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Cliff Notes: All a 'Hoax'

April 5, 2007 By:
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"Hoax": Cliff Irving (Richard Gere) and Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina)
Clifford Irving was the real deal: A real fraud, an honest-to-goodness con artist, a true liar.

That's all according to "The Hoax," the truly tragic albeit terrific tale about his pseudo-named biography of Howard Hughes, a huge miscalculation of greed and ego that eventually landed Irving in deep shame ... and jail.

Based on Irving's memoir of The Hoax, which itself was based on his fake biography of Hughes, the film opens on Friday.

For the publishing industry, it was an author they couldn't refuse when the Jewish writer rigged up a proposal that soared as high as the hermetic Hughes was grounded in paranoia: A tell-all that told of the billionaire's binges and bargains with the devil of deception in accumulating an empire of evil and ecstacy. Hughes was the aviator whose flights of fancy were as ferocious as they were forceful.

And no one -- no one -- had entered Hughes inner circle for an interview until Irving invaded that sanctum of insanity with a pen, paper and pluck.

Or so he said.

A story that unfolded during the fillip-filled decade of the '70s, "The Hoax" hews to truths already called into dispute by none other than the irascible Irving, who started life with a name change: The raffish author was born Cliff Rafsky 77 years ago on the Upper West Side to a comic-strip artist/at times snappish and surly father and an emotionally remote woman once described as "not a very Jewish mother."

Clifford Irving proved a headless writer, a sleepy hollow of an inventor intrigued by his own convoluted conceits and caught up in his own abracadabra of literary legerdemain.

Truth be told, truth is stranger than fiction, but this fiction was by far stranger than any fact.

Hughes himself said: "I only wish I were still in the movie business, because I don't remember any script I ever saw in Hollywood as wild or imagination-stretching as this autobiography yarn has turned out to be."

William Wheeler would agree. And he's the one entrusted to spin yarn into box-office gold as screenwriter of "The Hoax."

Or at least I think that's Wheeler seated in front of me.

"No," he says, "believe me. It's me!"

No hoax? No, just a hot screenplay in which Irving's sense that truth is this to thee and that to me is given a genuinely artful adaptation. Irving was a man who gained succor from the sense that he could bend truth better than Beckham.

"I didn't believe it myself," says Wheeler of seeing the first script treatment that screamed April Fools. "But then all of us are caught in white lies from time to time," says the Philadelphian son -- scion of a local broadcasting family -- whose former experience as a telemarketer gave him stretch-truth marks.

But white lie? If Irving's could be colored, they'd be cast out in devil red. Irving had a hole in his soul big enough to accommodate the Spruce Goose. If God is in the details, did Irving sweat the small stuff? "I don't know how he identified with his religion although he did describe the Hughes' story as 'the Torah coming down from heaven,' " replies Wheeler.

Even Richard Nixon -- no stranger to lying in bed with fictions -- feared the book would contain truths about Hughes buying influence. Irving's the one, he and his henchmen declared, trying to abort Cliff's notes with a bungled burglary that maybe was one of the missions of Watergate.

An accomplished screenwriter, with more works on the way, Wheeler knows that the film generates different reactions among the generations. It's all evolved from an era of "Et tu, Brute," to "You Tube" brutes who scam and connive viewers: "Remember the 'Lonely Girl'?"

Recalling Irving today -- still alive and writing -- is as entertaining tonight as an "Entertainment Tonight." In a way, says the screenwriter, "he was the Anna Nicole Smith of his time."

And if the late Hughes could dig out from wherever he is with those 18-inch fingernails for a statement today?

With an appreciation that the devil doesn't wear Prada -- but maybe a pencil-thin moustache -- Wheeler laughs at the hoaxed-cum-hoaxer: "He'd say, 'It's true! I did meet Clifford Irving. We collaborated on the book!' " 

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