A writer fabricates the "authorized" biography of Howard Hughes as a hoax. Richard Gere plays the lead character Clifford Irving who is an author. His wife is Edith (played by Marcia Gay Harden). The executives at McGraw-Hill tell him they will publish his book. He buys a new car to celebrate. The next day they tell him they changed their minds. He needs an idea for a new book. He stays in a hotel owned by Howard Hughes. In the middle of the night everyone in the hotel is told they must relocate because Howard Hughes is going to stay there. Then he sees a Newsweek article about the secret life of Howard Hughes. He gets an inspiration to do a book about Howard Hughes. He learns how to forge Hughes handwriting. He forges a letter from Howard Hughes giving Clifford the authorization to write a biography. They check the handwriting and believe it is genuine.
Clifford takes his best friend Dick Suskind (played by Alfred Molina) on a road trip to research more about Howard Hughes to make the hoax more convincing. McGraw-Hill gives the project the code name Octavio. They go to Washington, D.C. In the Library of Congress, they take photos of the pages in a book, which contain a speech made by Hughes . They go to the Department of Defense to get more information about the Hughes companies. They steal the file on Hughes from the DOD and from the file learn Noah Dietrich (played Eli Wallach) was Hughes right-hand man for thirty years. The go to see Noah in Las Vegas. Noah shows him a huge written account of his years working with Hughes, no one has ever seen. Noah tells them he cannot take the manuscript out of the house. Dick sneaks it out of the house to make a copy of it. Dick makes himself a co-author of the Hughes book much to Clifford's consternation.
They meet with the Chief Editor of Life Magazine because they have suspicions about the book. Dick tells all kinds of strange things like Hughes gave him a prune. Clifford tells an incredible story about how they met Hughes in a remote hotel in Mexico. Life magazine offers to pay $250,000 for the worldwide serial rights for publishing part of the book in the magazine.
Clifford breaks his promise of infidelity, which he made with his wife Edith and goes to see his mistress Nina (played by Julie Delpy). Clifford learns how to mimic Hughes' voice and makes some tapes of fake interviews. Another writer Richard Eaton comes out with a competing “authorized” biography of Hughes. McGraw-Hill threatens to sue Clifford and Dick. Clifford demands the Chairman of McGraw-Hill, Harold McGraw (played by John Carter) meet him with the Chairman of Life magazine, Ralph Graves (played by Zeljko Ivanek). A fake letter made by Clifford from Hughes arrives addressed to Harold McGraw. At the meeting Clifford states the other book announced by Eaton is a fake and Hughes is furious McGraw-Hill sold the serialization rights to his autobiography without his permission. The fake letter from Hughes rants about the connection between Life magazine and Pan Am, which is Hughes biggest rival in the airline business. Clifford gets them to stand down by demanding one million dollars. His wife tells him to get a check made out to H.R. Hughes so she can go to Switzerland to cash it using fake identification. A note from Clifford's mistress arrives in the mail and is found by his wife, which makes her upset. She goes off to Switzerland.
A box of insider secrets arrives at Clifford's house in the mail also, postmarked from Las Vegas. This leads Clifford to believe Hughes wants him to expose the corruption of President Nixon because in the documents is evidence of the bribes Nixon accepted. Clifford is called into the McGraw-Hill Offices because they got a call from Hughes attorney and Hughes wants to speak to them on the telephone. They have a man there who was the last journalist to speak with Hughes so he will be able to identify his voice. Hughes denies he knows Clifford. When confronted with this, Clifford tells them he has dirt on Hughes which will put him in jail and this is the reason for Hughes denial.
Meanwhile, Edith is cashing the check in Switzerland. His friend Dick wants out and tells Clifford he is going to confess. Dick goes out and gets drunk, then cheats on his wife. Clifford helps him deal with his guilt over cheating on his wife. This gets Dick to continue helping Clifford with the hoax. Clifford turns in the manuscript. Clifford tells the people at McGraw-Hill, Hughes is coming in person. They make all kinds of special arrangements including removing carpet from four floors. The helicopter flies up supposedly containing Hughes. It gets fifty feet from the rooftop, then turns back. They accept the manuscript as real. They publish the book. The Hughes organization attacks them with legal action and sends men to kidnap Clifford and his wife. Hughes men tell him he must put the dirt on President Nixon in the book. They throw him off a balcony many stories up to make a point. He lands in the swimming pool unharmed. They take him back home. This part is later said by Dick to be Clifford's paranoid hallucination while drunk.
Clifford convinces McGraw-Hill to put the information about Nixon in the book. Someone from McGraw-Hill warns the office of the President about what will be in the book. McGraw-Hill figures out the check was cashed fraudulently. The police are looking for the woman who cashed the check. Nancy returns from Europe, she says she is leaving Clifford. He tries to make up with his wife. Dick finds out the woman he had an affair with, was a prostitute hired by Clifford. Dick and Clifford have a big fight. Chester Davis, Howard Hughes attorney calls the President. Hughes goes on the national news by voice to deny he knows Clifford. Edith is arrested for cashing the check. Clifford see his mistress on the television saying he was with her when Clifford claimed to be with Hughes. Clifford is shown hallucinating about speaking with one of Hughes men, not being able to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.
Clifford figures out the Hughes used him to get President Nixon to cooperate in the TWA problem, which saved Hughes over one hundred million dollars. Clifford, Dick, and Edith go to jail and must pay restitution. Nixon's paranoia about Hughes caused him to order the Watergate break-in of the Democratic Party National Headquarters which ultimately led to Nixon's resignation.
Best part of story, including ending:
The extent Clifford goes to pull off the hoax is amazing.
Best scene in story:
I like the scene when the helicopter supposedly containing Hughes pulls up to the rooftop of the McGraw-Hill building, then suddenly turns away, and we see that Dick is the one in the helicopter, but everyone else thinks it is Hughes. This is really outrageous what they did.
Opinion about the main character:
Even though Clifford is a bad guy, I still like the character because his lies are so incredible to pull off such a big hoax.