Howard Hughes defined "eccentric billionaire." He was a high-profile industrialist, Hollywood playboy/producer and record-breaking pilot. But from the mid-1950s on, he became notorious for disappearing entirely from the public sphere and for his reputed bizarre behavior (saving his urine, wearing tissue boxes for slippers, endlessly watching Ice Station Zebra).
It's inconceivable to us today that a megalomaniacal titan of industry and A-list celebrity would go silent and erase himself from public life. (Even our own reclusive loony, Michael Jackson, can't resist the lure of media.) But during the 1960s and early 1970s, Americans were utterly fascinated by the mysterious absence of Hughes, who had once loomed so large. Thus in 1971, when writer Clifford Irving approached McGraw-Hill with a collaborative autobiography of Hughes, the publishers tumbled hard. In fact, Irving, like everybody else, had no contact with the recluse; his book was a fake.
The Hoax, Lasse Hallström's fact-based yet glib dramedy, recounts this deception, among the grandest scams of the late 20th century. Irving, a minor novelist who had just completed a profile of the art forger Elmyr de Hory, smelled opportunity. The public was hungry for insight into the bizarre Hughes, and Irving had likely learned a valuable lesson from de Hory, who easily passed off fake Picassos: If you're gonna scam, aim for the top shelf.
With the attractive but slightly unctuous Richard Gere slipped into Irving's stylish loafers, The Hoax is an enjoyable pop-history recap, one of those odd throwaway stories. (It's also the missing link in the Hughes-saga triple feature, bookended by Scorsese's recent The Aviator and Jonathan Demme's quirky 1980 comedy, Melvin and Howard, which tackled Hughes' messy demise.) And the tale of Irving's hoax is a fun story, a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction number, even if this is a truth-about-a-fiction.
But beyond that, there's not much heft here. Irving comes off as a central-casting charming rogue, complete with adorable sports car, mistress problems and a pair of easily cajoled, long-suffering aides: his (fourth!) wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden), and his researcher, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina). Late in the film, Hallström clumsily tries to establish that Irving may be slipping into Hughes-induced delusions of his own, but these sequences feel hokey and are distracting.
Hoax also skitters over any larger cultural analysis: Irving's proposed book lands during a transitional period in mass media, when venerable institutions are ditching their gravitas for splashy headlines and blockbuster sales. Life magazine is among the respected outlets that falls for Irving's pitch (even as its chief snippily reminds Irving: "History -- quite a responsibility").
Today, we've lost count of how frequently media rushes for a "good story" rather than the truth, and we welcome entertaining mass-marketed falsehoods, such as "reality" television. Contemporary viewers are more likely to appreciate Irving's ballsy scam than to tut-tut over the trampling of dust-covered ethics.
Starts Fri., April 6.