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Calling his bluff Richard Gere plays an author who gambled that billionaire Howard Hughes had too much to lose to challenge a fake autobiography

You just can't beat some Yiddish words. They say what words in other languages just don't -- or can't. Not as succinctly, anyway.

Chutzpah, for instance. No other language -- certainly not English -- conveys as well someone who's got "some nerve." The classic English language illustration of chutzpah is a young guy "who kills his mother and father and pleads to the judge for mercy because he's an orphan."

Or, if the subjects are literature and publishing, you've got Clifford Irving, the universal candidate for the greatest embodiment of chutzpah in the recent history of American publishing.

Here was a guy who actually had the unmitigated gall to hoodwink McGraw-Hill out of a seven-figure advance for an as-told-to "Autobiography of Howard Hughes" that he invented out of whole cloth. (Well, a lot of research was involved too.)

Hughes was very much alive and weird at the time, but, as the new film "The Hoax" tells us, Irving figured he'd never emerge from his Vegas aerie of psychosis and full urine bottles to sue, lest he leave himself wide open for a $137 million judgment in a previous case.

Irving figured that Hughes was so far gone into reclusive dementia that he'd either never bother to refute it or would be hog-tied by circumstances, chiefly his own lunacy. In the book version of "The Hoax" -- a nifty read if ever there was one -- it started out slowly as Irving simply writing the definitive "authorized biography" of Hughes, but then took on a glorious life of its own.

When the whole scheme went kerflooey -- as, of course, it was destined to -- it always baffled me why McGraw-Hill didn't simply relabel the book a "novel" and republish it anyway. The idea of fact-based fiction and fiction pretending to be fact goes back to the very beginnings of what were first called "novels." Irving's book is said to be that good, and that compelling, to read by everyone who's read it. (In 1999, there were bastard versions of it from a company called "terrificbooks" being hawked around.)

The trouble with Lasse Hallstrom's movie of "The Hoax" is that it sets benchmarks of its own for casting chutzpah and free-form fictional invention.

As Richard Gere has himself admitted in interviews, Irving was tall -- 6 feet 4 inches. He was also handsome and inordinately charismatic in a ruggedly literary -- and expansively fraudulent -- way. He was often interviewed on TV and you could always see how he might have thought he could carry it off -- and how he came as close as he did to doing so.

The real Clifford Irving was having an affair with Nina Van Pallandt, sometime actress and Rolling Stone consort, undoubtedly looking for a little swash and buckle -- neither of which is possessed by Richard Gere.

The height is key, I think, to Irving's personality -- both the absurd grandiosity that seemed to come naturally (and that people are almost biologically programmed to indulge) and the conviction that he somehow stood "above" being caught.

Gere isn't at all tall. In fact, he's admitted to wearing 4-inch heels to be taller in "The Hoax." Nor does he have any natural grandiosity as a man or, indeed, even charisma. All he's got is considerable talent as an actor and an actor's-handsome face.

I once sat a small table of journalists interviewing Gere. A young female reporter asked Gere the following "serious" question: "You're a beautiful man, Richard. Don't your looks interfere with your relationships with other actors?" Gere didn't blush or even blink, he just answered it matter-of-factly, as if she'd just asked him what brand of peanut butter he preferred.

Gere doesn't begin to seem like the kind of guy who could carry off such a scheme -- or conceive it in the first place. You don't believe he's the kind of high-living con man whose new Mercedes convertible is being delivered to his house at the exact same moment his sofa is being carted away for nonpayment.

Gere's too small, compact, handsome and careful -- when not, that is, manifesting sudden, odd spasms of chutzpah of his own (for which, see his dance before the Lord as "King David.")

Even worse, he's paired with Alfred Molina, who plays Dick Suskind, Irving's researcher and partner-in-crime (literally), an actor who's a good four inches taller than Gere, even with lifts the size of batons on his shoes. According to Irving, Suskind was, indeed, a huge guy in every respect but in every scene of the two actors together (which is about two-thirds of the movie), Irving just seems too small to be such an expansive huckster.

On the other hand, he's the real thing as an actor and always has been. And that's where "The Hoax" is best -- when Irving and Suskind's hoax is in full swing and Gere, in Irving's jacket and Hughes' famous pencil-thin mustache, starts channelling Howard Hughes and inventing just what it is Hughes might have sounded like dictating his story to a tape recorder.

Lasse Hallstrom ("The Shipping News," "The Cider House Rules," "Chocolat") is the wrong director for the first half of "The Hoax," just as Gere is, by far, the wrong actor. Hallstrom's a sympathetic realist, inclined to tell stories about people he clearly likes.
Clifford Irving, the nice guy fraud, isn't much of a movie, if you ask me. He's much more interesting as a self-congratulatory and self-deluded wheedler and manipuator -- a bunko artist whose first and most traduced victim is himself.

It's when Irving starts channelling Hughes at the same time that he's conning his wife, his collaborator and his mistress that this movie really starts coming into its own.

You can, if you like, put great stock in the movie's theory that Irving's revelations about Howard Hughes' relationship with Richard Nixon were a major contributing factor in the Watergate break-in. Personally, I think that's just more that's symptomatic of Irving's grandiose desire to place himself in the center of everything.

If you have a few minutes, read his blog on his Web site.

He's happy to tell you about his new novel "I Remember Amnesia," and the opinion of someone who says joyfully, "This is the best manuscript that has ever passed over my desk."

Who said that?

Irving's literary agent.

Charisma, you know?

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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>Movie Review

The Hoax
Review: Three stars (out of four)
Richard Gere, Marcia Gay Harden, Julie Delpy, Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci in Lasse Hallstrom's movie about Clifford Irving and the literary hoax of the 20th century. Rated R, opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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