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Vol. LXI, No. 14
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

LIAR, WOMANIZER OR PRANKSTER, BON VIVANT: Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) fabricates a biography of Howard Hughes' in Lasse Halstrom's new film.

The Hoax: Drama Recounts Hubris of Howard Hughes Biographer

Kam Williams

Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) was an unknown writer who had previously published a half-dozen underappreciated novels when, in 1970, he decided to pass off his next work of fiction as an authorized memoir of one of the most famous people on Earth. Because Howard Hughes (Milton Buras) had not spoken to the press in over fifteen years, Irving was banking on the idea that the reclusive billionaire would not even break his self-imposed silence to denounce the book as a complete fraud.

Collaborating with Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), another struggling author with felonious intent, Irving duped McGraw-Hill into believing that the eccentric hermit had actually cooperated in the bogus biography. The book company gave Irving close to a million-dollar advance, with the bulk of the money coming in a check made out to "H. R. Hughes." That was cashed in Switzerland by Irving's fourth wife, Edith (Marci Gay Harden), who simply endorsed it with the sobriquet "Helga R. Hughes."

Since nagging suspicions about the manuscript haunted the project right from the start, the brazen con men found themselves having to rely on increasingly elaborate lies to silence the skeptics. The pair might have managed to pull it off, if Hughes himself hadn't decided to make his first public appearance in ages in order to expose them as charlatans.

Now the entire scheme has been revisited in The Hoax, an intriguing, character-driven drama directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Curiously, the gifted Swedish director decided to adapt his film from the Irving's confession of the same name, published in 1972. Consequently, the disgraced ex-con, is depicted somewhat sympathetically, less as an inveterate liar and shameless womanizer than as a prankster and bon vivant who wanted to be able to have the finer things in life, like the similarly self-indulgent protagonist of Catch Me If You Can.

Richard Gere is at his best in years, turning a remorseless lout into an almost likable underdog. Meanwhile Alfred Molina is equally effective in his capacity as Irving's clumsy, conflicted co-conspirator. Also of note are Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden (for Pollock) who virtually disappears into her role as Irving's humiliated spouse; Julie Delpy as his socialite mistress, Nina Van Pallandt; Hope Davis as his exasperated agent, Andrea Tate; Stanley Tucci as irascible McGraw-Hill executive, Shelton Fisher; and Eli Wallach as former Hughes confidante, Noah Dietrich. Hallstrom has coaxed many quality performances out of a top-flight cast, a trademark feat which in the past resulted in Oscar nominations for Juliette Binoche (Chocolat), Judy Dench (Chocolat), Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules) and Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape).

Worthwhile for its well executed, beguiling plot, The Hoax also earns high marks for recreating the ambience of the early Seventies. Ironically, it is Irving who gets the last laugh by resurrecting his image, courtesy of this empathetic bio-pic.

Excellent (4 stars). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 115 minutes. Studio: Miramax Films.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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