Reading the Screen: Clifford Irving's Hoax is the Real Thing

the-hoaxI know it came out four years ago, but I just recently watched The Hoax, Lasse Hallstrom’s film version of Clifford Irving’s 1981 account of his infamous faking of Howard Hughes’ autobiography.

Well, the movie is wonderful. Richard Gere absolutely nails his performance as Irving, playing him as a creative and talented writer whose defective moral compass, shall we say, steered him in the wrong direction. That’s not to say he accidentally stumbled into fraud: Irving knew exactly what he was doing, brilliantly planning and executing an audiacious hoax that, when you look at it in retrospect, was guaranteed eventually to blow up in his face. 

I read Irving’s book years ago, and after I watched the movie I dug it out and read it again. While the movie skates over a number of story elements — try making an entertaining movie based on a work of nonfiction without streamlining it — it captures the feel of Irving’s memoir: the thrill of the caper, and then the gut-wrenching terror at the possibility of being unmasked.

The Hoax is not to be confused with Hoax, a 1972 book by Stephen Fay, hoaxLewis Chester and Magnus Linklater. If you’re looking for a another angle on Irving’s scam, check it out. The authors aren’t as sympathetic to Irving as Irving is to himself — well, duh — but they do a nice job of taking you through the mechanics of the fraud.

For more on the subject of literary fraud, including a stripped-down account of the Hughes fraud, check out Melissa Katsoulis’ Literary Hoaxes: An Eye-Opening History of Famous Frauds (2009). It’s an excellent introduction to this endlessly fascinating subject.

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