Imagine yourself a TV executive. A B-list writer arrives in your office, claims that he and Michael Jackson have collaborated on a script for the King of Pop’s exclusive biographical miniseries (sleepover details included) and offers it to your network for $10 million. Then Jackson’s lawyers call to say that Michael has never met this writer and it’s all a scam. Your move?
In 1971, middling author Clifford Irving attempted the same stunt — only the fake biography was of arch-loon billionaire Howard Hughes, and he tried to sell it as a book. The Hoax, “based on the actual events” (this, the film’s disclaimer, is also its tagline) and directed by Lasse Hallström, is a tale of preposterous, rousing lies and how surprisingly far the right liar can take them. It works on nearly every level, yet still feels a bit distant.
“A man walks into a room and says an implausible thing, and for that very reason he is believed,” declares a flustered Irving (Richard Gere) while trying to maintain his high after perjuring himself to a room full of powerful executives and walking out with a $500,000 check. And so a scam is born, with each one of Hallström’s lovingly crafted characters in it for their own reasons.
Publisher McGraw-Hill has just rejected Irving’s novel. Despondent and desperate to matter, he pitches them the ambitious, totally fraudulent biography. Gere’s naturally soft and effortless mien lets him spin Irving’s lies smoothly, maybe a bit too smoothly for the audience to really enjoy. Irving’s friend and co-conspirator Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina) is an entirely different story. Suskind is a spectacular lug who’s preoccupied by making his children’s book about Richard the Lionhearted historically accurate (“It’s got war and sodomy. War, kids love war,” he says, though he’s honestly vexed by the problem, “but what about the sodomy?”). He’s the kind who breaks into a sweat when he has to lie but grows to love it once he starts. Molina is so shakily perfect as Irving’s second fiddle that it’s hard to believe there’s a writer and director behind him. Half in the background, Irving’s wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) forges passports, hoping to keep her husband happy and faithful.
Odd couple Irving and Suskind criss-cross the country trying to pilfer material on Hughes and fend off their increasingly skeptical publishers. The cat and mouse game of lies is solid comedy, and Irving’s coping strategy makes it decent drama too. Whenever he’s caught in a lie, Irving tells a bigger, balder, and more obviously untrue one. Hallström raises the stakes higher still. Soon Irving is cornered and telling McGraw Hill to black out all the office windows and rip up all the carpeting — Howard Hughes will be arriving any moment, by helicopter, to confirm everything Irving has said.
There’s something refreshing in these outrageous lies. They don’t stretch the truth. They don’t fudge details or admit any margin of error. They don’t pretend to represent deeper truths. These lies say black is white and white is black. These are real, direct lies. And watching them hit reality head-on is really fun.
The movie’s interest in the particular shadings of deception adds maturity. Irving falls into an affair with an old mistress, Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy). And suddenly the ringmaster of deception has an odd spell of conscience. Photography director Oliver Stapleton’s montages parse further, picturing a lie-in-progress as fragments of colorful, truthful inspiration cut into calm, black-and-white fabrication.
Of course, The Hoax lies about Irving’s lies. The helicopter thing? Never happened. And Irving was never a failed author. He already had a four-book deal with McGraw Hill when he began scamming them. Also, most of the scenes never actually happened. In reality, Irving orchestrated the whole fraud over the phone from a hotel room in Ibiza. These lies, like Irving’s, are ultimately charming.
Others are a fib too far. A mystery mailer sends along a file detailing Hughes’ shady loans to the Nixon family, and Irving starts to think he may just be in business with Howard Hughes after all. A distracting political subplot emerges, culminating in the far out assertion that Richard Nixon ordered the Watergate break-ins to see if the Democrats were reading Irving’s book. Then again, the scam’s actual, recluse ex machina ending is pretty far out too and The Hoax winds down with footage of it.
Hallström works with period news footage throughout. It helps the verisimilitude. At the same time, that coarse, flickering quality of ‘70s TV suggests some distance between then and now. There are still plenty of media hoaxes out there, but they’re different. They’re much more murky and tepid blends of truth and deception than Irving’s fabulation. James Frey adds sensational lies to a dull, but otherwise true, story of addiction in A Million Little Pieces. Geraldo files a histrionic report from an Afghan battlefield when it turns out he’s actually at an entirely different Afghan battlefield. Michael Moore’s documentaries play three-card monte with the facts supposedly in order to tell larger truths. Twenty-first century hoaxsters are just too media savvy to lie flat out anymore.
We all are. What would you do with the Irving-esque Jackson script? You’d do the smart thing: Buy it cheap, change all the names, sex up a few details, and slap a Law & Order-type disclaimer on the credits. Audiences accept that “based on a true story” is close enough, and they’ll tune in as if it were really true.
The story won’t be as entertaining as Irving’s improbable tale, or The Hoax. That could be the least disheartening thing about today’s media hoaxes though. When audiences no longer pretend to care that true stories are actually true, when bald-faced lies aren’t titillating, perhaps it’s a sign we’re not that serious about the concept of truth.