The Hoax is set amid an early-'70s New York literary scene that seems well into Roman decline. They've got nothing but two-bit Salingers left, and still Irving is an outsider. He needs money in the short term, but he couldn't get his publisher to buy a finished novel. There's no chance they'd give him an advance for an unfinished one. He can get nothing from these people on the strength of his own reputation, so he decides to leverage someone else's, forging handwritten letters and telling McGraw-Hill he is Howard Hughes' authorized autobiographer.
He isn't, of course. By 1970, Hughes hadn't spoken to anyone in the media for years. He certainly didn't reach out to Irving. But Clifford regards Hughes' paranoia and reclusiveness as assets more than liabilities in recounting Hughes' story.
The ruse works, ultimately, and Irving, along with a children's book author named Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina) as his lead researcher, sets about making up Howard Hughes' life. A couple of early breaks allow Irving to settle in to what he thinks is Hughes' psyche. He tapes conversations of himself play-acting the billionaire, mimicking his speech patterns, his colloquialisms and his tactical insights. These prove to be revelatory moments in director Lasse Hallstrom's film. We see Gere (and through, him, Irving) begin as an outsider gazing upon Hughes' strange world. Gradually, Gere becomes both Irving and Hughes, his mannerisms and posture shifting subtly as he first talks, then orates into the cheap microphone.
It's a brilliant role for Gere, whose Irving is, at once, a virtuosic creator of characters and a hopeless, insecure fraud who stitches together the missing years of Hughes' life with bits and pieces of his own and others. The myth Irving makes, though, gradually becomes his cunning. Irving eventually takes the tactics and insights he's given his fake Hughes and adopts them as his own. More important, Irving adopts Hughes' character -- the one he's cobbled together from Senate hearings, memoirs and hearsay -- as a kind of mentor. The deeper into his lie he gets, the more brazen he is -- and, interestingly, the more successful.
Clifford Irving became so confident in telling the biggest lie in modern memory that he never thought he might be touching on bits of the truth. Irving's Hughes becomes all about the charade itself, not about what truths of Hughes' character the novelist may have uncovered in creating it. That, suggests Hallstrom's idea-rich but uneven film, is what ultimately doomed him. (Rated R)