By Cooper, Rand Richards
Commonweal , Vol. 134, No. 8
Do you remember the Clifford Irving scandal of long-ago 1971? The episode by now is little more than a footnote on a page of dreary American history, with Vietnam reaching its crisis and Watergate soon to come, but it was notorious at the time. An obscure fiction writer, Irving decided to boost his career by ghostwriting Howard Hughes's autobiography, based on a series of interviews with the ultrareclusive multimillionaire. His book promised to be the monster publishing event of the decade, and his publisher, McGraw-Hill, ultimately put a million dollars on the line for it. The only problem was the book was a fake. The interviews never happened; Irving simply made them up. And so a minor novelist became a major con man.
Con men are endlessly intriguing, and con jobs in the arts or literature particularly so. Jason Blair and the other recent cases of journalistic fraud pale in comparison to the majestic effrontery of what Irving tried to pull off. Faking the autobiography of an American icon--while the man was still alive!--required Irving's audacity both in the corporate boardroom and on the page: cojones and a literary style.
The Hoax follows the action as Irving (Richard Gere) and his accomplice, a children's book writer named Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), undertake research road trips, spend long nights at Irving's house fabricating the bogus manuscript, and survive daunting encounters with Manhattan editors, publishers, and lawyers. The publishing execs question the authenticity of what Irving is showing them, and threaten dire consequences should it turn out to be inaccurate, but finally can't resist their own greedy desire to publish the book.
Instead of having us admire Irving's cool audacity from the outside, director Lasse Hallstrom shrewdly dumps us into the middle of a nerve-wracking predicament. "Just look comfortable," Irving tells the nervous Suskind, prepping him for yet another interrogation by the suits at McGraw-Hill and Life magazine. "Look buoyant!" We sweat it out as notes from Howard Hughes that Irving has forged on yellow legal paper undergo handwriting analysis. In another excruciating scene, as the manuscript is being scrutinized by an outside expert intimately familiar with Hughes's life, Irving and Suskind flee in panic and hide in a stairwell.
Like last year's Capote, The Hoax depicts the writer-as-born-liar, but much less darkly. Writers, the film suggests, are incorrigible confabulators. Even when Irving tries to tell his wife the truth about an affair she has accused him of having, partway through his confession he begins to modify his story--borrowing something Dick Suskind actually did and grafting it onto something else that he, Irving, did in fact do, but not on the day in question; and on and on, fashioning a tapestry of half-truths and evasions for his wife.
Character is Hallstrom's forte, and his best films (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Once Around, and My Life as a Dog) serve up sympathetic, warmly humorous portrayals of childhood and of adult eccentricity. He isn't interested in exploring the notion that beneath the charm, quick wits, ambition, and intelligence of a con man lies the heart of a stone-cold thief. Instead, an air of frat-house high jinks surrounds Irving and Suskind's escapade; at the core of the fraud is a hearty horselaugh. "I hand them three pieces of yellow paper," Irving laughs, "and they give me $100,000." He can't believe they're getting away with it. It's too easy and too much fun.
Where Richard Gere plays a con man who never tells the truth and laughs his way to hell, life has assigned Ralph Nader the thankless role of a man going straight to heaven with nary a chuckle along the way. Well, he can now consider himself thanked. Nader's saintliness is the subject of Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's An Unreasonable Man, whose title echoes a famous pronouncement of George Bernard Shaw. "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world," Shaw observed. …