When true stories that were yesterday’s top news but are now lost memories arise to re-educate and entertain us, it’s a win-win for moviegoers. That’s the case with “The Hoax,” a Lasse Hallstrom film based on the true story of how two authors in the 1970s pulled off an amazing deception of renowned publisher McGraw-Hill when they faked an autobiography of Howard Hughes.
When author Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), who wrote the book “Fake” about art forger Elmyr de Hory, gets the verbal go-ahead from his McGraw-Hill editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) on a new book, he runs out and spends his advance before any deal has been signed. It’s a deliriously merry weekend until Monday morning, when Andrea informs Clifford the book deal is dead.
Clifford goes through days of desperation, and then a magazine article about the reclusive and eccentric Howard Hughes sparks an idea. Clifford takes the article, which contains a letter from Hughes, and learns to copy his handwriting. He forges a two-page hand-written letter authorizing Clifford to write his autobiography and heads to McGraw-Hill. It takes more than the letter to convince the editors and publisher, but Clifford is onboard with his riveting personality and a stage performance worthy of an Oscar.
McGraw-Hill president Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci) has his reservations about Clifford from the get-go, but the deal is made, and Clifford manages to get a couple million-dollar advances: one for him, one for Hughes.
Clifford is so ecstatic, he soon believes his own lie, but realizes he faces a monumental task. He’s already having a rocky relationship with his Swiss-German wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) as she tries to forgive him for his affair with Nina (Julie Delpy). To assist in his scheme, Clifford turns to his good friend and fellow author Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), who, at first, sees dollar signs and agrees to be Clifford’s researcher.
The dance between these two characters and the actors that play them is a fascinating ballroom tango that dazzles, charms and captivates. The more Clifford assures his publishers the book is moving forward, the more Dick gets greedy. One time, when he answers the phone in a hotel room with Clifford, he boldly informs Andrea he’s a co-author on the book. Clifford, at first appalled at his friend’s audacity, smiles a kid-sized lopsided grin and quickly realizes there’s plenty of money for everyone.
As Clifford’s behavior begins to get as bizarre as the reclusive author he’s writing about, however, Dick feels the impending implosion coming and tries to reign in his friend and call off the deal. “As soon as they find out it’s a fake, they’ll kill us,” he tells Clifford, who turns a deaf ear on his friend.
By now Clifford is running on pure delusion and adrenaline, and can’t see the truth in his own life. He sends Edith off to Switzerland to cash the forged check made out to Howard Hughes, has another clandestine afternoon with the now married and wealthy Nina, and sets up a trap to keep Dick involved in his scheme.
Relatively unknown screenwriter William Wheeler (“The Prime Gig”) gets credit for a remarkable script that blends many true aspects from Irving’s book, “Clifford Irving: What Really Happened - His Untold Story of the Hughes Affair,” and adds enough fictional rudiments to create a compelling story. His inclusion of the Nixon-Watergate elements is very astute.
Just when we thought Richard Gere couldn’t dazzle any more than he did with his singing and dancing role in “Chicago,” his transformation - both emotionally and physically - into Clifford Irving once again astounds. Equally impressive is the amazing Alfred Molina, who enhances the humor, augments the revelation and ups the anxiety in the movie.
With such a build-up of intrigue about this story, it’s rewarding when at the end of the movie text notes inform us that the real Irving served two years in prison and then got out and wrote his memoir about the fraud. Edith and Suskind also served jail sentences, and Suskind would go on to write many books including the children’s book, “The Crusader King: Richard the Lionhearted.”
True endings aside, “The Hoax” is an enthralling movie you won’t soon forget.