One of the most audacious cons in history is aided by the certainty that no one would tell a lie so obvious.
A film about an outrageous hoax, based on a true story as told in a book written by the perpetrator of said hoax. With so many layers of reality between the actual events and their onscreen translation, should we assume everything in 2007’s The Hoax is accurate?
Perhaps the more important question is: does it matter?
My feeling is that a film’s first prerogative is to entertain. In any adaptation (whether from real life or another medium of fiction) concessions will be made to the necessity of visual drama. When real life is the model, I’m less concerned with accuracy so long as the film is never presented as evidence of the real events. (In other words, JFK is great drama. You can say it’s a great movie, but never try to convince me it’s the real truth behind the Kennedy Assassination.) There are limits of course. If you’re doing the story of United Flight 93 I don’t endorse taking so many liberties that Marc Wahlberg single-handedly saves the plan from terrorists.
But to return to The Hoax, there’s something appropriate about the uncertainty of historical fidelity in a film about a writer pulling off the mother of all lies. It’s 1971 and Clifford Irving (played with wonderful desperation and cunning by Richard Gere) has just had his latest book rejected by a publisher. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of his last book — about an art forger — has killed his hopes for another project. Like many writers when faced with a “Pass,” he doesn’t take it well and barges into a company meeting to say he’s got the book of the century, something they’d regret passing on — an autobiography of the reclusive Howard Hughes.
It’s an utterly implausible and grandiose lie and — in a manner less surprising in the Trump presidency of 2017 than it was in 2007 — the brazenness of the lie gives it credibility. Who in their right mind would lie about something so easily impeached? Putting the experience of his last book to use, Irving expertly forges notes from Hughes (and it is true that in real-life, handwriting experts said that the odds of being fake were “less than one in a million.”) Hughes’s reclusiveness and erratic behavior also ends up selling the lie. The man was known to be unstable, so bizarrely, and attempt he’d make to disown involvement with Clifford would lack enough credibility to expose Irving.
The real Clifford Irving complained bitterly about the liberties the movie took with his life. Screenwriter William Wheeler agrees with my notion of truth in film, telling The New York Times, “I almost feel like I would not be servicing the material correctly if I didn’t have some mischief in my attitude. I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the things that happened, and the motives of those doing it, and within that, construct my own tall tale, based on Clifford’s tall tale, which is based on Howard’s tall tale. And [director] Lasse [Hallström] did his own spinning on top of mine. And then, Richard.”
(A fairly complete account of the story from Irving’s side can be found here for those interested.)
But beyond that, the movie ends up being an amazing study in people’s abilities to rationalize a bald-faced lie. Surely the publisher would wonder why would a man like Hughes pick a no-name like Irving to write the book? When confronted with the question, Irving’s publisher Andrea Tate says, “There is a perfect logic to it, as everything Hughes does has. It makes sense that he would choose Cliff and not someone like Mailer because then it would be Mailer’s book.”
That is why The Hoax is such a perfect film for the Trump era. It underlines how desperately people want to bring reason to unreasonable situations. Trump can prove himself boorish and ignorant of facts for months, but all he has to do is deliver one speech for the pundits to latch onto the “proof” that “today he finally became the President.” Con men like Irving (and, uh, Trump) thrive because people don’t like to believe they can be conned and they’re loathe to assume an inhuman level of ill will. That’s why a big lie is fertilized by its own implausibility.
In the same scene, Andrea goes on to say, “There are claims from some corners that Mr. Irving has concocted this book from whole cloth. Well, for those of us who have read it, we know that only a Shakespeare could have accomplished such a feat, and while Mr. Irving is a fine man, he is no Shakespeare.”
The arrogance of a perfect mark is on display — “You’d need to be a genius to fool us, and you’re clearly no genius. Therefore, you’re not capable of deceiving us on this level.” It’s circular logic that reinforces the victim’s own self-image AND further sells the lie.
Even better for Irving is that Hughes is so unstable that the publishers barely question it when “Hughes,” using Irving as an intermediary, gives very specific instructions as to how he expects to be paid. Naturally, these procedures are actually done to make it possible for Irving to secure the funds himself. It’s seemingly the perfect crime, particularly when Irving and his associate get their hands on an unpublished manuscript written by a former Hughes employee. This gives Irving just enough truth to weave into his narrative to act as a smokescreen.
The film brilliantly aligns us with Irving in a way that we feel like co-conspirators. We get a vicarious thrill every time he thinks his way out of a clever corner. It’s a brilliant act of bullshitting and salesmanship and before long we’re on the edge of our seats, waiting to see just how much he can inflate the balloon before it pops. It’s beautiful tension, because even as we applaud the snow job, we’re also watching this particular NASCAR race for the crash.
I’ll never understand why William Wheeler’s screenplay isn’t more often cited as one that must be studied because it’s a perfect case study of painting the protagonist into a corner and then showing him escape by breaking down the wall behind him. About 2/3 into the film it really feels like the jig is up when Frank McCullough, the last reporter to interview Hughes, is brought in to help debunk the book. He speaks to Howard Hughes from a phone at the publishing office and is absolutely certain the man he spoke to is no fraud — and Hughes told him that Irving’s book is a hoax.
All eyes turn to Irving. With his back to us and everyone else in the room, a defeated Irving says, “I have betrayed your trust. The book, the entire story is false.” But as a turn brings Irving’s mouth into frame, we realize what we have heard is not a verbal confession, but an internal monologue for our ears only. What Irving SAYS, mustering all the righteous indignation that he can, is that he has information that will bury Hughes and that he’s gonna tell him to show his face or he’ll bury him.
Balls. Of. Steel. It’s like watching Trump accuse his predecessor of wiretapping him and then maintaining he was right even as his story gets torn apart. It’s masterful. If this movie wasn’t called The Hoax, I’d say an even better title would be The Bullshit Artist because what Irving accomplishes is pure artistry. It’s gripping to watch him build this house of cards and continue to add new levels even as the foundations are taken away like Jenga pieces.
This was one of the best films of 2007 and certainly the best film of that year that few people have seen. Not only does it bear revisiting for the Trumpian relevance today, it’s just simply a damn good movie. Late in the film, things take a sinister turn and Wheeler and director Lasse Hallström add a paranoid thriller layer to the film, to the point where Irving believes his life is in danger and we’re lead to believe the events here led to the Watergate scandal. It’s an incredibly delicate juggling act of tones and in looking up Hallström’s resume, I was surprised he didn’t have any notable thrillers since then. (I was also surprised to learn that in addition to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules and Salmon Fishing in Yemen, Hallström’s resume reached back as far as directing ABBA music videos in the 70s!)
Ten years after its release, The Hoax is more relevant than ever before, and features one of Richard Gere’s finest performances. Even if the film itself is complete fabrication — and I don’t believe it is — it remains an engaging film with a ruthlessly smart and ambitious protagonist.