It was Abraham Lincoln who said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." Of course, Honest Abe hadn't met Clifford Irving, a man who was so recklessly daring in his attempt to fool all of the people all of the time that he wound up looking like both a genius and an idiot. Irving, for those of you who were born yesterday, nearly pulled off one of the biggest scams in the history of book publishing back in the early '70s. Without having met the man, he turned in the manuscript for The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, a Q&A memoir that he claimed to have based on over 100 hours of interviews with the famously reclusive billionaire. The idea was that Hughes, who hadn't shown his face in public in over a decade, would be too busy paring his Fu Manchu fingernails to challenge the book's authenticity. Clifford would pocket the advance, the royalties and a fat wad of literary notoriety.
Well, things didn't work out quite the way Irving planned. Hughes did come out of hiding after all, and there was trouble withdrawing funds from a Swiss bank account set up by Irving's wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), who'd managed to come by a passport bearing the name Helga R. Hughes. Irving wound up spending 17 months in prison, Edith got a year or so, and McGraw-Hill, which had greedily agreed to publish the book, began the long process of wiping the egg off its face. But the question that still sticks to Irving, like a bad smell, is: hoax or fraud? Did he do it for the literary notoriety or for the money? Or both? Put another way, was the con artist basically a con or basically an artist? Irving has always claimed he's basically an artist, but that may be part of the con. His 1972 book, What Really Happened, later retitled The Hoax, laid out his side of the story, and like Hughes' autobiography, it's strangely convincing. But isn't that what confidence men do, inspire confidence?
The fact is, we may never know exactly what happened or why. And Lasse Hallstrom's The Hoax, which is loosely - very loosely - based on Irving's book, doesn't exactly clear things up. On the contrary, it adds whole new layers of obfuscation, layers that Irving himself might have trouble sorting out. Although he served as a technical adviser, he's had his name removed from the project, referring to it as "a hoax about a hoax." And you have to wonder where that leaves us, the viewers. Are we being conned? And if so, by whom? How can we possibly arrange all these Chinese boxes so they make some kind of sense? Well, you'll be either relieved or disappointed to know that I finally gave up trying. Instead, I decided to stroll through the movie's Hall of Mirrors, enjoying the reflections of reflections. That's pretty much what Orson Welles did in 1974's F for Fake, his cinematic jeux d'esprit about the case. And if enjoying having the wool pulled over his eyes was good enough for Welles, it's good enough for me.
His hair given a dye job, his nose thickened with putty, Richard Gere plays Irving, and it's good to see him leave behind the silver-fox routine he's settled into in recent years. Gere's Irving is an adrenaline junkie. He likes it when the heat is on and things are starting to boil over, likes to bring it all back down to a simmer by keeping his cool while those around him are losing theirs. According to the movie, he cooked up the idea for the Hughes book only after McGraw-Hill passed on his latest novel. But once the plan was hatched, it took on a life of its own, and there are some wonderful moments as Irving, improvising like crazy, tries to keep up with his own story. Why do the folks at McGraw-Hill believe him? Because, like the sucker born every minute, they want to believe him. And they're blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes. Hope Davis, as Irving's editor, comes up with just the right blend of gullibility and hauteur.
Of course, fake or not, Irving still has to produce a manuscript, and one of the delightful ironies of The Hoax is how hard he has to work to do so. Enlisting the aide of a friend who's done research for him in the past (Alfred Molina, beads of sweat collecting on his forehead), Irving goes on a fact-finding mission worthy of an industrial spy. Documents are illegally photographed at the Library of Congress. The draft of a memoir by Hughes' longtime confidante and right-hand man, Noah Dietrich, is "borrowed" and photocopied. And what can't be documented is pulled from the depths of Irving's imagination, a process that leaves him a little confused as to where Hughes ends and Irving begins. Paranoia sets in, either because someone's actually following him or because Hughes' own legendary paranoia has infected his thoughts. And what began as a lark, a game, a scheme has now become a burden, an ordeal, a psychotic episode. But how to return to reality?
The real Irving was brought, kicking and screaming, back to reality. And so is the reel Irving, but not before the hoax mutates again, this time spreading, cancer-like, into the Nixon administration and its rendezvous with destiny at the Watergate Hotel. There's at least some historical basis for this conspiracy theory - just enough, actually, to pull a Clifford Irving on Clifford Irving. But the movie (script by William Wheeler) has trouble sustaining such a far-flung, farfetched shock to the system. Suddenly, it has neither foot on the ground, and that's not how you con someone. Tying Irving's literary escapade to Tricky Dick and his White House plumbers is the kind of thing Irving might have done, but only out of desperation, and we don't want to see him as an Oswaldian patsy. We want to see him as a magician who pulls rabbits out of the hat that even he didn't know were there but nevertheless comes up with reasonable explanations for. How else can we willingly suspend our disbelief?