The Hoax


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Hoax is the psuedo-historical story of how an author named Clifford Irving convinced the famous publishing house McGraw-Hill that he was co-writing an authorized autobiography of Howard Hughes back in the early seventies, even though Irving had never met Hughes, and didn't even know much about the eccentric billionaire when he conceived the  project. The entire project was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Irving thought he could pull off this quixotic endeavor because "the aviator" was an eccentric recluse who never contacted the outside world, and might be both physically and mentally ill, and would therefore not come forward to deny his involvement in the autobiography. Irving came close to pulling it all off. Although there were doubters at every step of the project, the author managed to bluff his way past just about every skeptic. Some of his persuasive skills were innate. Some came from his assiduous research. By the time he was exposed, Irving had became such an expert on his subject that he could deliver convincing anecdotes in Hughes's own idiolect, and could even fool handwriting experts with forgeries of Hughes's famous handwritten letters.

The final key to Irving's (temporary) success was pure serendipity. Irving happened to get a copy of an unpublished memoir written by Noah Dietrich, Hughes's closest associate, and that document included a nearly verbatim records of a previously unrevealed conversation with a top magazine editor. Since the influential editor had never told anyone about the conversation, this knowledge enabled Irving to persuade him that the account had come from an interview with Hughes himself. 

So it was with a brazen combination of luck, chutzpah, and preparation that Irving got the book very close to the bookshelves before he was ultimately undone by the money trail. Since he did not know Hughes, he had to figure out some way to deposit the checks which McGraw-Hill wrote for Hughes's fee. It was Mrs. Irving's attempt to deposit the "H.R. Hughes" check that scotched the snake. In retrospect, Irving might have gotten the book to the top of the best seller lists if he had simply tucked the big Hughes checks away, at least for a while. The McGraw-Hill accountants would probably have found nothing unusual about an uncashed Hughes check. After all, Hughes was a noted flake, and so rich that another million dollars or so was mere pocket change to him. He could easily have left such a check lying around with his Kleenex boxes. On the other hand, such a strategy would have done no more than delay the inevitable, because Irving was not correct in his assumption that Hughes would remain mute. The inscrutable plutocrat did break his long public silence to denounce the Irving project as a hoax. In fact, the Hughes press conference was quite a landmark event - the last time Hughes would ever contact the outside world.

In the craziest sidebar to the story, it has been suggested that the Irving book may have motivated the Watergate break-in!

The critics were particularly enthusiastic about this movie. According to Rotten Tomatoes, a very impressive 85% of the reviews were positive. That's Oscar territory! I don't really share that lofty level of enthusiasm. Although it is an interesting story assembled by good actors and a competent director, it has one great flaw. The storyline is almost total bullshit. Of course, that's both ironic and appropriate. The real Irving is still alive and kicking, and is an intelligent guy with a great sense of humor, two characteristics which must allow him to realize that a falsified account of his life is precisely what his karma has earned him. That's fair enough for him, but it's not what my karma has earned me as an audience member. I hoped to see how this scam all went down, but the film's story about Clifford Irving's life is no more authentic than Irving's story about Hughes's life. In fact, Irving's fake book is probably far less fake than this movie, since the success of his scam depended on his ability to make the book as credible as possible. Although he embellished Hughes's life in many ways, Irving researched thoroughly and used Dietrich's manuscript to establish the facts, and he also worked hard to make Hughes's first person quotes sound exactly like things the billionaire did say or could have said. This film has no such fealty to the truth. It simply tries to tell a ripping yarn, irrespective of whether that yarn could be unraveled by scrutiny.

The script takes many liberties with the facts as well as with the personalities of the characters, but two critical points come to mind:

(1) The movie version of Dick Suskind, Irving's co-conspirator, as played by Alfred Molina, seems like a sweaty and often self-righteous doofus, Sancho Panza to Irving's crooked Quijote.

(2) The script fabricates an important incident. Mysteriously, Gere/Irving receives a package of files from Nevada, presumably from a Hughes insider, which give him great insights into the inner workings of the Hughes endeavors. That never happened. That bit of hyperbole not be so bad if this were a white lie presented as a throwaway incident, but the effect of this lie is greatly exacerbated by the script's incorporation of those files into the very broth and marrow of the narrative, thus squeezing the film out of the realm of "comfortable accommodation to the truth" and into a surreal world worthy of Dali.

Why was this necessary? I grant that The Hoax is quite an enjoyable movie (most of the time), but if it is supposed to be a true story, why isn't it ... true? Why go to all the trouble of getting Richard Gere to look like Irving if he wasn't actually going to act like Irving? And why wasn't the real story good enough for a film? It seems to me that the actual skullduggery of Clifford Irving, Mrs. Irving and Richard Suskind was more than sufficiently intriguing to create a movie both entertaining and enlightening. So why the unnecessary embellishment? In my mind, the changes didn't actually create a better story; just a different one.

The best thing about the movie? It got me curious enough to order and read the book, which is Irving's own account of these events! I recommend that you do the same. Clifford Irving is an engaging raconteur, and I'm convinced that he did his best to tell the truth about everything.

DVD Book


Commentary by director Lasse Hallström and writer William Wheeler

Commentary by producers Leslie Holleran and Josh Maurer

"Stranger than Fiction" making-of featurette

Deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Lasse Hallström and writer William Wheeler

"Mike Wallace: Reflections on a Con": Mike Wallace on his encounters with Clifford during the 1970s 60 Minutes interview, and the follow-up interview done 27 years later

"Business as Pleasure": Watch as the camera rolls while Richard Gere and Alfred Molina ad-lib the scene at Café des Artistes

"Nixon's the One": easter egg


2.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
4 BBC  (of 5 stars)
85 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
70 (of 100)


7.2 IMDB summary (of 10)
B- Yahoo Movies


Box Office Mojo. It did eventually squeeze into 1000 theaters, but grossed only $7 million. The production budget was reputed to be $25 million.



  • Julie Delpy showed her breasts beneath a diaphanous nightie, and they even popped out intermittently.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


I guess it would be a C on our scale. With 85% positive reviews and a 7.2 at IMDb, it is widely acknowledged as a good film, and I buy into that, at least until the film takes some bizarre turns into Irving's imagination in the last act.

But it failed miserably on the box office side of the ledger. It eventually got into a thousand theaters and never managed to crack the top fifteen films in any given week, so its appeal was obviously not very wide. Miramax must have realized this in advance, since the film started out in only 200 theaters, despite a big budget, a major star, and a director who has been nominated for multiple Oscars.