The Hoax (2006)
October 20, 2014 9:55 AM - Subscribe

In what would cause a fantastic media frenzy, Clifford Irving sells his bogus biography of Howard Hughes to a premiere publishing house in the early 1970s.

Lasse Hallström, who directed The Hoax, has also directed numerous Abba music videos.

His filmography reveals quite a track record: My Life as a Dog (1985), What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999), Chocolat (2000), The Shipping News (2001), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011), and The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014).

Entertainment Weekly's review:
There's no understanding what made Irving do what he did or, indeed, how he managed to get as far as he did — how he sold his brazen blarney to a publisher as upstanding as McGraw-Hill, how he forged Hughes' handwriting, or how he bedazzled and bullied his devoted, needy best friend Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina, reaching greatness in the portrayal of pathos) into participating as researcher and henchman. But Gere is terrific at suggesting the kind of addictive cocktail of excitement, panic, chutzpah, creativity, and naked hunger for fame and megabucks that might inspire such big, fat lies. Marcia Gay Harden, for her part, uses spare strokes to paint a vivid picture of Irving's Swiss-German wife, Edith, who was in on the money shenanigans. Julie Delpy plays Irving's sometime mistress Nina Van Pallandt, who would (in a neat bit of Buddhist karma) later go on to appear opposite the young Richard Gere in American Gigolo.

True facts about Irving's falsehoods are only the starting point here. The Hoax expands and darkens, in the sophisticated script by under-the-radar screenwriter William Wheeler, to comment on the deception and power games that defined Watergate-era America. Don't forget, while this literary funny business was afoot, the Vietnam War was dragging on under the auspices of a paranoid president who couldn't shake off the unflattering nickname ''Tricky Dick.'' There are lies — or at least fictions, fantasies, and conjectures about Irving — thrown into The Hoax. But the movie's aim is true.
Mick LaSalle at The San Francisco Chronicle remarks:
By rights, Clifford Irving should be a contemptible figure, someone in the pantheon of mendacity that includes Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Like Blair and Glass, he lied and betrayed people's trust, and yet there's something about Irving that makes him much more complicated and sympathetic — and makes "The Hoax" a substantial piece. He was not an arrogant kid, for one thing, biting the hand that fed him. Instead, he was the perfect image of middle-aged disappointment, of talent underappreciated. He's also a David who went up against a phalanx of Goliaths, armed with nothing but imagination and colossal nerve.

In the early 1970s, Irving lied to McGraw-Hill publishers, claiming to be the conduit through which the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes was pouring forth his autobiography. If you believe the movie, he didn't exactly do it out of greed, though the money was considerable. Rather he did it to be a big shot, with everything that implies: to be treated with respect, to be in the game, to have a life of splendor, to be somebody. This yearning makes Irving's saga an emblematic American story, about a man who wanted more, but it's even more interesting than that. Irving may, in fact, have deserved more. Thus, "The Hoax" becomes the story of a fascinating person who accepted the world's challenge and decided to fight it on its own terms. The world valued flash, bluff and celebrity, and that's what he gave it.
A.O. Scott in The New York Times writes of the director:
Mr. Hallström, now that he has moved on from the somber duties of spinning middlebrow best sellers into high-toned Oscar bait ("The Shipping News," "The Cider House Rules"), has proven himself to be a nimble filmmaker with a light and subtle touch. His underrated "Casanova," starring Heath Ledger, managed to be both farcical and subtle, and "The Hoax," with an excellent script by William Wheeler, achieves a similar complexity of tone. It is for the most part a jumpy, suspenseful caper, full of narrow escapes, improbable reversals and complicated intrigue. But it has a sinister, shadowy undertow, an intimation of dread that lingers after Irving’s game is up.
Bits and bobs
  • You may recognize Zeljko Ivanek from the TV series True Blood (FanFare), Revolution, Heroes, or, most recently, Madame Secretary (FanFare).
  • More on the film's accuracy at Wikipedia. (Clifford Irving was not happy.)
  • "The books being burned at the end of the movie are surplus copies of 'Knife of Dreams', the eleventh novel in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. The series logo and gate-fold map are clearly visible in one shot." (imdb)
  • "The code name given to the project by the publisher is "Project Octavio." Alfred Molina, who played the role of Richard Suskind, played Dr. Otto Octavius in the movie Spider-Man 2 (2004)." (imdb)
  • Wikipedia entry for The Hoax.
  • Original soundtrack listing on imdb | | iTunes | Amazon.
Director: Lasse Hallström (IMDb, Wikipedia)
Writers: William Wheeler (screenplay), Clifford Irving (book)

Movie Trailer
CBS Interview with Richard Gere to promote the film (Gere remarks, "It was a great script...")
Gere talks to Charlie Rose about not wanting to meet Clifford Irving while making the film.
Brief interviews from the actors to promote the film,

"You can't think, Dick - no thinking."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (17 comments total)
Irving was also the guy behind The Book of Lists, which was a huge deal to me as a young person.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:43 AM on October 20, 2014

Sorry, Chrysostom, that's Irving Wallace, his daughter Amy and son David Wallechinsky (original family name).
posted by dhartung at 4:39 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I remember the turmoil that this caused. Completely took over the news for a couple weeks. Extreme hullaballoo across all media. And then...well, I already know the ending but I'm def gonna check out this film.
posted by telstar at 5:36 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Crap, you're right! I've been wrong about that for 30 years now.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:25 PM on October 20, 2014

I've been warned off this movie by every single person who's seen it and had a conversation with me about F for Fake.
posted by carsonb at 7:39 PM on October 20, 2014

Clifford Irving sells his bogus biography of Howard Hughes

Interesting phrasing here.... and since I haven't seen this movie I'm not sure if it's a departure from reality, but wasn't the scam that Irving sold an autobiography written in Hughes' own hand and personally delivered to him by a paranoid Howard Hughes himself? And that the massiveness of the ruse was not just that Irving wrote the words but that he actually accurately forged them in Hughes' handwriting?
posted by carsonb at 7:53 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

OK so this turned up at the library tonight and I'll actually watch it this week, sorry for the threadshitting.
posted by carsonb at 9:04 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you're right, carsonb - the idea is that Hughes is working with Irving so that he can "set the record straight" (Hughes can, that is). So Irving is a mediator and using his writing skills to transcribe Hughes' words and order the events to make a compelling read. I really don't know how that is categorized officially (I should know!) but good comment.

In the movie, of course, Irving is portrayed as immersing himself so fully in his research (and under such stress from the ruse, and also from his marriage falling apart), that he is losing his identity, and indeed losing touch with reality.

I have so many feels about this movie but did not want to crash in with a big fangirl paragraph about it at the top of the thread, so would like to hear other's impressions and thoughts first.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:44 PM on October 21, 2014

Ooo, this looks good. I wonder if I can add this on to my ongoing Family Friendly Caper Film Fest? Do you think it would be fine to watch with a 12 year old?
posted by latkes at 10:18 AM on October 22, 2014

I'm not sure, here's what the film has (spoiler alert, I guess!): extramarital affair (no sex scenes - just suggestion that two characters had sex), and a scene that suggests one character has had a one-night stand with someone he just met at a bar [later revealed that Irving (Richard Gere) paid her to have sex with Suskind (Molina) and it is heartbreaking watching his reaction].

More generally, the protagonist is very likable but he's doing absolutely AWFUL things: shitty stuff to his best friend, lying to (everyone), betraying his wife, breaking laws, etc. It's very hard to dislike Gere in this film (probably very important so that you can "go along with" the protagonist on this journey - you're with him and rooting for him) though he does reprehensible things.

Um - trying to think what else; there's an absolutely hilarious bit where Hope Davis pops into camera and says, "Pray you die, you snivelling twat." and was so funny I rewound.

Stanley Tucci says, 'What the ball fuck is going on?' the best part is he could've over-done that line, but he didn't.

----> There is a TON of comedy in this movie, even during the darkest and most tense scenes, and on that level it is a great film.

Frankly I think I would've loved it at 12 but who knows? 12 year old kids are different with different sensibilities.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:31 PM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Probably more importantly - would a 12 year old kid know how obsessed America was with Howard Hughes?
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:32 PM on October 22, 2014

The Howard Hughes references would be completely lost of course, but I assume the film sets that up?

Swearing is fine and light sexual references are fine but the utter mean-spiritedness of the hero might not be. Maybe I'll just watch it myself!
posted by latkes at 6:29 AM on October 23, 2014

IMO, a 12 year old wouldn't get this film at all. Despite the fact that I was about 12 when the whole thing went down and followed along ok. Film is not reality and I felt this film lacked a bit in capturing the overall zeitgeist of the time, that being the youth upending the oldsters reality more than a little. Seems this 1996 film approached a different question: "how was business affected"?
posted by telstar at 11:31 PM on October 25, 2014

Gotcha. Thanks for the advice!
posted by latkes at 8:53 AM on October 27, 2014

I think I've seen this movie five or six times now, and this most recent time I tried to pay much more attention to the directing than anything else. There's actually quite a bit packed into the film, so I would usually notice a new thing each time I viewed it, and I think it's one of the pleasures of the film.

So here are my notes:
  • We get an opening shot on a rooftop (the publishers, McGraw-Hill) where a team of people await a helicopter; the people are ant-like and waiting - waiting to meet someone who cannot be known. They're pretty much in the "dupes" position when they get excited as the helicopter approaches, slowly, then reverses. I think that's a pretty good capsule summary of the entire movie: there's only a tantalizing glimpse of Hughes - a shadow in a hotel room, high up in a penthouse suite, or a disembodied voice on tape. But we never get the satisfaction of meeting him.
  • Next shot: we're at the base (I don't think the credits are even done rolling) of the building, camera pans upwards - it's dizzying as we see to the top of McGraw-Hill. This is the seat of power, and it's making us dizzy - we cannot "take in" the seat of power and it leaves us slightly disoriented. Dizzy heights indeed.
  • I think that giant X on the rooftop drives it home: there is an absence, there is no "there" there. Howard Hughes is a powerful figure, not there and yet the absence is felt to be there. Whole country fascinated by HH.
  • The first scene we get in the publisher's meeting room: faintly ridiculous publishing guy pointing his finger to Clifford Irving (Gere), saying, "Fake... fake." This is a lovely foreshadowing, and capsule summary of the entire movie. (The McGraw-Hill employee is referring to one of Irving's previous works that didn't sell so well, about art forgery.)
  • The next novel Irving proposes: we see the title page, "RUDNICK'S PROBLEM". :D Obviously a rip-off of Philip Roth's novel, "Portnoy's Complaint" - this tells us so much about Irving and how desperate he is. We also get a good bit of humor early on in the film (the comedy is really predominant in this film and is pitch-perfect in relieving the tension).
  • The not-so-subtle-but-still-funny print of the Hindenburg behind Alfred Molina when he's trying to lie (about the prune) to the publishers, and failing miserably. (I believe it's the Hindenburg -- hope I've got that correct.)
  • Irving pushing for 3 Beluga appetizers, not just 2: great moment that illustrates how this guy has guts and is ready to fully take advantage of the publishers' good will, now that he's a hot property.
  • The scene in the stairwell when it appears the gig is up for Irving and Suskind: the red flashing light, and a sense of falling - literally his status is declining rapidly. This is a nice call-back to the opening scenes and a reminder of the monumental publishing house that can 'make or break you,' to use a cliche.
Ironically Richard Gere is - I'd have to say I dislike his stuff - but I'm a big pro-Richard Gere fan of his work here. I find this odd and cannot explain it other than he really brings it in "The Hoax" - I think it is the performance of his career.

Everyone's performance is pretty rock solid.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:22 PM on October 29, 2014

Also, the quotes section on IMDb for this movie is appalling in its inadequacy. Here are some of my favorites:
  • "The war part's great - kids love war. But what do you do with the sodomy?"
  • "The middle of my life is at hand -- I don't have a couch!"
  • "Of the century? Couldn't you just have said, 'of the decade'?"
  • "As a side note, watch your tone with me..." / "That's the tone - right there. You got that? Watch it." that whole scene is hilarious.
  • "Pray that you die, you snivelling twat."
  • And of course the iconic moment when Irving says, "One of Howard's ideas - 'Why don't I just buy controlling interest in McGraw-Hill?' What was it he said? 'I'll keep the printing presses and get rid of the idiots.'"

posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:23 PM on October 29, 2014

Also, when the two men are fighting, "DON'T YOU THROW MONEY AT ME!!" :D
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:23 PM on October 29, 2014

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