It s always fun to look back at some of the world’s most elaborate hoaxes and con jobs and ponder whether or not they could have happened in today’s electronic age. In this era of 24-hour news, the Internet and social media, could a person actually get away with publishing a fake autobiography of one of the world’s most famous figures? In the early 1970s, a writer named Clifford Irving did just that when he produced a tell-all autobiography of eccentric billionaire business magnate Howard Hughes, which was eventually revealed to be a complete hoax. Of course, Hughes was known for being a complete recluse in his later years, and one has to wonder if it would even be possible for someone as famous him to successfully stay out of the public spotlight today. However, over 40 years ago, Hughes was able to maintain total privacy and remain a complete enigma, which is what inspired Clifford Irving to dream up the idea of writing a fake autobiography about him. Even though it involved fooling and defrauding numerous people, it was actually a pretty ingenious plan. However, when the hoax was exposed, Irving wound up being sentenced to two years in prison, though he was able to resume a successful writing career after his release when he published a bestselling memoir about his elaborate con job entitled “The Hoax”. In 2007, director Lasse Hallstrom decided to adapt this story into a film, which got very good reviews, but only garnered a limited theatrical release and barely made a dent at the box office. However, The Hoax does make for very entertaining cinema and provides a compelling look at the lengths a con artist will go to in order to maintain their scheme.
At the beginning of the film, Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) is a struggling author who believes he is on the verge of having his latest novel published at McGraw-Hill, only for the deal to fall through at the last minute. Clifford knows that his career is on the verge of going down the drain, so out of desperation, he pitches a project to McGraw-Hill that he claims will be the “book of the century”. While Howard Hughes has not talked to the press or shown his face in public for several years, Clifford tells the publisher that Hughes has contacted him and asked him to write his autobiography. He even goes to the trouble of providing a forged handwritten letter of Hughes’ request. While a story like that sounds unbelievable, that’s the genius of Clifford’s plan: Hughes is known for being such an eccentric that unusual behaviour is the norm, so ANYTHING is possible from him! If, by chance, Hughes actually came out of the shadows and claimed that Clifford’s autobiography is a hoax, Clifford could just say it’s “Howard being Howard” and people would believe him! And since Hughes’ own legal troubles would deter him from ever setting foot near a courtroom, the chances of him suing Clifford for the hoax are pretty much nonexistent. McGraw-Hill are convinced by Clifford’ s story and offer him a deal, so with the help of his researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), and his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), Clifford goes to great lengths to produce a book which people can truly believe came from Howard Hughes. But of course, the whole con eventually came crashing down…
The most popular movies about elaborate con jobs, such as The Sting, like to show their characters screwing over a villain in order for the viewer to enjoy their antics. In The Hoax, the protagonist is deliberately committing fraud for the purpose of benefiting no one but himself, but his hoax is so clever and intricate that it’s hard not to admire it. It’s not enough to simply churn out a fake autobiography about Howard Hughes. Both Clifford and Dick are required to conduct immense research into Hughes’ persona in order to fool everyone into thinking that the words on the page actually came from him. At several points, their hoax threatens to unravel, but Clifford continuously dreams up ingenious ways to keep it going, particularly when the publishers demand that he produce Howard Hughes in person. While the central premise of The Hoax is pretty humorous, the movie actually does manage to develop some genuine tension during moments where the hoax starts to fall apart. Even though Clifford is a charming and likable guy on the surface, the movie does not shy away from showing what an incredibly manipulative pathological liar he can be. He has a mistress on the side and even when his wife demands that he come clean about the affair, Clifford can never stop lying about. When Dick develops a conscience and decides he wants to come clean about the hoax, Clifford gets Dick drunk and pays a prostitute to sleep with him, so that he can use Dick’s devotion to his own wife as a form of blackmail. Anyway, since The Hoax is told from the point-of-view of a con artist, it’s sometimes ambiguous which parts of the story are reality and which are a complete fabrication. When the film brings up a connection between Howard Hughes, the publication of the book, and the downfall of Richard Nixon, it starts to enter bizarre conspiracy theory territory.
Though there is some truth to the Hughes-Nixon scandal presented in the film, it’s no big secret that The Hoax took a lot of dramatic liberties with the real story. Clifford Irving was hired as a technical adviser on the film, but asked to have his name removed from the credits because he was unhappy with how they distorted the facts. Of course, when a guy like Clifford Irving complains about distorting the facts, there’s only one phrase that comes to mind: “Pot calling kettle black”. Whether it’s a misrepresentation of the real story or not, The Hoax is still a very entertaining movie, and even if the characterizations are not entirely accurate, the actors still do a great job at bringing them to life. Playing a character as multifaceted as Clifford Irving must not have been easy, but Richard Gere pulls it off and delivers one of the best performances of his career. (He’s actually quite a fitting casting choice for the role since the urban legend about Richard Gere and a gerbil may be one of the biggest hoaxes of all time.) Alfred Molina almost completely steals the film as Dick Suskind, whose participation in the hoax turns him a nervous guilt-stricken wreck. While the real-life Irving thought the film made Dick look like a buffoon, Molina still makes him a very likable and endearing character, and he provides a much-needed moral center for the story. Solid support is also offered by the likes of Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci, and the legendary Eli Wallach makes a much-welcome cameo as Howard Hughes’ equally eccentric former executive, Noah Dietrich. In the end, all copies of the Hughes autobiography were burned after the hoax was revealed, but the release of the film finally led to the book being reprinted and released in 2008. While written hoaxes like this still pop up from time to time (see the cases of Stephen Glass and Norma Khouri as examples), it’s extremely unlikely that a con job of this magnitude could ever fool so many people today. The Hoax may not have been a huge hit, but it’s still a very underrated gem and does a splendid job of delivering a story that’s truly worthy of its title.