by Clifford Irving
(In paperback from Amazon)
A hoax is something we all tend to smile about... unless it's pulled off on us! Then, it's no laughing matter. Of course, implicit in that is the thought that it might have been me. And, then, we have second thoughts. But when it happens on a grand scale, with the veracity of a startling, improbable claim generating an avalanche of distrust, accusations and plausible denials, plus rivers of newsprint, it takes on the colorations of a circus.
The hoax that this film biography recounts was all that and more. According to this scenario of sensation and hysteria, penned by screenwriter William Wheeler from the author of the hoax's own account, and directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("Casanova," "The Shipping News"), it played a role in bringing down a president! Nixon. The year is 1971, when the covert White House Special Investigations Unit was established on July 24th to contain governmental leaks (hence becoming, "The Plumbers Unit").
The suggestion here is that Clifford Irving's (Richard Gere) proposed book on Howard Hughes memoires revealed secrets of Hughes' payoffs to Nixon, the exposure of which would prove harmful to the White House. Fears of it provoked the burglary of Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. in order to learn if they had the book or any other evidence that could embarrass the president.
But the suggestion is plausible only because the true purpose of the Watergate break-in has never been revealed, so it's a blank slate for a myriad of suppositions. Which is exactly what got Irving, author of a minor success, "Fake!: The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time" to conceive of writing a book claiming to be a transcription of exclusive interviews with billionaire recluse, Howard Hughes, one of the most devilishly intriguing men of accomplishment on the planet but a blank slate as far as public contact is concerned.
Industrialist, movie producer, movie director, ladies man in relationships with the most beautiful and accomplished female stars of his time, aviator, test pilot for his own planes, and more -- it was Hughes' growing eccentricities and near-total withdrawal from society that provided the inspiration for a struggling writer to turn into the literary conman of the century. Chances were good, Irving calculated, that his subject's seclusion would allow him to get away with a bogus creation of a supposed Hughes memoire, satisfy the world's curiosity, and make heaps of money in the bargain.
With the help of his writing aide, expert researcher and best friend Dick Suskind (Albert Molina), Irving's audacious ruse started with a study of the peculiarities of Hughes' handwriting, mind set and style of expression. The next order of business, then, was to compose a letter of authorization he would claim to have come from Hughes' own hand and see if it would pass the inevitable tests and trials.
This he put into the hands of his former publisher's editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) who scarcely can believe the good fortune that has come her way. She had as many doubts as anyone, but prayed that it was real. Clifford, author cum counterfeiter, amazingly, did a masterful job of capturing his subject's methods and voice. Even an ex-associate of Hughes thought the letter was from the master himself. As it began to look like a go, the McGraw-Hill publishers knew that their coup will have their competitors salivating in envy and their readership lining up in bookstores everywhere.
No object received more vetting and scrutiny since the Shroud of Turin underwent scientific analysis. And, while all the players involved came in with ever more probing challenges, which Irving managed to counter with inventive guile, he was balancing issues at home.
His European artist wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), back with him after an extra-marital episode, was fully engaged as a member of Clifford's little ring of conspirators. Until his extra marital vixen Nina Van Pallandt (Julie Delpy) came back into his life again and ended with one more night's tryst. Clifford's world began to sink when Edith caught wind of it about the same time that Susking was falling apart over the building pressures.
The presses actually rolled on the book, even as Nixon's tenure in the oval office was coming to an end. The sensation of it even brought Hughes himself out far enough to grant his last interview, by phone. He had not been heard from publically in a decade. He was asked if he knew Irving or had ever met the man.
The drama of these events as they played out in headlines and in tense, testy meetings in the offices of McGraw-Hill transfers well to this reenactment, with handsome, raffish Gere the right actor to fulfill Irving's brazen ability to "sell" a fictitious idea that would be the envy of charlatans and con men everywhere. For Gere, it's a great role, and his energetic portrayal helps make it precisely what the publicists describe: a "riveting caper."
A 2nd-banana role provides Molina also an opportunity for a well-suited character. Both Harden and Delpy are character territories new for them and more than interesting to watch. Can't say it's a lot more than that.
Few film biographies maintain as high a level of fascination with its subject as this, but then few have the advantage of centering on such an enterprising rogue. Also figuring into the dramatization are Eli Wallach as Hughes' old and trusted accountant-aide Noah Dietrich, a man who knows where some of the skeletons are buried, and Stanley Tucci as Shelton Fisher, a publishing exec.
Films have dealt with Hughes before (Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," "EMI's "The Amazing Howard Hughes") but this take on the man who would be his memoirist is from a new angle in film adaptation. Hughes extraordinary exploits and eccentricities make him one of the most fascinating men in history. Clifford Irving's place will be in the footnotes: con artist extraordinaire whose genius shook up the world with a feat of deception and literary exploitation.