“All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.” — H.L. Mencken
Self-serving myths to the contrary, Americans love a good lie. Woven into our very fabric and as definitive as our capacity to see the brightest dawn, even amid chaos, deception grants us the ability to persevere. It breathes life into our hopes, diverts us from our fears, and casts aside the undue burdens of reality’s sting. Without it, our relationships would crumble beneath the withering stares of our mutual loathing. Banish its protective sheen, and our very identities, individually and as a nation, would succumb to anarchy and chaos, leaving us hopelessly bereft and rudderless. Insist on the contrary, and we’d be forced to defend, explain, analyze, and articulate; the very tools we seek to discard as we craft a tolerable plan for the lives we rarely ever really understand. Lies clarify, justify, rationalize, and harmonize. Of course, this tendency defines the human animal around the globe, but as few nations on earth seem to relish the presentation (image above all) more than us Yanks, it stands to reason the chasm between how we live — and how we think we live — would be the greatest. Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax is ultimately about this very affliction; narrowed to the story of an author and his fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes, yes, but delightfully broad in its indictment nonetheless. As such, this is no cautionary tale of one man’s righteous comeuppance, but rather a free-spirited, passionate, patriotic ode to the sucker in all of us; how we’ll knock one of the buggers from his mighty perch, wash our hands of him, and plead for yet another to make his pitch before the first one even hits the ground.
It truly was a story for the ages. Failed writer Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), pushed to the brink of financial ruin and marital discord, disrupts a meeting at McGraw-Hill Publishing (after being told by Andrea Tate, played by Hope Davis, that his latest book has been rejected as “half-baked Philip Roth”), insisting that he has the book of the century just waiting to be written. Defying all logic and possibility, Irving claims to have met with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, secured his trust, and been granted exclusive rights to author the man’s life story. It’s the sort of coup publishers dream about, and within hours, editors and corporate suits are falling over themselves trying to ink the deal. There’s suspicion, of course, but Irving apparently has a handwritten letter from the man himself, which passes inspection without debate (proving that handwriting experts usually fall on the side of those who sign their checks). The terms are bizarre and twisted (much like Hughes himself), but Irving will produce the book as promised; a major literary event that will, at last, set the record straight and put to rest all the rumors and half-truths. How did he do it? Why, of all people, would Irving be given access to a man who hadn’t made a public statement in over 15 years? The obvious answer is that he wouldn’t, but there is a possibility, is there not? And if we throw him out, won’t someone else let him in? It’s telling that no one seems to give a damn what the man has to say (after all, there is the possibility that the manuscript could be a thousand pages of mad ravings), and little matters except the celebrity of the subject. Welcome to publishing.
The core of the film remains the literary jumping jacks performed by both Irving and his partner in crime, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina, truly great), a man seemingly troubled by conscience and regret, but all too willing to spend his portion of the advance. Besides, what better opportunity to prove one’s mettle than with the so-called story of the century? Throughout their collaboration — late nights, drunken binges, sudden inspirations, mad dashes to remote locales — we sense how much fun the two men had, even if they were perpetuating a colossal fraud every step of the way. They meet with a few of Hughes’ old acquaintances, steal away with surreptitiously acquired copies of sensitive documents, and even resort to pathetic James Bond-esque methods in the Library of Congress to give their manuscript the pretense of authenticity. In many ways, they’re working as hard as if they actually were writing a true account. And that’s one of the sly points of the film, after all: Far from a hack job, the book is pretty damn good — at least according to all the right people at McGraw-Hill — so in the end, does it really matter? Think of what highly respected author Edmund Morris encountered when he penned Dutch, a biography of Ronald Reagan, in the late 1990s. That book, like Irving’s, contained verifiable facts, but also decidedly fictional flights of fancy, including an invented character (Morris himself) to “comment” on the action. And yet, it was a truthful document; truthful in spirit, at the very least. The same could be said of Irving’s invention. A Hughes colleague even spoke to its eerie accuracy (down to the colloquialisms and unique opinions), so isn’t it close enough? All we’re really doing is putting it on a different categorical shelf.
In many ways, Irving’s fraud predicts the memoir craze of more recent vintage, whereby everyone previously (and deservingly) anonymous decided, as if called by a crazed beacon, to tell the stories of their lives. Most are as forgettable as the self-important twits who wrote them, but just as many stretch the very definition of “truth” to the breaking point. Conversations from decades prior (and before the people in question knew they would be fodder for a book) are recalled with stunning detail, and memory is treated as distinct and exact, rather than a hallucinatory blur that speaks more to the person remembering than the event itself. As such, these books — many praised as “knowing” and “touching” — are at least no better than Irving’s construct, yet he alone is damned as a scoundrel. By anyone’s definition, this man was a fabulist, but more than that, he understood the intended audience for his material. Have we not come to the very moment of “truthiness”? And can a culture — then and now — wherein a solid, immovable majority believe in angels, a literal devil, and moral absolutes handed down on stone tablets, yet reject evolution as mere “guesswork,” honestly lay claim to a reverence for veracity? So Irving made shit up to sell a few books and pay off his mortgage; the rest of us must live in a country where the influential and the powerful pay a great deal of attention to those whose guidebook for existence is held together by talking snakes, great floods, and childish parables. As usual, we isolate, trap, and destroy the very opposite of what might liberate us.
Hallstrom’s film doesn’t posit the idea that accuracy and honesty are valueless in the publishing world, simply that it is unfair to punish one man for the sins of us all. For every snake oil salesman asking us to believe, there are thousands of wide-eyed dupes needing to believe the very same, and tipping them over usually requires little effort. As such, Irving and Susskind are heroic in their own way, as they simply tried to give a starving public exactly what it craved. The movie attempts to connect the book itself — and Hughes’ involvement after the fact (where he did call in and “out” Irving as an imposter) – to the Nixon administration, but it’s less important that it single out a particular band of ruffians for condemnation. Yes, Nixon had a connection to Hughes in that he gave money to the president’s brother, as well as the Republican party, but I know of no evidence to suggest (as the film does) that the Watergate break-in was motivated by the desire to see if the Democrats had an advance copy of Irving’s manuscript. Did Hughes ship classified Nixon documents to Irving, hoping to have them included in the book so as to destroy the president who no longer played ball? And what of the Justice Department’s decision to reverse course on a crucial case that threatened to hit Hughes with costly litigation? It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the full story, but as presented in the film — especially when Irving is “kidnapped” by ex-CIA men close to Hughes — it is obvious that we are running through Irving’s delusions and inventions, not the actual record. As Irving’s story unraveled, he no doubt went through dozens of scenarios in his mind, and by the end, even he had trouble keeping track of the lies.
There’s also a side story involving Irving’s wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), and though she plays a key role in that she fraudulently deposits a $1 million advance in a Swiss bank account, her ultimate purpose is to help establish Irving’s status as a cheat in all areas of his life, public and private. Irving’s fling with Nina (Julie Delpy) is underdeveloped at best, but it’s not so much a weakness as an extra bit of fat we could do without. The real story is with the tape recorder and at that typewriter, and too often the outside world merely intrudes, rather than illuminating the story and its players. And yet, it was important to see that Irving was so committed to his con that when Dick decided to abandon ship out of sheer guilt (and his wife’s ball-breaking harassment), he hired a prostitute to get him drunk, seduce him, and shame him back into the fold. After all, would Dick leave Irving in a lurch now that he had this secret to be exposed? Typically, Irving’s game is an extension of his unbreakable narcissism, but as he says to Dick early on, who’s the crazy one when a flimsy, undocumented account is enough to secure huge checks and the promise of even more? Under those conditions, who wouldn’t give it a shot? After all, when he played by the rules, no one bothered to listen. More than ever, I’m convinced the Clifford Irvings of the world are deliberately sacrificed so that the true villains can continue on undetected and unpunished. Only I’d go further and argue that they aren’t really villains at all; merely ourselves in disguise, acting in accordance with the impulses we claim not to possess, because we know we’ll never be in the position of having to prove it.