Truth, fiction unlikely bedfellows in ‘Hoax’ 

It’s a fictionalized story about a story about a work of fiction that was supposed to be nonfiction.

Try to follow along.

It’s 1971, and publishing giant McGraw-Hill pays $1 million for the rights to publish Howard Hughes’ memoir. Considered a publishing coup at the time, the deal had all parties involved imagining bloated bank accounts in the happily ever after.

There was only one problem: the writer, Clifford Irving, concocted the entire memoir from the nether regions of his imagination. The book was already in the process of hitting bookstores before the eccentric Hughes finally came forward and revealed he never met Irving.

Flash forward more than 35 years and screenwriter William Wheeler can’t believe the whole thing happened, especially after Irving previously penned a book titled "Fake," about Hungarian-born art forger Elmyr de Hory. Along comes director Lasse Hallström ("Cider House Rules," "Chocolat"). Together, they decide it’s best to base their film, "The Hoax," on "events" surrounding the untrue story.

Headlined by Richard Gere, with Alfred Molina, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden in supporting roles, "The Hoax" is an eyebrow-raising tale that is part morality play, part buddy caper. It provokes enough thought by asking: How much of any story is real?

"There is something absolutely gripping about a story that is perpetrated on people who you imagine would know better, and also perpetrated on such flimsy evidence," says Molina of Irving’s misdeeds. "All that he had to get this ball rolling was three letters that he forged on legal paper. It’s hard to believe that would have been convincing, but this was before the Internet and cell phones.

"It was, in a sense, a more innocent time," he adds. "It’s fun to speculate whether a scam like this could be pulled off today."

Molina points to the case of fallen New Republic reporter Stephen Glass who was axed for basing stories on false facts and sources. Glass’ "hoax" was chronicled in 2003’s "Shattered Glass."

Other hoaxes that have turned heads: the Hitler diaries hoax, the alien autopsy hoax and, most recently, the James Frey hoax, as chronicled on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and beyond.

Molina, who plays Irving’s pal, Dick Suskind, in the film, says he didn’t know much about the ’70s scandal at the time. When he pondered the script, he was more intrigued with how well it illuminated the unique relationship between Irving and Suskind.

"I liked the contrast between these two men," he says. "How, despite everything, they were such close friends. There was loyalty and concern between them."

In the film, Suskind goes to great lengths to assist Irving in convincing MacGraw-Hill that the Hughes book is authentic.

"It’s a rich stew," Molina notes.

Another mental morsel to chew on: The real Clifford Irving plans to re-publish his 1972 book "The Hoax," which chronicles his caper. Even more curious? Irving’s moved forward with publishing the original material in question, "The Autobiography of Howard Hughes."

And that’s no hoax.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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