September 10, 2007

My review of "The Hoax"

The Hoax

Reviewed by Steve Sailer for The American Conservative

April 23, 2007

In the 1970s, billionaire Howard Hughes's name was as omnipresent as Donald Trump's is today, even though the paranoid recluse was never seen. Since then, Hollywood has treated Hughes's legend well, with Martin Scorsese's masterful 2004 film "The Aviator" delivering an admiring look at the early life of the engineer and movie mogul. Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard," which won a couple of Oscars in 1980, offered a gentle, oblique perspective on the national nuttiness that followed Hughes's death in 1976, such as the "discovery" of 40-odd purported wills.

Now, "The Hoax" rounds out cinematic Hughes lore with a comic biopic of novelist Clifford Irving, the scamster who brought the world's Howard Hughes obsession to a crescendo in 1971-72 when he extracted huge advances from the greedy and credulous New York publishing and magazine industries for The Autobiography of Howard Hughes. Irving claimed it was based on taped interviews with Hughes. In truth, Irving had never had any contact with Hughes (who in "The Hoax" appears only in documentary footage.)

"The Hoax" isn't in the same class as "The Aviator" and "Melvin and Howard," but it's significantly better than typical April releases. As Irving, Richard Gere ("Pretty Woman"), who normally competes with Bruce Willis for the title of Most Morose Star, revives much of the energy and charm that made him a delight in the underrated 1983 American remake of Godard's "Breathless." Now 57, Gere is still credible as the 40-year-old Irving. Indeed, in "The Hoax," Gere looks a lot like former leading man Alec Baldwin did at age 35, which might explain why Gere is still a name-above-title star, while Baldwin had merely a character role as a villain in "The Aviator,".

Irving purloined a copy of an unpublished manuscript by Hughes's business manager, Noah Dietrich. This provided his project with some minimal verisimilitude, which Irving embroidered with sheer effrontery. It's always fun watching a good actor like Gere play a con man who must improvise ever more barefaced concoctions to parry each challenge to his credibility.

It's even more entertaining to see an excellent actor like Alfred Molina, who was painter Diego Rivera in "Frida," portray an inept liar. In "The Hoax," Molina plays Irving's Sancho Panza, researcher Dick Susskind, a man more at home digging up facts than retailing fabrications. In meetings with McGraw-Hill brass suspicious of the duo's honesty, he stares bug-eyed and sweats as he tries not to forget the simple bit of business Irving assigned him, only to blurt out at the most disturbing moment, "Howard Hughes gave me a prune!"

Director Lasse Hallström ("Chocolat") and screenwriter William Wheeler have included in their press notes an unusually frank list of what's fictional in "The Hoax." What they don't reveal, however, is more interesting: how they've reworked Irving, the perfect 1970s anti-hero, to make him more sympathetic to 21st Century audiences.

Today's moviegoers admire marital stability, so "The Hoax" forgets to mention that Irving's wife Edith, who eventually went to jail for trying to cash the publisher's advance check to "H.R. Hughes" under the name "Helga R. Hughes," was his fourth. Contemporary Americans especially dislike adultery by parents, so Irving's two small children with Edith were written out of the picture. In the film, Irving cheats on Edith once with the folk singing Danish baroness and movie starlet Nina Van Pallandt and bitterly regrets his moral slip. The real Irving, however, was using his supposed meetings with Hughes abroad to cover frequent vacations with his mistress.

Exciting more controversy is the film's claim that Irving's fake autobiography helped inspire the Watergate break-in at the headquarters of Democratic National Committee chairman Larry O'Brien, who, possibly not coincidentally, had been Hughes' chief lobbyist.

While overstated, this is not wholly implausible. Nixon had several shady links to Hughes, such as the tycoon's unsecured $205,000 loan to his brother Donald's Nixonburger restaurant chain. Nixon believed the revelation of this dubious deal may have cost him the exceedingly close 1960 election. A decade later, according to his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, Nixon was irrationally obsessed with plumbing the relationship between Hughes and O'Brien.

The truth is that we still don't really understand Watergate, mostly because, in sharp contrast to the JFK assassination, the media haven't been all that interested in finding out precisely what happened. The good guys won and bad guys lost, they reason, so why bother with details that might muddy the glorious memory?

Rated R for language and nudity.

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Anonymous said...

Godard's film is "Breathless", not "Restless." Otherwise, carry on!

Anonymous said...

Orson Welles's "F for Fake" is the seminal film about the Irving hoax, and much else besides. It's a zany hoot and a work of genius; rent it.