April 16, 2007

Hoodwinking America

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Howard Hughes was many things: a film producer, an aviator, an industrialist and an owner of airlines, all of which made him ridiculously rich. His legacy is evident in the many things named after him today, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to Hughes Network Systems, a broadband provider. In addition to being fabulously wealthy, however, Hughes had the added quality of being, by the end of his life, a recluse. Few knew of his whereabouts, he spoke to no one, and he only corresponded with his staff using handwritten memos.
The mystique of Hughes combined with his inaccessibility provided the perfect combination for Clifford Irving, a man who pulled off one of the greatest publishing cons of the twentieth century.
Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) — who attended Cornell as an undergraduate — set out to be a writer, and by the early seventies, he was moderately successful in doing so. As the film opens, we see that Irving’s ability to sell novels has run dry, and his latest novel is rejected by his publishers.
In an act of desperation, Irving, along with his buddy Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), a struggling children’s book author, forges a set of letters purported to be from Hughes. The letters allege that he has given Irving exclusive access to help him write the Howard Hughes autobiography.
Such a fantastic assertion requires a bit of confirmation, of course, leading the two authors to yet greater fabrications. Nonetheless, the most fascinating and unbelievable part of the entire story is in how easily the publishers buy Irving’s story. While Irving is admittedly a gifted liar, everyone wants to believe that Hughes wants his story told.
Of course, concocting such an intricate hoax probably took more work than that which would be required in actually interviewing Hughes. Irving and Suskind steal documents and spin entirely unbelievable stories, among other things, all in order to make the autobiography appear authentic.
I found that The Hoax reminded me, in a vague sense, of Iago’s trajectory in Othello. Iago is the perfect evil genius, creating a network of deceit so wonderfully intricate that he almost seems untouchable, though you know he can’t keep it up. While Irving and Suskind are by no means evil (Irving is greedy, delusional and likely a pathological liar, and Suskind is simply running on adrenaline and fear), a similar feel to Iago’s arc is presented, and it is done well.
Both Gere and Molina play their parts well, although Alfred Molina is especially good here, perfectly portraying a good man out of his league. In addition, the audience receives a nice acting treat: Eli Wallach, a great and enduring actor perhaps best known as “the Ugly” from the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, has a small but wonderful part in the movie as a former close associate of Howard Hughes, Noah Dietrich.
In addition to the acting, the seventies aesthetic present throughout the entire movie, from clothing to scenery, was superb. I am a big fan of that decade’s idiom, and I was not disappointed in their speech. In my opinion, the highlight of the film, décor-wise, was one woman’s use of a can of Tab to cool her forehead. There is nothing quite like seeing that long-forgotten beverage used as a prop.
Clifford Irving, after the events depicted in The Hoax, wrote a memoir about the whole episode and then wisely stuck to fiction after that. Nonetheless, we do have Irving to thank for supplying the fodder for this movie. The Hoax provides a balanced mix of humor, cleverness and entertainment. You should go see it. And in case you’re wondering, I actually did see the movie and did not just pretend to have done so.
That would be too clever.
The Hoax
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina
R, 115 min.
(Miramax Films)
The Sun’s Rating: four out of five towers