Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 4, 2007

The Hoax

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

From Clifford Irving’s website

Although it has some significant problems, I can recommend “The Hoax” as an entertaining take on perhaps the greatest literary hoax in history. Adapted loosely (its very looseness undermines the film) from Clifford Irving’s book of the same title, it shows how McGraw-Hill and Life Magazine were conned into publishing Howard Hughes’s autobiography. The joke is that that Hughes had never even met Irving, who was supposedly going to turn the addled billionaire’s remembrances into prose.

The hoax occurred in 1971 at a time when all of the major institutions of bourgeois society were being stressed by the war in Vietnam and the Black liberation struggle. To establish the context, the film utilizes archival footage of demonstrations from the period. It was indeed fitting that the hoax involved Howard Hughes since he was a symbol of the corruption, greed and misuse of power that flowed from Nixon’s White House.

You can’t get any sense of Hughes’s dark side from the 2004 Martin Scorsese film. Except for his obsessive-compulsive disorder, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hughes is a conventional hero totally free from the flaws that are found in a typical Scorsese subject. In my review, I tried to fill in the background:

In 1951, just as the witch-hunt was gathering steam, Hughes fired Paul Jarrico who was hired to write the screenplay for “The Las Vegas Story,” an RKO film. Jarrico had been subpoenaed by HUAC to testify about Communist subversion in Hollywood. Bill Gay, one of many Mormons hired by Hughes to look after his affairs, said, “He felt that communism versus free enterprise was such an important issue in our time. [It was] one of the few issues in his life he felt that strongly about.”

Clifford Irving is played by Richard Gere and Alfred Molina is cast as his co-consipirator Dick Suskind, who provided much of the research for their bogus book. Both are excellent, given the limitations of the screenplay by William Wheeler who should have stuck more closely to Irving’s book. Originally hired as a technical adviser, Irving abandoned the project after figuring out what they were trying to do. His version of the parting of the ways can be read on his website:

I was hired by the producers as technical adviser to the movie, but after reading the final script I asked that my name be removed from the movie credits. I didn’t want anyone to believe that I had contributed to such a historically cockeyed story where the main character, almost by coincidence, happens to bear my name. It’s hard to believe that sophisticated Manhattan publishers would fall for the nonsense this guy spouts in order to convince them that the moon is made of Stilton cheese.

As played by Richard Gere – an actor I admire – Movie Clifford is desperate and humorless, a washed-up hack writer who lives in a conservative New York suburb. In fact I had a multi-book contract with my publisher and enjoyed the good life on Ibiza, a sunny Mediterranean island where I owned a beautiful fifteen-room farmhouse. Movie Clifford has the energy of a not-too-bright psychopath. If I were that man, I’d shoot myself.

Essentially, “The Hoax” portrays Irving as driven more by greed than anything else. A big paycheck supposedly motivated him rather than the challenge to make rich and powerful people look like fools. In the final analysis, Irving had more in common with Alan Sokal, another famous hoaxer, than the grubby figure Gere portrays.

After having a look at Irving’s book, I have decided that he concocted his scheme in the spirit of Abby Hoffman, who advocated “revolution for the hell of it.” Irving got involved in this hoax just for the hell of it and not like New Republic reporter Stephen Glass who fabricated stories to advance his career, as dramatized in the movie “Shattered Glass”.

Irving (and Suskind) wrote an autobiography that they surely knew would be revealed as a fake and lead to economic ruin. Even if they convinced themselves starting out that they never would get caught (they assumed that the publicity-shy Hughes would never blow the whistle), they must have realized the enormous risk they were taking.

I doubt if there is anybody in Hollywood who would have been up to the task of transforming Irving’s book into a screenplay unless one could resurrect Billy Wilder. As a master of dark comedy and social observation, he would have been able to get the scenes between Gere and the white shoes publishing executives just right. As the mastermind behind “Some Like It Hot,” another film involving a hoax of a sort, Wilder was the last in a great line of screwball comedy directors and writers who could have done justice to Irving’s story.

Oddly enough, Richard Gere’s Clifford Irving reminded me a bit of the crooked cop he played in “Internal Affairs”. Living beyond his means, the cop becomes corrupt in order to support an upper-middle class life-style a cop’s salary would not support. By relocating Irving to suburban New York rather than the bohemian Ibiza where he lived, and by making him more desperate for money than he actually was, the film Irving’s maneuvers reminded me of the crooked cop. Irving certainly deserved better for in the final analysis his interest in writing the fake autobiography was art rather than commerce.

Irving and Suskind made the calculated decision to turn Hughes’s life into a work of fiction. They decided at the outset that the reclusive billionaire needed to be more interesting and more sympathetic. Unlike Scorsese, who chose to emphasize the daredevil aspects of Hughes’s life, Irving decided to transform Hughes into a kind of counter-culture figure in tune with the 1960s. In doing so, he drew upon his resources as a novelist. One of the key passages in his book about the hoax revolves around the writing session Irving had with Suskind that would render Hughes as a kind of voyager in pursuit of Enlightenment–a fictional flight if there ever was one.

An unlikely seeker after Eastern wisdom

As background, Suskind picked up some books on Eastern philosophy, including one written by the Beatles’s guru of the time. What they came up with was a total joke, but one that the publishing executives did not get:

The yarn we had concocted was wild enough to satisfy even the insatiable appetite of the people at McGraw-Hill for the outré; but it read like a dime novel. There was Howard, fifty-five years old, tormented by self-doubt, looking for “answers,” standing on the steps of the Ganges at Benares with the stench of the burning ghats in his nostrils. He sees a couple of fakirs—one who has stood on one leg for so long that the other leg has withered; the other fakir has blinded himself by staring at the sun hour after hour with open eyes. Howard is horrified and disgusted.

“But these are not the true holy men,” Howard’s guide tells him. “You must visit my father, Ramaprasad. Unlike these sad creatures, he is a repository of the true wisdom of the East.”

And so Howard visits the white-haired patriarch, Ramaprasad (the name of a 16th-century poet we had pulled at random from a book called Hinduism), in a village near Benares, and is astounded and impressed by the aura of serenity that surrounds him. He sits at the old man’s feet, literally and figuratively, for an indeterminate period (I said it should be two weeks; Dick insisted on a longer stay; I prevailed with the argument that if anyone at Life checked the chronology of those years, the longest unaccountable period would be two weeks) and learns to grapple successfully with the problems of the “self,” to tear aside the veil that separates him from the real, the true, the whole Howard Hughes.

Howard returns to visit Ramaprasad again, about a year later, and finds him dying of cancer. He sits the death-watch, donates $500,000—anonymously—to establish the Ramaprasad School of Eastern Studies—”it’s still there in India,” Howard says, “but you’ll have trouble finding it”—and returns once more to the United States, no longer a man divided against himself but prepared to cope with anything, including the loss of TWA and a $137-million judgment.

As I read this passage to myself at work the other day, I began laughing out loud. It is really too bad that the screenwriter and director of “The Hoax” failed to bring scenes like this to life.

On Clifford Irving’s website you can download the introduction and first chapter of the Howard Hughes autobiography. In the introduction there is a clue that Irving left that any shrewd editor might have understood as a confession that the book was a hoax:

In 1969 I published my first nonfiction book, Fake!, the true tale of an expatriate Hungarian art forger named Elmyr De Hory. My father gave me a list of “well-connected” friends to whom I should send copies; he badgered me, as fathers do, and I took the line of least resistance and faithlessly promised, as sons do. He died in June of 1970 and shortly afterward, feeling remorseful about unfulfilled promises I had made him, I mailed copies of the book to a few people on the list. Howard Hughes was among them. I included a note reminding Mr. Hughes where and when we had met, and then I forgot about it.

Five months passed before I received an undated letter on yellow lined legal paper, the kind you can buy in any office supply store. The scrawled handwriting was firm extended well over the ruled left-hand margin the way a schoolboy might write if he were getting down toward the end of the pad. It said:

Dear Mr. Irving — Thank you for the gift of your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Your inscription was very thoughtful.

I find myself deeply interested in the fellow you have written about, despite a natural inclination to the contrary. I cannot help wondering what has happened to him. I would hate to think what other biographers might have done to him, but it seems to me that you have portrayed your man with great consideration and sympathy, when it would have been tempting to do otherwise. For reasons you may readily understand, this has impressed me. I do remember your father and I was sorry to learn of his passing.

Yours truly, Howard R. Hughes

Now if I had been presented with an autobiography by Howard Hughes in which he reveals himself as a kind of 60s counter-culture figure, I would have eased my foot off the accelerator. But if I then discovered Irving was selected by Hughes on the basis of his prior book, which was about the most famous art forger in the 20th century, I would have slammed my foot on the brakes.


In my search to get to the story behind “The Hoax,” I also picked up a copy of “Fake! The Story of Elmyr De Hory” from the Columbia library. As a long-time student of the vagaries of the art market, I was stunned by the book’s ability to get to the essence of how the art markets function. Basically Irving argues, in sympathy with the outlook of his subject, that it was market demand that assured De Hory’s success, just as the publishing industry would salivate a few years later over the prospects of a blockbuster Howard Hughes autobiography. Unlike McGraw-Hill and Life Magazine, there was never any serious effort on the part of art galleries and museums to divest themselves of De Hory fakes since too much was at stake, as the master forger explained to Irving:

Really, it’s just incredible that someone like a Picasso, a living artist—between two cigarettes he makes a little drawing and that is transferred immediately into gold. John Paul Getty is supposed to be the richest man in the world, but in a given year, if he wanted to, Picasso could make more money than Getty. He can make a line and sign his name to it and get cash for it in five seconds by just picking up the telephone. Fantastic! It’s a situation unparalleled in the history of art or commerce. I heard a story from [his henchman] Fernand Legros that he sent one of my Picassos to Picasso for an authentication, and Picasso, who wasn’t quite sure, asked the man who brought it, ‘How much did the dealer pay for it?’ The man mentioned a huge amount, maybe $100,000, and Picasso said, “Well, if he paid that much, it must be real.”

“The whole situation today,” Elmyr continued, “was built up artificially over the years by a group of art dealers around the world. The public has been completely duped. And now the dealers are forced to keep up the market because there’s so much money involved. That’s one of the reasons that Fernand Legros will never be transferred to a French or American court and have to defend himself—because it would do terrible damage to a big, big business. Not only the interests of the great galleries, which are worth billions, but also the interests of museums, public institutions who have paid fabulous prices over the last twenty years, and often with public money. Also the great fortunes, like Ford and Rockefeller and Du Pont in America, have spent immense sums on paintings, on the recommendations of experts and museums, as an investment. They all want to keep their investment secure in the same way the stock exchange wants to keep blue-chip stocks secure —they don’t want that they should stumble down like in Wall Street in 1929. And in the kind of scandal that could be created in front of a court by a Fernand Legros—who will accuse, who will not hesitate to accuse, two dozen big dealers who helped him sell paintings, two dozen experts and four dozen big museums—these things will come stumbling down. It would be a 1929 crash for the art world.”

In 1974 Orson Welles made his last film, a documentary titled “Vérités et mensonges,” which was released as “F is for Fake” in the US. It is a marvelous meditation on fakery with three representative figures: Elmyr De Hory, Clifford Irving and Orson Welles himself.

Orson Welles in “F is for Fake”

Throughout the film, Welles keeps performing sleight-of-hand tricks as well as his own version of an art hoax involving a seductive young woman pulling the wool over Picasso’s eyes. No doubt, Welles must have been thinking about De Hory’s observations about Picasso being potentially richer than Getty. But the real hoax was his “War of the Worlds” radio show that made his career. Unlike Irving or De Hory, who both spent time in jail, Welles became rich and famous.

After Welles’s career took a nosedive, he must have had agonized about the meaning of fame and success. In one of the most telling scenes in “F is for Fake,” we see him strolling in front of Chartres Cathedral as the camera pans across the magnificent sculptures and stained glass windows. Welles comments that nobody knows who made this cathedral, one of the greatest works of art in human history. Implicitly, Welles was calling for an art that is divorced from the marketplace–a challenge that will exist as long as there is private property. One can only wonder if Welles had another great director in mind when he included this section:

I want to be one of the artists of the cathedral that rises on the plain, I want to occupy myself by carving out of stone the head of a dragon, an angel or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn’t matter. I will find the same joy in any case. Whether I am a believer or an unbeliever, Christian or pagan, I work with all the world to build a cathedral because I am artist and artisan, and because I have learned to draw faces, limbs and bodies out of stone. I will never worry about the judgment of posterity or of my contemporaries; my name is carved nowhere and will disappear with me. But a little part of myself will survive in the anonymous and triumphant totality. A dragon or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn’t matter.

–Ingmar Bergman


  1. […] Read the rest of this great post here […]

    Pingback by The Hoax — December 4, 2007 @ 11:50 pm

  2. Are you familiar with my favorite faker, van meegeren?


    Comment by mperelman — December 5, 2007 @ 2:15 am

  3. I really enjoyed this post.

    Funny how there is sympathy for those who successfully pull off a good hoax. Maybe we respect the intellect behind it.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — December 5, 2007 @ 5:55 am

  4. […] 7. The Hoax–reviewed here […]

    Pingback by 2007 Film Notes « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 7, 2007 @ 10:55 pm

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