File it under: Strange but True. In 1971 Clifford Irving was a writer on the verge of greatness - at least he thought so. Unfortunately his publishers at McGraw-Hill were less convinced, and knocked back the manuscript for his latest novel.
With an ego as big as his debts, Irving retaliated with a wild claim. He had the book of the century in his lap, he told them. Mr Howard Hughes had reached out to him, Cliff Irving, and asked him to ghost write his life story.
It was all hogwash. But Irving could sell hooch to the Temperance League. And they wanted to believe him. This book smelled of so much money it made them swoon. They signed a million dollar contract without seeing hide nor hair of Hughes himself. Of course, then all Irving had to do was write the book and hope for the best.
It was a crazy plot, hatched in desperation and manic self-belief. Pulled out the shadows to make what turned out to be his last public appearance (if that's the word for a telephone interview), Hughes was moved to observe that if he were still in the motion picture business, he might have turned it into a movie himself.
In fact Orson Welles got there first (as he often did): Clifford Irving figures prominently in his last movie, the essay film F For Fake. Before he turned hoaxer, Irving had written a book about an art forger, Elmyr de Hory, the subject of Welles's film.
Welles' picture is a comic contemplation of the lies inherent in art and the fallacies of the experts who authenticate it. The Hoax - with a witty screenplay by William Wheeler - treads lightly on that territory, but it's more of a psychological study in the power of suggestion.
Irving's mistake is that he fancies himself immune, when he's actually more susceptible than the lot of them. Like all biographers, he immerses himself in his subject to the point that he believes he's communing with Howard. As if such a slippery old bird would give away his secrets!
Director Lasse Hallstrom has made half a dozen films for Miramax over the last decade, including The Shipping News, Chocolat, and The Cider House Rules. But now the Weinsteins have moved on, and The Hoax barely got any promotion in the US. It's too bad. This film is just the kind of smart, literate entertainment Hollywood should be making more of.
Richard Gere is always good value playing cocky charmers - he's a little bit in love with himself, and you can see how that infuriates and infatuates his wife (Marcia Gay Harden), his editor (Hope Davis) and his friend, Susskind. But enjoyable as Gere is, you should see this movie for Alfred Molina, hilarious as the clueless researcher, a dogged dog's body and a transparent fibber. I don't know if Molina ever gives a bad performance, but if so I've never seen it. Isn't it about time he had his share of Harry Potter glory too?
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