Friday, May 30, 2008

Movie Log: The Hoax

Clifford Irving, in 1971, claimed to have been in touch with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, and to be acting the agent for Hughes's autobiography. There was just one problem: Irving had never even met Hughes. But that was less of a problem than it might seem: hardly anyone had seen or spoken to Hughes in more than a decade; the tycoon communicated by placing occasional rambling phone calls and sending scrawled notes. Even Hughes's lawyer and top lieutenant hadn't had any direct contact with him in many years.

So Irving lied, and faked Hughes's handwriting, and faked tape recordings of Hughes talking about his life, and sold The Autobiography of Howard Hughes to McGraw-Hill for a hefty sum. (He'd written novels for them before; he wasn't some guy just walking in the door.) Eventually, the whole thing fell apart --Hughes held a telephonic press conference with a group of journalists who would vouch that it was actually him, and Irving went to jail for a while. After he got out, he wrote a book about what he did, calling it The Hoax. (One will note that what Irving did was much more like a "scam" than a "hoax," but let's allow the man a bit of dignity.)

And, just last year, a major movie was made from the book, also entitled The Hoax, staring Richard Gere as Irving. The bones of the story are the same, but many of the details are quite different -- I've just been comparing the movie with Irving's wikipedia entry and this documentary summary -- mostly to turn it into a more standard bit of Hollywood product.

According to other sources, Irving was living in Ibiza, and doing well -- in the movie he's getting his couch repossessed in a leafy Westchester suburb.

The movie has Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina) as Irving's long-time friend, researcher and confidante (one might say sidekick), but it looks like they were just previous acquaintances who met fortuitously in late 1970 and hatched the plot then.

Irving has several children, who are nowhere to be seen in the movie.

Irving jetted around the world during the "research" for the Hughes autobiography -- supposedly to meet Hughes for interviews, but, according to the second link above, actually to meet with Irving's (plural) mistresses. In the movie, he sits in what looks like a guest house and fakes Hughes's voice into a series of reel-to-reel tapes.

And so on and on -- the movie makes Irving into a lovable loser (the movie opens with his latest novel being canned by McGraw-Hill when a sub-rights sale falls through); Suskind into the usual unreliable fat, sweaty sidekick with second thoughts; and Irving's wife from a Swiss heiress co-conspirator into a long-suffering wife doing one last favor for the husband she still loves, despite everything.

The movie tells that story well, and is filled with solid performances -- particularly Stanley Tucci as McGraw-Hill chairman Shelton Fisher -- but I couldn't help wishing (after the fact, as I was looking things up for this post) that it had actually told the real story...instead of perpetrating what is basically a hoax of its own.

The Hoax is a decent movie about book publishing, though it's obviously slanted towards the glamorous side of that business, and is terribly outdated now. (And I wonder if there ever was a time when book publishing took up so much space in floors so high up in midtown Manhattan -- if so, it was before my era.)


Anonymous said...

Parts of Clifford Irving's story are told in the Orson Welles "documentary" F For Fake.

Anonymous said...

I also highly recommend F For Fake.

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