H Is for Hoax: Tale of Irving’s Hughes Scandal, With Smarmy, Smooth Gere, Disillusioned Davis

Lasse Hallström’s The Hoax, from a screenplay by William Wheeler, is based in part on Clifford Irving’s own confessional account (also entitled The Hoax) of his real-life 70’s scam at the expense of his credulous publisher, McGraw-Hill. Mr. Wheeler has added some fictional embroidery to Irving’s fraudulent maneuvers, which were intended to convince the world that he had secured exclusive rights to interview the notoriously reclusive Howard Hughes for the authorized autobiography of his eventful life as an aviator, industrialist, movie producer and director. Hughes broke several continental and world speed records with aircraft he had personally designed, and among the screen beauties he courted were Ava Gardner, Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. He launched the careers of Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930) and Jane Russell in The Outlaw (1943). His one marriage (to Jean Peters) ended in divorce in 1971—five years after he had shut himself off from the world. Hughes died in 1976, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar fortune with any number of claimants brandishing fake wills.

Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving with the kind of unsympathetically manipulative good looks and charm that have become his trademarks in his most successful vehicles. Alfred Molina is equally well cast as Dick Susskind, the faithful collaborator in Clifford’s colossal fraud; and Marcia Gay Harden as Edith Irving, a European artist, brings something extra to the role of loyal wife, who winds up fleeing the Swiss bank authorities in one of the many fiduciary twists in her husband’s ever-resourceful improvisations.

The role of senior McGraw-Hill editor Andrea Tate is performed above and beyond the call of duty by Hope Davis, whose ever-expressive facial features run the gamut from hope and joy to despair and disillusion as Irving is unmasked as the fake he is. Only with the benefit of hindsight can one wonder why everyone was so deceived by Irving—especially when one of his previous books for McGraw-Hill had zestfully described the exploits of the celebrated art forger, Elmyr de Hory.

As it happens, I can still recall listening on the radio to the steely, disembodied voice of Howard Hughes on a remote telephone call to one of his attorneys, denying that he had ever met anyone named Clifford Irving. It was the call that sealed Irving’s fate. I can also recall my reaction at the time: Who the hell is Clifford Irving? I later saw Irving on the screen in Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1975), in which the director seemed to identify with Irving in a ghastly way due to his own War of the Worlds broadcast on the eve of World War II. Having terrorized his listeners the night before, Welles apologized the next morning (profusely if not entirely sincerely, since it was the broadcast that placed Welles on the media fast track for his fabulous RKO contract that eventually produced Citizen Kane). The difference was that Welles didn’t do prison time for his deception; Irving did.

The movie manages to get the audience’s sympathy by linking Irving’s scam to Richard Nixon’s downfall, brought about in part by the latter’s paranoia over what Hughes might tell Irving regarding Nixon’s ties to fund-raiser Bebe Rebozo. The movie also invents a motivation for Irving’s swindling of McGraw-Hill by having his latest book rejected for publication—even though, in real life, Irving had secured a four-book contract with the publisher.

Still, the why of Irving’s hoax is of less interest to the audience than the how, and here Mr. Hallström keeps the action frenzied—in and out of elevators, up and down stairs, speeding along from one mini-crisis to another. To add inauthentic color to the spectacle, the film imagines incorrectly that Irving attended Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966, with Mr. Gere costumed in a black-cat mask—just like Frank Sinatra wore at the real ball.

Ultimately, The Hoax seems designed to appeal to the larcenous impulse in all of us. Interestingly, as Mr. Gere’s malefactor probes deeper into the Hughes legend and persona, his contempt for his subject increases and his own megalomania soars. Having invented his own relationship to his shadowy subject, Irving anticipates today’s rampaging identity thieves, but for higher stakes. Audiences in 2007 cannot look back at the world of three or four decades ago with any degree of complacency: We are, if anything, much more vulnerable to fraud and deception than we had ever been in the past. What is lacking nowadays is an eccentric luminary like Howard Hughes or, for that matter, Stanley Kubrick—the subject of a current identity-theft movie—who both prized their privacy enough to resist all the blandishments of an ever-more-invasive media.

In Cold Blood

Mark Fergus’ First Snow, from a screenplay by Mr. Fergus and Hawk Ostby, turns out to be centered in the troubled psyche of Guy Peace’s Jimmy Starks—initially a fast-talking, go-getting flooring salesman with grandiose plans to sell restored jukeboxes across the Southwestern United States, where he plies his trade in and around the semi-abstract landscapes of Albuquerque, N.M. One day, Jimmy’s car breaks down in a remote New Mexican town, and when he is told by a local mechanic that it will take several hours to repair it, he decides to spend some of his time getting a reading from a roadside fortuneteller.

This intense psychic (J.K. Simmons) predicts in short order that Jimmy will get home safely, that the New Mexico Wolves will win their upcoming game despite losing their best player, and that financing for Jimmy’s jukebox deal will materialize from Dallas—thus disposing of Jimmy’s first three questions. Suddenly, the psychic’s face darkens, and he relinquishes his grip on Jimmy’s wrist and, without saying anything further, returns Jimmy’s money. Jimmy is a little puzzled, but he doesn’t press the issue.

When Jimmy gets home, he begins seeing the predictions come true one by one by one. The New Mexico Wolves win in an upset, and his boss tells him that the money for his project has come through from Dallas. Jimmy then becomes obsessed with finding what else the fortuneteller saw in his future. When he finally confronts him, the prophet tells Jimmy to beware of the first snow, which will mark the end of the road for him. From this moment on, the once-cocky salesman begins to worry about hidden perils to his existence. His live-in girlfriend Deirdre (Piper Perabo) tries to reassure him as his behavior becomes more and more neurotic. His best friend and colleague, Ed (William Fichtner), dismisses the fortuneteller’s predictions as lucky coincidences.

To top off Jimmy’s paranoid fears, a routine medical check reveals a slight heart irregularity. It turns out that Jimmy has reason to fear retribution from a former co-worker, Andy (Rick Gonzalez), whom he ruthlessly and hypocritically fired for skimming off the top—just as Jimmy had taught him to do—as well as an old friend, Vincent (Shea Whigham), whom Jimmy had betrayed to the authorities for money-laundering. Vincent has just gotten out of prison when Jimmy guiltily decides to visit Vincent’s dying mother (Jackie Burroughs).

From the moment that Jimmy’s worst fears are confirmed by a threatening letter, the film plunges deep into his tortured mind, until a climactic act of violence clears all the snowy haze of the film into a luminous calm. First Snow is a very worthy first film, and one that lingers in the mind long after the final fade-out. Mr. Pearce adds Jimmy to his gallery of tormented loners, and Ms. Perabo, Mr. Fichtner, Mr. Simmons, Mr. Gonzalez, Mr. Whigham and Ms. Burroughs all make their comparatively small parts exquisitely nuanced.

Balcony Buddies

Andreas Dresen’s Summer in Berlin (Sommer Vorm Balkon), from a screenplay by Wolfgang Kohlhaase (in German with English subtitles), would have delighted the late Ernst Lubitsch with its buoyant treatment of the adventures and misadventures of two working-class women friends, Katrin (Inka Friedrich) and Nike (Nadja Uhl), who join each other every evening on Katrin’s second-floor balcony to have a drink and ponder the mysteries of life after a strenuous day of toil and trouble during a hot summer in Berlin.

Katrin, the divorced mother of 12-year-old Max (Vincent Redetzki), constantly seeks employment as a window designer to make ends meet for herself and Max, while Nike is running around all day caring for three elderly people on the brink of senility and beyond. When Nike takes up with Ronald (Andreas Schmidt), a long-distance trucker, the two women’s friendship becomes strained after he makes a pass at Katrin. Later it turns out that Ronald has not only a wife and child back home, but also a few mistresses and illegitimate children along his route. Meanwhile, Max suffers his own heartbreak when a classmate named Charly (Lil Oggesen) makes it very clear that she prefers his best friend, Rico (Maximilian Moritz).

Katrin and Nike display the kind of resiliency and fortitude that make ordinary life into an almost miraculous spiritual experience. The compassion shown toward their characters by Mr. Dresen and Mr. Kohlhaase translates into a joyous mix of comedy and tragedy blended into a single spectacle of survival. Summer in Berlin will be playing at the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema (143 East Houston Street) beginning on March 30. Try to see it if you can: You won’t encounter many movies nearly as good this year from anywhere.

H Is for Hoax: Tale of Irving’s Hughes Scandal,  With Smarmy, Smooth Gere, Disillusioned Davis