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Aviator, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 17 December 2004
Image“People should remember him as he was,” someone says of Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.” This movie might be instrumental in changing the current common image of Hughes as a wacky old miser holed up in a series of Las Vegas hotels, his hair and fingernails grown long, hoarding his own urine, obsessively watching “Ice Station Zebra.” That’s how Hughes ended up, of course, but it’s not how he started, not the most important elements of his life. He was one of the most remarkable individuals of the 20th Century, in some ways the emblem of that century: a lanky guy from Texas, a multi-millionaire by his early twenties (thanks to his father’s invention of an exceptional drill bit), who barged into Hollywood, made one of the greatest early talkies, romanced famous stars, set aerial speed records, took TWA from a podunk carrier to one of the world’s major airlines. He was a brilliant inventor, loyal to those who were loyal to him, a major figure in business, and a man whose sanity drained away over the years. And he thought of himself as an aviator.

How could someone AVOID making a movie about a stunning character like Howard Hughes? There was a TV miniseries, “The Amazing Howard Hughes,” starring Tommy Lee Jones, but that’s not run any more and wasn’t on the scale a biopic of Hughes required. But “The Aviator” is an epic on the same scale as Hughes himself: spectacular, intimate and deeply engrossing. The true climax of the film, when Hughes takes his mammoth Hercules plane (commonly called The Spruce Goose) up into the air for its one and only flight, is astonishingly exciting and, unexpectedly, deeply moving. You find yourself cheering Hughes on, urging him to this one last triumph.

Leonardo di Caprio hoped to do a Hughes biography for some years, and he’s put himself deeply into this movie: not only is he the star, but he’s the executive producer and, one suspects, is the one who talked Martin Scorsese into directing. He could hardly have made a better choice. Like all of Scorsese’s films, “The Aviator” is burnished to a deep glow: every aspect of the film is thoroughly realized—the photography, the sets, the music track (rich in period songs). Scorsese is one of the few American directors who seems to issue his movies from his navel, so personal are they. As it’s a biography, and wasn’t originated by Scorsese, it lacks some of his recurring themes, but it’s as brilliantly made as any film from Scorsese. It’s dramatic, moving, funny, fascinating, spectacular and also intimate. (Note: Hughes has also been played by Dean Stockwell, Jason Robards, Terry O’Quinn, David Neff, David Cockinis, Victor Holchak and Stanley Lebor.)
There’s a brief scene in which Howard as a boy is lovingly bathed by his germophobic mother; she keeps a special bar of soap in a tin box, evidently removing it only to bathe her son. (The tin box and the soap recur several times in the movie.) She warns him that the world is full of germs, and that he must always be on his guard. Screenwriter John Logan is a bit facile here, reducing the obsessive-compulsive disorder of Hughes’ later years to an unconscious desire to please his mom. Psychological complexities as twisted as those that drove Hughes into self-imposed and wacky exile are not so easily explained.

And then it’s on to Hollywood, where Hughes is determined to make an epic of World War I aviation, “Hell’s Angels.” He briskly hires Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), who was loyal to Hughes until Howard died—and then was cut completely out of Hughes’ will. (As were all Hughes’ relatives and long-time friends.) Hughes is a bundle of energy, full of demands, but intensely creative and imaginative. With the help of designer/engineer Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), another long-time employee, Hughes designs a monoplane for camera use—and sets the world air speed record, almost offhandedly. This involves an amazing crash in a beet field, from which Hughes emerges with only a cut foot.

Three years pass as Hughes obsessively works on “Hell’s Angels.” He realizes there has to be clouds in the background to tell how fast his biplanes are going, so he immediately hires UCLA meteorologist Professor Fitz (Ian Holm), another long-time employee, who can tell him when there will be clouds. Hughes waits for clouds, of course. When the film is essentially finished, he decides to shoot it again, in sound. (Much of that was directed by James Whale, neither seen nor alluded to in “The Aviator.”)

Meanwhile, he lands a seaplane at a movie location and makes a date with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), who’s there shooting a movie with Cary Grant and George Cukor. Presumably, this is “Sylvia Scarlet” (1935), but the time scale of the film is largely fictional. Hepburn and Hughes have a passionate affair, which we’re shown comes to an end when she falls in love with another man, presumably Spencer Tracy. But Hughes and Hepburn actually were a couple for only three years, and it was long after their breakup that she linked with Tracy.

But the film isn’t a history book—it’s an imaginative look at the times and person of Howard Hughes. The production design by Dante Ferretti and wide-screen photography by Robert Richardson are intensely creative. Ferretti recreates Hughes’ favorite night spot, The Cocoanut Grove,” especially impressive when Hughes first arrives: we’re behind Di Caprio as lights spring up all over the crowded, giddy throng. The first third or so of the film is in desaturated color, at times approximating the look of two-strip Technicolor. Later, when Technicolor itself blossomed into the stunning hues of the late 30s, so does “The Aviator.”

Period music is laced through the score. To woo Kate, Howard takes her up for a night flight over Hollywood as “Moonglow” plays. Other period songs, sometimes sung on screen, highlight other scenes. There are some sets so spectacularly beautiful as to make you gasp in amazement; one is a restroom at the Cocoanut Grove, all in green, black and silver. Later, we see the office of Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), Hughes’ polite, urbane but tough as steel rival: Trippe is the head of Pan Am, and wants his company to be the only trans-Atlantic airline. His office is in the top of the Chrysler Building, and looks like something from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Hughes throughout astonishes us: his intense intelligence, his ability to make multi-million-dollar decisions in a flash, his energy and courage. And his weakening mind. He hasn’t been going with Hepburn very long before he hesitantly admits that he has feelings about things that may not really be there. We’re on his side when Kate whisks him off to New England to meet her aggressively eccentric family, all aristocrats who claim to be socialists. But they aren’t interested in this wealthy but working man in their midst; they consider themselves superior to this Texas hayseed.

When World War II starts, Hughes envisions a colossal transport plane, not just for troops but for materiel as well. And as he’s working on the design of the Hercules, he’s also designing a brassiere for Jane Russell, his latest discovery (one of the starlets who did not have a sexual relationship with Hughes) to wear in “The Outlaw.” (Russell later said the bra hurt, and she didn’t wear it—but told Hughes she did.) He takes on the Breen Office, Hollywood’s censors, but still the release of “The Outlaw” is delayed. (This is confusingly depicted.) He also begins an affair with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), a tough, salty beauty who’s fond of Hughes but unwilling to be pushed around by him.

In all this maelstrom of activity, he begins exhibiting signs that unnerve Dietrich and Odekirk: “Show me all the blueprints,” Hughes says—and then says it again, and again, and again; he struggles to stop, but cannot. He has occasional difficulties due to his fear of germs, as when he’s briefly trapped in a bathroom, fearful of touching the doorknob.

He reverts to normal—or normal for Howard Hughes—and after the war, helps design his experimental XF11 reconnaissance plane. He insists on making the test flight himself, and spectacularly crashes in Beverly Hills. This is a stunning achievement, technically: awesome, frightening, disturbing in a chaotic way. It’s another of those scenes that indicate that Scorsese could master ANY genre.

Hughes slowly recovers, but becomes reclusive, watching “The Outlaw” over and over, living alone in a dark room, detailing very specific instructions on how his food is to be prepared, beginning to save his urine in milk bottles. Seeing he may have the upper hand, Trippe coolly taunts Hughes through the door, gracefully maintaining a façade of sympathy and understanding.

Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), largely in Trippe’s pocket, cannot get Howard to agree to withdraw his intention of turning TWA into an international carrier. So he begins a senate inquisition, and the movie reaches its emotional climax.

A picture like this requires careful planning—and major special effects. Scorsese is not known as a director who uses them much, but he did, and very well, in “Gangs of New York.” And he does it again, here. The effects are a complex, convincing mix of computer graphics, models and mattes. It’s called “The Aviator,” so the planes have to be a highlight, and they are. Starting with the biplanes of “Hells’ Angels,” on to the silver pencil of a plane Howard crashes into the beet field, the majestic Hercules (now a tourist attraction in Oregon), the science fiction-looking XF 11—all aren’t just believable, they’re beautiful. There are a couple of shots where the effects announce themselves, as in a scene of Howard filming “Hell’s Angels,” but generally they’re excellent, and absolutely eye-popping in the hard-to-realize crash in Beverly Hills.

“The Aviator” is almost three hours long, and speeds by as if it were only 90 minutes. It seizes the viewer’s attention and commands it throughout. One of the most important features of the film is Leonardo Di Caprio’s deeply committed performance as Howard Hughes; this is the highlight of his career to date. He adopts Hughes’ somewhat high-pitched voice and Texas accent; during the film, his voice coarsens and deepens, becoming gravelly. In interviews, Di Caprio reports that he deliberately adopted some obsessive behaviors of his own to enable him to more fully understand the man he’s playing.

Hughes commanded instant loyalty; for all his strangeness, he was a figure of unquestionable authority, and that’s how Di Caprio plays him. After a couple of minutes, you even forget you’re watching Leonardo Di Caprio—you’re watching Howard Hughes. We see his imagination and creativity, his occasional cold remoteness, his sexual drive, his lack of understanding of the people who matter most to him, but also his instant, accurate assessment of his opponents. Furthermore, almost all who really knew Hughes admit to his strangeness, but add that he was also a likeable person. Di Caprio doesn’t exaggerate anything in hopes of making his Hughes likeable; he and Scorsese present him as the man he was—and we like him anyway, just as Hughes’ real-life friends did. The movie makes no pretense of explaining Hughes, instead depicting him thoroughly and carefully. It’s likely that had Hughes visited a psychiatrist for 20 years, the shrink wouldn’t have been able to explain his patient. Hughes is a fascinating person, astonishingly complex, always mysterious.

Cate Blanchett had an even more difficult task: she has to give us Katharine Hepburn without really looking very much like her. (She’s attractive, but Hepburn was one of Hollywood’s greatest beauties.) And she does. She gives us Kate’s distinctive voice and gestures without a trace of caricature; surely this is how Hepburn must have been off screen. She’s frustrating, attractive, brilliant, self-centered and deeply romantic.

There are also excellent performances by Alec Baldwin, who’s been awfully damned good lately, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly and others. Jude Law is in briefly as dashing, drunken Errol Flynn. He’s at Hughes’ table at the Cocoanut grove when Hughes’ food arrives: a lean steak and twelve peas, arranged in a neat pattern. When Flynn eats one of the peas, Hughes is sickened and cannot continue eating, but is too polite—and too shy, oddly enough—to say anything. But the busy Law is only in the movie fleetingly, as are other Hollywood figures, including L.B. Mayer and Joseph Breen. Willem Dafoe has one scene as a tabloid editor. Ian Holm is seen from time to time, but has hardly a line; the professor looks perpetually surprised by Hughes, as Dietrich is perpetually amused and impressed.

It was courageous of Miramax and Warner Bros. to finance “The Aviator.” After all, most of the world has largely forgotten Howard Hughes, and Di Caprio’s boxoffice appeal is uncertain. But this immensely entertaining, deeply engrossing movie, a testament to the filmmaking prowess of Martin Scorsese, should restore Hughes to his wobbly pedestal, and ensure Di Caprio’s place as a major actor. It’s definitely one of the best movies of 2004.

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