Ah, yes, the impostures of the con artist. Our movies would be the poorer without them. The movie medium itself is a species of illusion, and so is the art of acting. Is it any wonder that actors and filmmakers naturally gravitate to stories about flimflammery?
Two new movies, "The Hoax" and "Color Me Kubrick," are about true-life cons that went surpassingly right before they went horribly wrong. Both feature bravura performances. In "The Hoax," Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving, who in the 1970s almost tricked McGraw-Hill publishers into believing that his forged Howard Hughes auto-biography was real. In "Color Me Kubrick," John Malkovich plays a reticent London travel agent who impersonates the famous movie director of "2001" and "A Clockwork Orange."
Of the two films, "The Hoax" is the more flamboyantly far-reaching, if ultimately less original. Irving is portrayed as a journeyman writer whose most recent book, which is about the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and titled "FAKE!" should have been a dead giveaway concerning his upcoming machinations. Rebuffed for a follow-up tome by his publisher, he concocts an astonishing swindle sure to grab their attention. Based on his own research and the filching of an unpublished memoir by a Hughes associate, Irving forges Hughes's autobiography on the reasonable assumption that the reclusive billionaire would never emerge from the shadows to contest it.
And indeed if Hughes, in his first public statement in over a decade, had not denounced the book as a fraud, Irving might well have gotten away with it. Even though we know Irving will ultimately be found out, we pull for him to succeed, which I suppose means that we in the audience have been conned by him as well.
Directed by Lasse Hallström and written by William Wheeler, "The Hoax" is intended as a fantasia on the subject of Irving and his escapades. Hallucinations and fantasy reenactments of events proliferate. The filmmakers take major liberties with the facts – to take one example, they stage an extravagant scene where Irving, with the help of his friend and coconspirator Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), trick McGraw-Hill into believing that Hughes is helicoptering in for an editorial meeting.
I realize that fact-based movies still need to be inventive, but there's something questionable about a film about a scam that also attempts, however playfully, to scam the audience. For one thing, it fuzzies up the true nature of what Irving accomplished. After all, we wouldn't be very interested in this story if it were fictional.
Gere, who is always sharpest when he's playing double-edged personalities, is fun to watch, and Hallström conveys a bit of the circuslike atmosphere of the times. But he overreaches in try-ing to turn the film into a commentary on the politically corrupt 1970s. He brings in, on rather flimsy evidence, a link between Hughes and Watergate. What he may not sufficiently realize is that the Clifford Irving story is timeless. Con men may adjust to the particular zeitgeists of their eras – the Web, for example, would have rendered Irving's hoax null and void – but no doubt there were Cro-Magnon men who perpetrated counterfeit cave paintings.
"Color Me Kubrick" is a far more modest movie, but in some ways is more successful than "The Hoax" in conveying how deeply people want to believe something is true against all evidence. Alan Conway, who passed himself as Kubrick in the 1990s before finally being caught, didn't even look like the famous director. He hadn't even seen many of Kubrick's famous movies.
Director Brian Cook and screenwriter Anthony Frewin were both long-term Kubrick production associates, so they know this case history intimately. Although Kubrick was not as much of a mystery man as Hughes, his face was still sufficiently unknown by the public for Conway's deception to succeed for a time.
Malkovich is so comically daring here that, at times, he made me think of Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty in Kubrick's "Lolita." (The connection may be intentional, since the film also channels "A Clockwork Orange" and even "2001.") Malkovich captures not only the nuttiness of Conway, with his smorgasbord of foreign-sounding accents, but also his pathos.
Conway simply wanted to be famous – he never bilked any of his victims.
With varying degrees of success, both "Color Me Kubrick" and "The Hoax" are ultimately about the need to be famous at all costs.
They also serve as a reminder that the current celebrity-crazed culture is not as novel as we'd hoped.
Grades: "The Hoax" – B; "Color Me Kubrick" – B+
•"The Hoax" is rated R for language; "Color Me Kubrick" is not rated.