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Hoax

Year: 2006
Studio: Miramax
Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer: William Wheeler/Clifford irving
Cast: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy, Eli Wallach
Spoiler
Spoiler!

The crossroads between everything Hollywood loves; a story about a storyteller. If you take the time to seek out the website of the real Clifford Irving – played in the film by Richard Gere – he slams everything about it, taking exception to the portrayal of himself as an ageing hippie living in the upstate New York suburbs and that of his friend Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) as a bumbling neurotic.

The film also (perhaps tellingly) portrays Irving as a man too in love with his scheme and quite prepared to use anybody close to him to maintain it, sending his wife to Switzerland so she can forge her identity to cash cheques and buying hookers for his friend while drunk in order to blackmail him into not blowing their cover.

If you don't know the story, Irving was an American writer who achieved some note with a book exposing an art forger on the Spanish island of Ibiza. Unable to get another deal and with his nascent fame fading before his eyes, Irving has a great idea for his next book – an authorised biography of Howard Hughes, by then a nut-job who'd made no public appearance in over a decade and who it was said even his most trusted lieutenants never got to see.

Except only Irving, his wife and Suskind would know that Hughes had nothing to do with it, the three of them concocting the whole story from begged, borrowed or stolen research. Their modus operandi includes a funny scene where Irving sits down in the house of Hughes' former right hand man Noah Dietrich to read a manuscript Dietrich has written about Hughes, sending Suskind off to photocopy it all while pretending to read it after Dietrich says it's too top secret to leave his house.

The ruse is on and Irving's publisher McGraw Hill falls hook line and sinker to the extent they recarpet several floors of their building for an impending arrival of Hughes that goes wrong, turning the fake biography into the book of the decade. The film achieves a good sense of the risk Irving takes and the times it all threatens to overwhelm him and bust open but which he holds out against using only raw, bold nerve to fool the world.

As history shows, Hughes participated in a conference call with journalists soon after in which he told the world he'd never spoken to Irving, and the whole thing was sunk. All three went to prison for various terms, but as the very fact that the film (and the story) exists tells us, what a ride. In the end – as none other than Orson Welles said in his 1974 documentary partly about Irving F for Fake – what right have we to denounce Irving for spinning a thrilling tale when we pay book publishers and filmmakers good money to do the same?

In the end it brings Irving himself undone, a trip to Hughes' Nassau headquarters by his private army of spies and the issuing of dark warnings turning out to be an alcohol-fuelled dream. Whether true to the man or not, the film depicts Irving as a man who lusted after fame so much it literally drove him partly insane.

It's well shot and however accurate a portrayal of Irving's life at the time, the period detail is realistic and the film slick. But it does beg the film-within-a-film question of what we can ever believe. Maybe Irving himself is a fake dreamed up by an even more visionary faker?

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