The Hoax is exciting in the way that casino/bank heist movies are exciting — only it's based on a real-life media heist. It's 1971, and billionaire Howard Hughes has captured the curiosity of millions for being extremely powerful and strangely resistant to any contact with the public. People are ravenous for information about Hughes, so when a desperate, off-kilter writer named Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) claims falsely to have been trusted with Hughes' life stories, everyone eats it up.
Irving concocts elaborate lies to sell his story and swindles publishing company McGraw-Hill out of outrageous advances — for himself and, incredibly, for Hughes as well. With the help of his wife Edith and his best friend Dick Suskind, Irving tangles himself further and further in all things Howard Hughes, until even he believes himself to be a Hughes expert.
In such a character-driven film as this, the cast is of great importance, and the actors pull off Hoax masterfully, so
Gere has the exuberance of a much younger man, bewitching everyone with his winning grin. Marcia Gay Harden movingly plays Irving's wife Edith, while Hope Davis is snappy and high-strung as Irving's publisher. If anyone deserves kudos, however, it's Alfred Molina, whose subtle, thorough character work just makes you ache for him. He plays Suskind, Irving's lumbering good-guy buddy who gets pulled into the deception, ultimately finding himself in over his head.
The costumes, music, and film techniques all help to make the movie heave with authenticity. This isn't the fun, glamorous 1970s of mini-dresses and frosted lipstick, but rather the dowdy world of publishing in the 1970s. The musical selections feature evocative popular tunes of the era, though the original score is also supremely effective, popping and bubbling almost optimistically through tension-filled scenes.
The film is peppered with real footage of political events at the time, highlighting the fact that talk of corruption and lies was prominent in the mass media, while also weaving together fact (real footage) and fiction (the movie). And as a most impressive tactic, director Lasse Hallstrom and director of photography Oliver Stapleton put the film through filters and then sharpened it digitally later, creating a softness that looks eerily like something out of the 1970s.
The success of Irving's attempt is dependent upon two assumptions: 1) that the publishers would give him the benefit of the doubt, and 2) that Hughes, in his desire to avoid the public, wouldn't call Irving out on the lies. It's nearly impossible to believe that the publishers would be so gullible, and yet the point of the film seems to be that people will believe anything when they so hungrily want to. On the second point, Irving was very close to assuming correctly about Hughes, a man Irving came to view, delusively, as a close acquaintance. Remarkably, the filmmakers also suggest that Irving had a hand in revealing the Watergate scandal. Far-fetched, it seems, but by the end of The Hoax, I myself was ready to believe nearly anything about this crazy con man.
Photos courtesy of Miramax