If you didn't know that the bulk of Lasse Halstrom's film about the writer who conned venerable publishing house McGraw-Hill and Life magazine into believing he'd scored the get of a lifetime — the confidence of notoriously reclusive, Machiavellian multimillionaire Howard Hughes — was based on fact, you'd dismiss it as too ridiculous to be true. But it was true, and more amazing still, shameless scam-dog Clifford Irving came shockingly close to getting away with it.
New York, 1971: As the fate of his embattled The Autobiography of Howard Hughes hangs in the balance, writer Irving (Richard Gere) and his icy editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) stand on the Manhattan rooftop of the McGraw-Hill building awaiting the helicopter arrival of Hughes himself, the man who can authenticate or torpedo one of the most notorious books of the decade. A dot — a helicopter — appears in the sky, approaches the building and then peels away. Four months earlier: Irving's newest novel is rejected by his longtime publisher and, bankrupt and desperate, he comes up with an audacious if ill-conceived plan to repair his shattered finances and polish his sullied reputation. Irving claims that of all the writers in the world, Hughes has chosen him to write his memoirs. Hughes' eccentricities play into Irving's deception: He hasn't been seen in public in more than a decade, and even his inner circle knows him only through hand-scrawled documents. And so it begins: Irving, whose previous books included Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, immersed himself in every scrap of information about Hughes he could find — not just what he did, but how he spoke about what he'd done and seen and thought. The key to the deception was Hughes' voice — not his real voice, but a voice that sounded real. If Irving could nail that, people would believe anything Irving's "Hughes" said.
Amazing though the story is, it would be nothing without Gere's slippery, insinuating — if not precisely likable — performance as Irving. With no physical assist but a touch of putty on the nose, Gere crawls under Irving's skin and inhabits it with the oleaginous grace of a man invigorated by lies, his slightly feral allure chanelled into the thrill of getting away with it. He's so slippery, so invested in his own deceptions, that it's hard not to be mesmerized by his glittering audacity. Gere's foil, Alfred Molina, is equally vivid as Irving's loyal researcher Richard Susskind, a lumpen everyman forever waiting for the other shoe to drop, and Marcia Gay Harden turns in a fine, subtle performance as Irving's long-suffering European wife, Edith, who pays dearly for her husband's grandiose dreams. If Orson Welles' F FOR FAKE (1974) does its best to artfully muddy the waters plumbed by Irving and Hughes (as well as Pablo Picasso, de Hory and the lovely Oja Kadar), THE HOAX seeks to set the record straight. But Gere's sneaky, ingratiating presence keeps it dishonest to the last frame. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh