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The Hoax

Lasse Hallström's The Hoax gives us Richard Gere's best performance ever, save perhaps - and only if you're in the right mood - his breakthrough in American Gigolo almost thirty years ago. Here, he plays Clifford Irving, a slightly shambling hustler with champagne tastes. Folks under forty probably won't know much about the fever that seized the United States when it emerged that The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, published after having been excerpted in Life magazine, was entirely Irving's invention. It didn't matter whether the book was sound. What mattered was that Irving had never met with the most celebrated hermit in the country.

I'm not sure that the Howard Hughes phenomenon could be repeated. Oh, a wealthy eccentric could always decide that, having made a splash in the world, it might be fun to withdraw. A few tabloids and their readers might care, but most Americans would probably shrug it off. In the end, Howard Hughes turned out not to be an interesting man. He was just weird. We're all too familiar with weird people nowadays.

We were far more innocent in 1971. Most rich people protected their privacy, of course, but they did so in ordinary ways. They did not hole up in middling hotels or let their fingernails grow unchecked. There was something about Hughes's retirement that was just its opposite, a teasing invitation - or challenge - to track him down.

It will be interesting to see if The Hoax appeals to audiences for whom the name of Howard Hughes doesn't mean very much. Without a sense of the fascination with Hughes that Americans in general and the American media in particular felt in the early Seventies, the film might seem to be an empty fuss. Mr Hallström and his writers don't follow the tack taken by Seabiscuit, dispensing generous, even rousing lessons in American history. The Hoax is as lean as a good con. It puts its faith in its cast, and in my view that faith is not misplaced. Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, and John Carter all play executives at McGraw-Hill, the house that published The Autobiography, and each of them brilliantly exposes a craven desire to meet Howard Hughes if only by proxy. Over and over again, they accept Irving's increasingly bold lies, lies so strange that they have to be true.

In that regard, The Hoax packs the excitement of an action movie. We have the three con artists - Irving; his wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden); and his accomplice and chief researcher, Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina). (You also have Irving's mistress, Nina van Pallandt, a sometime actress no longer youthful enough to play herself. Julie Delpy plays her instead, but one wonders why she bothered, since Nina's role in the film is barely even decorative.) This trio has to outwit the three McGraw-Hill executives, as well as Ralph Graves (Zeljko Ivanek) of Life, and with what appears to be help from Howard Hughes, the con artists manage to stay one neck ahead. It is only when, in the film's version of the events, Hughes gets what he wants from the Richard Nixon, blackballed by the book, that Hughes drops Irving, denying all participation. Any remorse that Irving might have felt about deceiving the good folks at McGraw-Hill are swamped by self-pity at having been used by Hughes.

Richard Gere reminds me of Tom Sawyer. He usually seems to get his co-stars to do his acting for him. Not this time. With his slightly coarsened features and antic demeanor, Mr Gere conveys the raw excitement of pulling off a big one. He never looks down - and he never looks within. One suspects that, action figure that his Irving is, there might not be much to see. (April 2007)

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