Directed by Martin Scorsese
Not only is the subject material fascinating – eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes – but Martin Scorsese’s biopic, The Aviator, soars visually. Hughes was such an interesting character in so many ways that, even at nearly three hours, they had to omit many large parts of the man’s life. We start with a short scene depicting his childhood but quickly get into his career in aviation and Hollywood – along with his legendary playboy antics. As the dashing, young Howard Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect. Not only is the Hollywood outsider and brash womanizer very well depicted but they did well at showing the early stages of his mental illness, while it was still hidden from the public – while Hughes could still deal with people outside a small circle. Leonardo DiCaprio does not appear to age over more than 30 years of story time and the real horror of his illness isn’t fully rendered on film since the movie doesn’t cover the later years when he became so ill that he couldn’t deal with social situations. The movie ends on a positive note while in reality Hughes spiraled down during his last two decades and died a frightened, isolated recluse. I don’t think that the filmmakers could have done better by casting the lead with someone else – it’s a very tall order to play both the young, super-rich playboy on top of the world and the middle-aged man trying – and failing -- to keep a grip on his sanity.
A director of Martin Scorsese’s stature attracts the best actors in supporting roles: John C. Reilly strikes just the right tone as Noah Dietrich, Hughes’s right hand man who had to deal with his weirdness on a day-to-day basis. Alec Baldwin is convincing as Juan Trippe, the menacing rival at Pan Am who tries to cut Hughes’s TWA out of the international market by getting a bill passed in congress making Pan Am the official U.S. international carrier.
One of Hughes’s more famous romantic conquests, Katharine Hepburn (played with delicious style by Cate Blanchett), loves him while he can keep himself together but leaves him when she meets Spencer Tracy, having put up with too much hanky-panky by Hughes. There’s one beautiful scene, early in their courtship, when he takes her flying at night. In the background is a lovely jazz saxophone – perfect for the period and the romantic mood. The film makes good use of his relationship with Hepburn to illustrate how he is losing his grip on sanity. One of my favorite scenes has Hughes at the dinner table with Katharine Hepburn’s with quick-witted but somewhat snobby and condescending family at their estate in Connecticut – he’s a fish-out-of-water -- he can’t handle all the sharp banter but struggles to maintain his dignity. Not only was it funny – and there isn’t much humor in The Aviator -- but it illustrated how he struggled socially in spite of his superior intellect. I have one little criticism – and I loved Cate Blanchett’s performance – she didn’t sound anything like Katharine Hepburn – it was more of a drawl than Hepburn’s upper-crust Yankee accent.
Another great scene – no dialog here – shows a young Hughes in a restroom. He’s unable to leave since he can’t bring himself to touch the doorknob – what Scorsese shows us is a close-up of his trembling hand, followed by a shot of the doorknob, and a shot of his face – the facial expression of someone just barely able to cope. In another entertaining scene, Errol Flynn (played by Jude Law) playfully takes a pea off Howard’s plate – Hughes had a very strange obsession with green peas – Hughes lost his appetite and left the table – but kept it together enough to avoid making a scene. These and later scenes illustrate – without being too obvious – how he progressed from somebody sick but able to cope to the weird recluse he became.
Martin Scorsese took full advantage of both the glamour of golden-age Hollywood and the photogenic qualities of vintage aircraft to give the film an absolutely gorgeous look. The production design, costuming, and cinematography are all first-rate. The filmmakers take us back to 1930s-era Hollywood nightclubs and studio sets – all beautifully re-created and photographed. Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale (as Ava Gardner) get plenty of pretty clothes to wear as they hang out with Hughes before he goes crazy. Both actresses projected the aura of golden-age movie stars – they convinced me that they could have made it in Hollywood in that era.
It wouldn’t be an aviation movie without a couple of plane crashes – both very well done. My favorite shows Hughes testing the XF-11 spy plane over L.A. when plane has an engine malfunction. The viewer is treated to a stunning sequence – with points of view in the cockpit, on the ground, and in the air -- as the plane goes down, ripping apart several Beverly Hills houses and nearly killing Hughes. The incident is non-fiction – he survived the crash but became addicted to morphine as a result of his injuries.
The movie never gets into his drug addiction –which felt a little strange since most biopics thrive on that kind of stuff – he apparently never shook that problem and died an addict. Autopsy x-rays showed pieces of hypodermic needles broken off in his arms – the movie doesn’t get into anything that dark – I think the filmmakers wanted to keep it more positive –weird and eccentric but positive overall. The film also never gets into his philanthropic activities – he founded a medical research foundation that continues to this day. Likewise, The Aviator doesn’t mention his marriage to actress Jean Peters. He also dated Ginger Rogers and Lana Turner but they aren’t depicted in the movie.
Since the film doesn’t deal that much with his later years – he apparently wasn’t photographed in his last 20 years of living in isolation – the door is open to another biopic about Hughes dealing with that period. That would have to be a very dark and sad movie – but a fascinating one. The movie could start with just 15 minutes or so to establish him as the rich, good looking tycoon sitting on top of the world then get into the main theme: the tragedy and horror of his illness. I love Martin Scorsese’s film but I also would like to see the one covering his later years.
The Aviator is a great film by one of the best directors ever – please make the effort to see it on the big screen – this visually stunning classic deserves to be exhibited in 35mm and will lose a lot when reduced to the DVD format. And if you’re skeptical about seeing a “Leonardo DiCaprio movie” – I’ve never been a fan – let me assure you that this is nothing like that over-rated movie a few years back about the sinking ship. Hearing about how DiCaprio conceived and developed this project caused me to re-think my opinion of him – he worked hard to get this fine film made and deserves considerable credit for that effort.
This movie sparked my interest in early aviation to the point that I got around to reading a book that had been on my list for quite some time: Lindberg by A. Scott Berg (1998). While Howard Hughes was a fascinating character and a prominent figure in early aviation, if one person should sport the designation THE Aviator, it would have to Charles Lindberg. At almost 600 pages this Pulitzer Prize winning biography is a considerable investment in time, but I recommend it to anyone interested not only in aviation but the life of one of the most famous Americans of the 20th century. Not only was he the first to fly across the Atlantic, but he was the center of an intense media assault after his first-born son was kidnapped, resulting in a trial that was called the “Trial of the Century” until O.J. came along. If it would take two feature-length movies to do justice to Hughes’s life, it would take at least four for Lindberg – that’s how big a life he led.
Photographs are copyright Miramax.
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