minutes. Although Wallace's comments are interesting, there's only a wisp of footage from the actual 60 Minutes piece itself. It seems the DVD's producers let go a prime opportunity to provide some vintage TV news footage of the actual Clifford Irving scandal. Why? The omission is conspicuous.
Six deleted scenes have an aggregate running time of 13 minutes, 15 seconds. There is optional commentary by Hallström and Wheeler, but the scenes were cut for good reason and are of only mild interest. More entertaining is the "Business as Pleasure" extended scene. Clocking in at six minutes and 27 seconds, it's a glimpse at the improvisation and fun that must have characterized the entire shoot.
Terrific performances by Richard Gere and Alfred Molina are at the forefront of this mesmerizing and irresistible depiction of one of the great literary frauds of the 20th century. The Hoax is briskly paced and wickedly funny, and an array of nifty extras makes this DVD well worth seeking.