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Alfred Molina: An Appetite for Extremes

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Alfred Molina: An Appetite for Extremes

Movies

Alfred Molina: An Appetite for Extremes

Alfred Molina: An Appetite for Extremes

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Alfred Molina, left, squares off with Stanley Tucci in The Hoax. Miramax hide caption

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Scenes from 'The Hoax'

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Actor Alfred Molina plays Dick Suskind, loyal friend and reluctant co-conspirator to a literary huckster in The Hoax — a new movie based loosely on a true story.

A true story about an untrue story, that is: In the 1970s, Suskind and writer friend Clifford Irving hoaxed the publishing world with an "authorized biography" of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

As Molina tells Michele Norris, Suskind stuck by Irving (played in the film by Richard Gere) as the scam went south — for the sake of friendship more than anything.

"Essentially that's what bound them together," Molina says. "They respected each other, they loved each other; they were very, very close friends. I think he stayed because he was concerned about his friend."

Molina, in movies from Chocolat and Frida to Spider-Man 2, has drawn attention for playing dark characters, as well as vulnerable ones, and he confesses to "a predilection on my part to go to those edges."

Partly, he says, that's because for an actor, "extremes of human behavior are always the most attractive areas to inhabit. Because that's where all the dramatic juice is to be found. ... People are always sort of apologetic about mentioning the fact that I play a lot of villains, and of course I'm not apologetic about it at all. I love playing villains."

In the end, Molina says, he came to admire hoaxer Clifford Irving, at least in part.

"Not because he broke the law or because he ended up really wrecking other people's lives," he qualifies. But the scandal that ruined his career "started off as an intellectual prank," and like most of us, Molina enjoys it when someone successfully thumbs his nose at the powers that be.

"I think there's always something wonderful about people in high places being slightly ridiculed." Besides, he says, Irving "was a very charismatic figure."

"And he still remains very attractive in that sense. I don't think he was an out-and-out villain."

'The Hoax' Tells a Real Story About a Fake

'The Hoax' Tells a Real Story About a Fake

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Alfred Molina, left, and Richard Gere take the world for a ride in Lasse Hallstrom's film The Hoax. Miramax hide caption

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Alfred Molina, left, and Richard Gere take the world for a ride in Lasse Hallstrom's film The Hoax.

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Con men, if they're shameless enough, are almost always a hit with audiences, and they don't come much more shameless than Richard Gere's Clifford Irving. This guy is an operator — fraudulent to his hair follicles, which have been darkened quite elegantly here. And he's come up with a really good idea for a book. He's going to write an "authorized autobiography" of the world's most eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes.

It would, of course, be a better idea if Irving had actually been authorized, or had met, or even been in contact with Hughes. Alas, that's not the case, which makes his friend and researcher, Dick Suskind, a wee bit nervous.

Give him credit, though, for outrageous audacity: The more bizarre Irving's faked letters, audio tapes, and monetary demands become, the more the publisher's experts throw up their hands. Even when they've actually got him dead to rights, caught in a lie, they discover he's just too slippery to hold on to. You've got to love this guy.

And in Lasse Hallstrom's snappy screen version of his story, you've got to feel sorry for his wife, and for his buddy Suskind, who's the one who ends up doing much of Irving's dirty work. Alfred Molina makes Suskind a sweet, needy wreck of a man, easily bullied, ultimately guilty, and somehow still the moral center of the story.

The screenplay takes many liberties — some, even, with the liberties taken by Irving — and in one nifty twist, it suggests that this consummate scam artist might have been the victim of a scam himself. The audience, in fact, may be the only folks not scammed by The Hoax, which, as entertainment, is the real thing.