Some days it just doesn't pay to be inventive. "The Hoax" is the story of Clifford Irving's attempt to write the famous billionaire Howard Hughes's autobiography, unfortunately without bothering to tell Hughes about it, particularly since Hughes was a paranoid recluse and concealed everything he possibly could from prying eyes. And yet my question would be, is it so bad to do that? Would I mind if Mr. Irving were to write the story of my life - the public part, at least - without my knowing that he did it? It might be fun, if a little short on excitement. I'd even be glad to autograph your copy.
The film begins in 1971, when middlebrow novelist Irving's new book is turned down by publishers. He's overspent, in debt, has both a wife and a mistress, and is accustomed to lying his way out of trouble. His new idea is to fabricate an autobiography of the most reclusive and eccentric man in the world, and step by step we watch as he gets first his agent and then his friend Dick Suskind and then McGraw-Hill, the publishers, on his side. Little by little he raises the stakes until he's acquired a million-dollar advance for the book. He forges letters of agreement from Hughes, he imitates Hughes's voice on tape to play for an authenticator, and more.
So who is this Clifford Irving? As embodied by Richard Gere in a breathtaking performance that forsakes any attempt at the sex appeal of his earlier years, he's someone who could convince you that day is night and night, day if he wanted to. But he's also a man harried by his own demons, carrying a touch of paranoia himself. He promises Suskind - a sad and needy man beautifully played by Alfred Molina - twenty-five percent of the money if he will help him with the book. And staving off periodic attacks from people unconvinced that the story is real, by constantly raising the stakes, he finally delivers his manuscript.
The film was directed by the underrated Lasse Hallstrom, who has a great feel for the human beings underneath the surfaces of his films, and he delivers both the suspense and the very perceptive portraits of both Irving and the people he deals with along the way. Marcia Gay Harden is Clifford's German wife Edith, whom he entrusts to deposit a million-dollar check in a Swiss bank, Julie Delpy is Clifford's mistress, the would-be actress Nina Van Pallandt, and Stanley Tucci is his publisher at McGraw-Hill. What's interesting is that the screenplay comes from Irving's own book about the entire event, his autobiography if you will, and you know what? Sometime I'd like to read what he wrote as Hughes. I bet it'd be better than the real thing.