In this weekend’s The Words, Bradley Cooper plays a struggling young writer who stumbles across a terrific unpublished manuscript and makes the fateful decision to pass it off as his own — an impulsively dishonest act that brings him the career success he’s dreamed of, but triggers major consequences along the way. Of course, Cooper’s character isn’t the first to pretend to be something he isn’t — and with that in mind, we decided to dedicate this week’s list to some of the many noteworthy plagiarists, imposters, liars, and frauds from films of the past. Lock up your valuables and don’t believe everything you’re told, because it’s time for Total Recall!
In his long and incredible career as a master fraud and forger, Frank W. Abagnale Jr. managed to pass himself off as a teacher, doctor, lawyer, and airplane pilot — and pass millions of dollars in phony checks while he was at it. It’s the kind of story that could play as a horribly sad drama, but with Catch Me if You Can, Steven Spielberg used it as the basis for a light (and thoroughly entertaining) caper in which Abagnale (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) dashes from con to con while striking up a bizarre long-distance friendship with the FBI agent who’s doggedly pursuing him (Tom Hanks). The end result, wrote John Anderson for Newsday, is “A very adult, very funny, very well-acted daydream that should delight just about anyone who’s ever been asked for picture ID.”
A sort of spiritual cousin to this week’s big movie, The Hoax dramatizes the real-life adventures of struggling author Clifford Irving, who cooked up an audacious million-dollar scheme to pass off his own forgeries as the authorized memoirs of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. It sounds like a ridiculous way to get yourself sent to prison rather than the basis for a Richard Gere movie, but Irving almost pulled it off — and that’s what makes The Hoax such gripping stuff. Saying it “never wanders too far from its pitiful but somehow joyously deceitful center,” Tom Long of the Detroit News applauded Gere for capturing “the sheer electricity of a man who, even for only a few moments, seems to have made reality play by his rules.”
Some of the best documentaries are the ones that persuasively demonstrate that truth really can be stranger than fiction. Case in point: The Imposter, which details the unsettling tale of Frédéric Bourdin, the French con man who impersonated a missing 13-year-old boy and went to live with his family, despite a number of telling differences between them. Bourdin was eventually forced to confess, thanks to the dogged efforts of a private investigator, but that’s only one dark chapter in a terribly disturbing — and still unsolved — true story. “The Imposter emerges as a brilliantly slippery film that demands brain-stretching consideration. Astonishing, indeed,” wrote the Irish Times’ admiring Donald Clarke.
Good journalists stop at nothing to get their big scoop — even if they happen to be high school students, and researching the story means illicitly transferring to a new campus and pretending to be a boy. Witness Just One of the Guys, the mid-1980s teen cross-dressing comedy starring Joyce Hyser and an eclectic supporting cast that included Ayre Gross, Sherilyn Fenn, and — as was required by law in 1985 — Billy Zabka. While many critics thought Guys was too shallow and unbelievable to prove its own point, others were too busy yukking it up to care — like Nikki Tranter of PopMatters, who wrote, “Just One of the Guys is worth repeated viewing, especially for Hyser’s hilarious and charismatic performance.”
Whether she was truly a German spy who caused the death of more than 50,000 soldiers or simply an exotic dancer who attracted the wrong kind of attention is still up for scholarly debate — but either way, Mata Hari’s story is a fascinating one, and it proved solid grist for this loose biopic, which made a million dollars in 1931 and ultimately proved to be Greta Garbo’s signature film. “Miss Garbo may not be any more like Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaret Zelle MacLeod, than the film narrative is like an authentic account of the spy’s career,” admitted Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times. “There is, however, in the skillfully arranged series of incidents enough truth to make a most compelling melodrama.”
The film world has certainly seen more daring cons than the one attempted by “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston) in The Music Man, but we’d argue that none of them were as persuasively soundtracked — which is only fitting, given this Broadway adaptation’s storyline about a flimflam artist who strolls into a small Iowa town with the intention of tricking the residents into bankrolling a junior marching band. Of course, Hill has a change of heart by the third act, due to the feminine wiles of the town’s comely librarian (Shirley Jones), but even if his schemes were all for naught, the movie stole the hearts of critics like Time Out’s Geoff Andrew, who lauded its soundtrack “full of standards” and called the film “endowed with a warming nostalgia for old-fashioned ways.”
With Michael J. Fox on the poster and Night Ranger on the soundtrack, The Secret of My Success was a quintessentially 1980s film even before the first frame was screened; the fact that its plot happened to revolve around a young mailroom employee (Fox) who impersonates his way up the corporate ladder just in time to save the company and find true love (with Helen “Supergirl” Slater) was just a bonus. Like a lot of the decade’s business-themed comedies, Success was burdened with mixed messages — it tried to lampoon corporate skullduggery while suggesting that overweening career ambition justifies pretty much any amount of fraud — but under all those synths and snappy blazers, it was really just another good old-fashioned comedy from director Herbert Ross. “The movie builds up a lot of good will early on, which is needed when the time comes to resolve its farcical complications,” admitted a begrudging Vincent Canby for the New York Times.
He may not have earned many raves for his performance as the petulant Anakin Skywalker of the Star Wars prequels, but Hayden Christensen proved his acting mettle with Shattered Glass, a biopic about Stephen Glass, the disgraced former New Republic writer whose journalism career came to an ignominious end after he was caught fabricating chunks of his articles. It registered barely a ripple at the box office, but this Billy Ray drama was a favorite with critics like Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, who observed, “More than being a smart and accurate look at magazine journalism — no small matter — Shattered Glass is also a compelling portrait of a psychosis at work.”
On the big screen, imposters tend to be nefarious, and for good reason — nine times out of 10, if you’re going to go to the trouble of stealing another person’s life, you’re probably up to no good. Sommersby, however, reminds us that there’s still that 10th guy. Starring Richard Gere as the returning Civil War vet (or is he?) who comes home from the war a noticeably better man, stirring confusing emotions in his puzzled wife (Jodie Foster) and setting in motion a painful chain of events, Sommersby tried to say a number of things about love and redemption — and while a number of critics found the end result too diffuse to recommend, others swooned at its old-fashioned romance. Argued James Berardinelli of ReelViews, “From start to finish, it is a well-crafted film: part love story, part mystery, and all drama.”
Dudes in dresses are usually played for laughs in Hollywood, and to an extent, Tootsie is no exception; it is, underneath all that makeup and hosiery, a romantic comedy about an actor (Dustin Hoffman) who masquerades as a woman in order to take what he initially views as a demeaning gig on a soap opera. But rather than the sort of broad-as-a-barn-door farce we’ve grown accustomed to via movies like White Girls and Big Momma’s House, it uses its gags to sweeten what’s actually a rather thoughtful drama about dishonesty and the struggle to earn a living in modern America — with a Stephen Bishop ballad on the soundtrack for good measure. Critics, grateful to be spared a film that had nothing more to offer than the sight of Dustin Hoffman in a dress, showered Tootsie with praise: “It turns out to be a touching love story, after all,” observed Roger Ebert. “So touching that you may be surprised how moved you are at the conclusion of this comedy.”