The Hoax
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The Hoax

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There used to be a clearly demarked line in literature between fiction and reporting. An author could either be a journalist or a novelist and never the twain shall meet. In the mid sixties author Truman Capote blurred the line a lot by inventing the concept of the non fiction novel. While it would cover actual events and people it would be done with many of the same techniques as a work of fiction. In the early seventies Clifford Irving, a New York City born writer, took literature in a different direction, the fictionalized biography, subsequently known as the out right lie. It has been said that if you tell a lie, a really big lie, over and over eventually it will become the truth. This may have been on Irving’s mind when it thought up the largest literary scandal up until then. He would fabricate an autobiography of the reclusive billionaire, Howard Hughes. In theory it seemed like a perfect deception. Since Hughes has not been seen in public for many years there were two things going for Irving. First even if Hughes found out about the book exposing it would bring him into the public eye, something he took great pains not to do. Second, the public would line up to find out about this bigger than life, almost legendary man. The film version of this ultimate deception, ‘The Hoax, is now out on DVD. Ironically, it also embellishes the truth to make a point so don’t take what you see here as 100% fact. Like most films that claim ‘based on a true story’ the operative word is ‘based’. Still this film is great entertainment. It moves along well developing its characters nicely and the performances are excellent.

In the late sixties and early seventies Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) was considered an up coming writer. He had a couple of critically acclaimed but financially not very successful books already in print. The film opens on October 20, 1971 atop the McGraw-Hill building in New York City. The top four floors have been emptied and everyone is anxiously awaiting a visit from entrepreneur and engineering genius Howard Hughes. Irving assures everyone ‘he will be here’. Workmen had just finished painting a helicopter landing pattern on the roof when there are shouts ‘he’s here!’ Just then the film moves back in time to four months before. Irving is in a meeting with his publishers who ironically note the fact he wrote a book, ‘Fake’ about the infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory. Irving is trying to get his latest work of fiction picked up for publication. The McGraw Hill editor, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) is certain this latest book will be big for them both. He shares the good news with friend and fellow author, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) who is happy for his friends impending good fortune. Irving goes on a shopping spree in anticipation of the coming wealth. His wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) couldn’t be happier about her husband’s soon to be realized recognition. This couldn’t have come at a better time considering the Irving’s furniture is being repossessed. Later at a fancy dress ball Irving corners Andrea and finds out they are not going to publish the book after all. Needless to say Irving is crushed. Not only was his book called a third rate ‘knock off’ but the dreamed about and already spent money is gone. He still goes on vacation with Suskind but once there they are relocated from their rooms at 1 in the morning apparently because the owner of the hotel, Hughes, wants the place to himself. This gets Irving and Suskind think and the plot to fabricate a Hughes autobiography is hatched.

The pair starts a meticulous campaign to research every miniscule detail of Hughe’s life. Suskind is a detailed and careful researcher, just what is needed for this project. They also have to begin their work to convince the literary community that they actually have this work straight from Hughes. Irving and Suskind are certain that Hughes would never risk is anonymity long enough to reveal the truth so they feel safe in the lies. The publishers’ collective mouths are watering at the prospect of a book that ‘would sell more copies than the Bible.’ Irving begins to put himself into the life of Hughes. He learns to forge his handwriting and even how to emulate his Texas accent. Slowly the book comes together with phony documents and letters allegedly from Hughes. There is more bluffing going on here than at a Texas poker game but the executives at McGraw Hill, blinded but the thoughts of money, go for it. They issue a check for three quarters of a million dollars out of which Irving is supposed to take $100,000 passing the rest on to Hughes. As the film progresses Irving sees his house of cards begin to falter and eventual come crashing down on him.

This film is entertaining but whatever you see in it cannot be taken at face value. It was based on the book ‘the Hoax’ that Irving wrote about the whole affair but like Irving himself the screenwriter, William Wheeler, took a great deal of poetic license in the script. Irving called the film a ‘hoax about a hoax’ and that pretty much sums it up. Still, if you want accuracy watch the History Channel; this is not intended to be a documentary. The film is paced to perfection. Director Lasse Hallström takes a different tack here than his recent works on films like ‘Chocolat’ or ‘The Cider House Rules’. This film promises a fun time and it delivers. The script is intelligently written, the direction impeccable the acting is well done. They do something that is very difficult; get the audience to cheer a man who concocts a web of lies to get money and recognition. This is part buddy flick, part caper comedy but thanks to the talents on both sides of the camera the film succeeds.

As good as the rest of the film is what really carries it is the performance by Richard Gere. He is able to get the audience to care about his character. Even though we all know how it will turn out on some level we want Irving to get away with it. Gere is affable and easy going, two traits any con man requires. He plays Irving as a man who can justify his actions with the bad treatment he feels McGraw Hill showed towards his work. Alfred Molina is one of those rare actors who can put on any character as easily as you would put on a well worn pair of slippers. He becomes Suskind, a man who wants to help his friend out of a bad situation. He adds heart to this film. One of the truly great actresses of our time, Marcia Gay Harden, just doesn’t get enough screen time. She nails the part of the once betrayed wife who still loves her husband. Hope Davis doesn’t seem to get the acclaim she so richly deserves. Her performance as the agent of the duplicitous Irving has more depth than you might think. She gives her character believable motivation and follows through with a steady portrayal. Simply put this cast manages to blend comedy and drama so well it is great to watch them work.

The film and story may all be based on lies but the thought that Buena Vista put into this DVD release is true. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is exceptional in the brilliance of the color palette. The contrast is flawless. The Dolby 5.1 audio is full albeit the sub woofers are not overly used. There are two audio commentary tracks present. The first has Hallström and Wheeler discussing the actual events and what is different in the film. The second commentary features producers Leslie Holleranm Joshua D. Maurer with a more technical explanation of the film. There is a featurette called ‘Stranger than Fiction’ that considers the behind the scenes work in the production. "Reflections of a Con’ has famous television journalist Mike Wallace discussing the man and lies. There are also some deleted scenes with director and writer commentary. You can trust one thing about this film, you will enjoy it!

Posted 10/11/07

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