In 1970 Clifford Irving, a minor writer best known for a biography of a notorious art forger, approached McGraw-Hill with an astonishing proposal: he had made a deal with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to collaborate on Hughes’ autobiography. He produced handwritten letters from Hughes which experts declared to be genuine. Based on this evidence McGraw-Hill and Life Magazine came up with an unprecedented advance of $765,000.
It was actually one of the most audacious scams in history. Selling a fake autobiography of a living person required unbelievable chutzpah, but Irving and his researcher Richard Suskind believed that since Hughes never appeared in public he would not come out to deny it.
This movie provides an entertaining and semi-reliable depiction of the fraud.
I rather expected that Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) would come off as the hero of the story. Hollywood loves con-men and usually depicts them as heroes. Irving wasn’t the sort of con-man who swindles ordinary people out of their life savings, instead he made fools of a bunch of very rich and powerful people. And of course the movie is based on Irving’s book of the same name, undoubtedly a self-serving account.
Yet though we may be awed by Irving’s audacity and resourcefulness he ultimately doesn’t seem like much of a hero. We see him thoughtlessly betray the people who trust him and fall into the trap of believing his own fabrications.
The movie ends with the suggestion that Irving was a pawn in a much larger conspiracy involving Howard Hughes and Richard Nixon. There doesn’t actually seem to be any evidence for this other than Irving’s own unsupported claims. Even the movie doesn’t seem to take it very seriously. Still, with someone like Howard Hughes, who knows?