Of prose and cons: The Hoax (***1/2) & Color Me Kubrick (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2007)

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One of my favorite movie lines is from The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” (Alas-if we could only remember that sage advice before writing our phone number on a cocktail napkin, signing on a dotted line, dropping coins into a collection plate or pulling on a voting lever.) Indeed, the art of the con is as old as the snake in the Garden of Eden. Hollywood loves con artists, probably because movie audiences never appear to tire of watching yet one more poor schmuck getting bamboozled. It makes us feel superior-“Oh, I’d never fall for THAT!”

Director Lasse Hallstrom has delivered a smashing entry in the genre with his new movie, The Hoax. The film is based on the story of Clifford Irving, a struggling writer who toiled in relative obscurity until he stumbled onto an idea for “the most important book of the 20th century”- the “Autobiography of Howard Hughes”. The book was the most hyped literary event of 1972, and would assure Irving the notoriety he craved. Hell, he even made the cover of Time. Unfortunately, his Time portrait was slugged with “Con Man of the Year”,  because as it turned out, the “autobiography” was a bit of a surprise to Mr. Hughes, because, you see, Mr. Irving made the whole thing up (oops). The books were unceremoniously yanked from the shelves soon after their debut.

Richard Gere tears through the lead role with an intensity we haven’t seen from him in quite a while (easily his best work since Internal Affairs). His Clifford Irving is a charlatan and a compulsive liar, to be sure, but Gere manages to make him sympathetic, in a carefully measured way that doesn’t feel like audience pandering. Even as he digs himself into an ever deepening hole, and you cover your eyes because you know the other shoe is going to drop at any time, you’ve just got to love this guy’s pure chutzpah. Compared to some other mass public deceptions that were brewing at the time (the Irving scandal was soon knocked out of the headlines by Watergate), his resulting fraud trial almost seems like malicious prosecution in retrospect (he did end up doing jail time).

Hallstrom does an excellent job at capturing the 70’s milieu; especially the insidious paranoia of the Nixon era (almost by accident, Irving uncovered documents that implicated Nixon family members and associates in defense contract bribery scams involving Hughes Corporation while Nixon was VP in 1956. It is suggested in the film that the 1972 Nixon White House was tipped off to the existence of the documents, and that it may have been an impetus for the Watergate break in. Hey-who knows?)

The outstanding cast includes Alfred Molina (in an Oscar-caliber turn as Irving’s researcher Richard Susskind), Marcia Gay Harden (sporting a Streep-worthy accent as Irving’s Eurotrash wife), and chameleon character actress Hope Davis (looking very Mary Richards as Irving’s agent). Also with Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy and Eli Wallach.

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Another noteworthy new film examining the art of the con is Brian W. Cook’s Color Me Kubrick: A True…ish Story (concurrently on DVD and in theaters). John Malkovich gives a typically hammy, gleefully giddy performance as real-life con man Alan Conway, who flitted about England in the early 90’s, posing as the notoriously reclusive director Stanley Kubrick.

The irresistible hook in Conway’s story is the fact that he had virtually no idea what Kubrick was about, aside from the fact that he was a famous director. What is even more amazing is that he got away with it for as long as he did, scamming sex, money and accommodations with his hijacked nom de plume (ironically, had he actually bothered to watch Kubrick’s films, he could have picked up some pointers from fictional con men Barry Lyndon and Clare Quilty) His victims ranged from easy marks (aspiring actors, screenwriters and musicians) to those who should have known better (film critics!). His luck ran out when a New York Times columnist was tipped to his shenanigans and wrote an exposé.

Malkovich chews major scenery as he minces his way through the role, utilizing a variety of ridiculously funny accents and affectations. Director Cook worked with the late Kubrick, and ladles on the in-jokes with a nod and a wink (Kubrick aficionados should have a blast playing “spot the homage”). Good supporting performances, particularly from comedian Jim Davidson (one of Conway’s real life victims). Two notable cameos to watch for: Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore!) and director Ken Russell, who pops up as a mental patient (not such a stretch, if you are familiar with his work). Not for all tastes; but destined for cult status.

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