...a compulsive liar whose very core is a fabrication mechanism.

The Hoax

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            “The Hoax” is both delicious and dull. It is delicious when author Clifford Irving makes monkeys of the self-righteous publishing establishment and dull when it overwhelms us with imagery. It is the flawed but fascinating saga of the indefatigable con man who sold his fraudulent “autobiography” of Howard Hughes to McGraw Hill (the book) and Time Life (serial rights), the two towering giants of publishing propriety at the time. But the flaws are understandable considering the scope of the undertaking and the fact that Irving’s tentacles spread widely through recent history. To cover that ground, the filmmakers deliver that history in a somewhat confusing series of flashcards.

            The time is 1971, with flashbacks to the prewar glamour and theatrics of Howard Hughes’ life as inventor, producer, and lover to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Director Lasse Hallstrom assumes our familiarity with Watergate, Nixon, the Irving imbroglio, and the publishing power center in Manhattan, and he sends these images racing through the storyline. Irving banked on his own assumption that forty years after his heyday, Hughes was lost in his buried and reclusive world - too old and sick to catch on to a con man’s outsized fraud. Wrong.

            The story begins with scenes of Irving (Richard Gere) suffering a rejection of his new book in the offices of McGraw Hill. He greets the setback with rage that affects every facet of his life. This is a man who wants to be famous. He tells his Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) at McGraw Hill that he is working on “the book of the century.” Now he has to produce. After stealing a memoir from Noah Detrich (Eli Wallach), Hughes’ gatekeeper, Irving follows a trail that leads deeper into deception with every step he takes. The man is incapable of telling the truth even when it would have been the easiest choice. He lies to his wife Edith ( Marcia Gay Harden), to Andrea (Hope Davis), to his mistress Nina (Julie Delpy), and to anyone else unlucky enough to cross his path. Perhaps his most unfortunate victim is Richard Suskin (Alfred Molina), his partner and researcher of twelve years standing.

            There is a grand scene when Irving finally convinces two of the publishing world’s most powerful companies that the book he has handed them in an atmosphere of suspicion is not a fraud. Greed turns the executives into fawning sycophants. Aside from this high point, the confusion factor is high. What is real and what is unfolding on screen from the prevaricator’s imagination?

            Clifford Irving has written good books on other subjects. Why would he stoop to literary theft and fraud? With fine actors supporting him, Richard Gere makes us understand completely by creating, with great relish, a compulsive liar whose very core is a fabrication mechanism. Gere is entirely credible as the man who, in the words of one character, set out to sell “a fake book about the most famous man in the world.”


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