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April 6, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | April 6, 2007 |

The lies of a writer like James Frey are essentially of lasting interest only to publishing insiders, if them. He was lying about himself, after all, and if it weren’t for Oprah, very few people would know who he is, much less care if he was covered in vomit and blood exactly when and where he claimed to be covered in vomit and blood. But imagine someone today “co-writing” an entirely fictitious autobiography of Oprah, and you’re closer to what Clifford Irving tried to pull off in 1971, when he sold the memoirs of Howard Hughes.

Of course, like all but a very few, Irving had never met Hughes, whose reclusive ways make Thomas Pynchon look like the post-fatwa Salman Rushdie.

Irving (Richard Gere) concocted the plan after his publisher rejected his most recent novel. It would be understandable if a writer, feeling desperate in such circumstances, urgently started another work of fiction or hastily threw together a proposal for a work of nonfiction. Irving did a bit of both. Copying Hughes’ handwriting from a personal letter reprinted in a magazine, he convinced the powers at McGraw-Hill that he had been mysteriously chosen by Hughes as the conduit through which the mad genius would deliver his life story to the world.

Even knowing that this really happened, it’s difficult to imagine the moment when the gullible party shook on the deal. The Hoax succeeds, in part, because it tracks the publishers’ reactions from initial distrust to silencing their doubts in order to revel in their luck to deeper distrust to more willful silencing, and so on.

Gere plays Irving less as a deluded egomaniac looking for a big score than a kid putting off bedtime with a particularly fun conversation with an imaginary friend. When he fully embraces his fantasy, the movie soars into its best scene, when Irving sits down to a conference table under the glare of deepening suspicion and somehow leaves the room having not only salvaged the project but doubled the size of his advance. Though the coming fall remains in clear view, the scene captures the momentary freedom and unbridled creativity that lying offers, how it’s at least as tempting for its feeling of liberation from the truth as for its expedience, and how therefore it might be most appealing to those, like novelists, who often overlook facts for larger truths.

Gere is in good form, but occasionally dull-eyed. On one level, this lack of charisma is just another good reason why the publisher might have bought his act — he doesn’t seem dynamic, crass, or imaginative enough to come up with something like this — but The Hoax might have sunk if he was its only lead. Luckily, Irving had a reluctant co-conspirator named Dick Suskind; and as played by Alfred Molina, he steals the movie.

If Irving is the smooth, self-deceiving liar we’d all like to be in his situation, Suskind is the liar we probably would be — thrilled but plagued by guilt, sweating through hazardous brushes with being discovered, and stammering fabricated details of progress over lunch with inquiring editors. It’s almost impossible that Suskind acted the way Molina does at certain moments — if he had, they would have been sniffed out earlier for sure — but the broader comic touches are a welcome addition.

Irving’s wife, Edith, and his occasional lover, Nina, are respectively played by Marcia Gay Harden and Julie Delpy. Following her turns in Pollock and Mystic River, Harden still seems firmly entrenched in the Accents from Outer Space phase of her career. Delpy sounds exactly the same as she does in every other movie, which is, one imagines, exactly how she sounds when the cameras aren’t rolling — a bit lazy, a bit sultry, and sitting outdoors somewhere in Paris.

The Hoax is directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who knows his way around adapting books into films. In The Cider House Rules and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, he gracefully maintained a sense of novelistic complexity and texture on the screen, however impossible it might be to make a perfect transfer. Here, inspired by Irving’s memoir about the events described, he conjures a pleasingly tactile sense of the 1970s, from the dresses worn by Irving’s editor (Hope Davis) to the caviar-and-spirits lunches of publishing bigwigs to the shaggy wig worn by Gere.

The scam eventually attracts the attention of the notorious billionaire himself, and the movie comes to encompass Hughes’ clandestine power, corruption at the White House, and Irving’s increasingly unhinged delusions. To say more would reveal too much about the author’s fate, but that’s not the point anyway. You go into The Hoax well aware of who’s lying. You stick around just to watch them do it well.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

The Hoax / John Williams

Film | April 6, 2007 |

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