Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio,
Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale
The opening scene of Martin Scorsese's biography of Howard Hughes shows a naked adolescent boy seen from behind, in a darkened room, facing a burning fireplace. The scene, which is repeated in flashbacks later in the movie, serves as the equivalent of Citizen Kane's "rosebud" secret, the singular event that sets the course for the character's outsized life. The boy's mother is in front of him, bathing him, and as her hands move about his body, she repeats the word "quarantine," as she warns him about the dangers of being infected by typhoid.
Scorsese's mournful celebration of Hughes's life from the 1920s to the late 1940s could be called Citizen Pain, a chronicle of Hughes's accomplishments in cinema (slight) and aviation (substantial) that is almost overshadowed by his debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Screenwriter John Logan's script is little more than a succession of big moments -- meeting Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, setting aviation records of the thirties, battling Pan-Am and crooked politicians in the forties. These events run by like a ticker-tape check list. At the same time, a series of small incidents indicate Hughes's progressive mental fragmentation.
This film is neither the worst nor near the top of Scorsese's oeuvre, but its subject gives the director opportunity to play on familiar ground, visiting the golden age of show business. The impressionistic, camera-swooping scenes of old Hollywood are charged with the giddy intensity of a fevered dream. We begin with Hughes, in his 20s, sitting atop a vast fortune his father made from a patented oil-drill bit, when he comes to Hollywood from his native Texas. He promptly decides to make the biggest, most spectacular and expensive war movie ever made (Hell's Angels).
Louis B. Mayer (Stanley DeSantis), standing in for the show-biz establishment, sneers at the young upstart at a soiree at the Coconut Grove. Hughes's employees stand in puzzlement at his requests to fill the sky with 200 biplanes, and then hold shooting for weeks until he can get fat fluffy clouds that look like "breasts full of milk."
There's a mad carnival gaiety to these early scenes, culminating in the historically spectacular movie premiere of Hell's Angels (the basis of Nathanael West's Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust). The event is shown with a mixture of colourized, vintage newsreel footage and modern restaging -- planes overhead on Hollywood Boulevard, reporters swarming and a crowd of half a million people thronging around the celebrities.
As in New York, New York, Scorsese, with his ever-moving camera, relishes the crowd scenes, the hip nightclubs of the thirties, and the pervasive sounds of music of the era. Against the surging backdrops, small telling moments hint at Hughes's isolation and dread. There's his vacant responses to an excited reporter's questions (the first sign of his deafness). Then there's his quivering revulsion when a boozy, cockeyed Errol Flynn (Jude Law) plucks a carefully arranged pea off Hughes's plate. The scene ends with portents of chaos: The music is blaring; Flynn gets into a fistfight with someone in the club; and the bandleader pumps his hands in the air like an excited monkey.
Among the contemporary actors chosen to imitate the icons of yesteryear, Cate Blanchett as Hepburn shows her talent once again, but Kate Beckinsale as Gardner is so unconvincing Scorsese might as well have cast Jude Law for that part, too.
When Hughes drops by in his plane to take Hepburn for a round of golf, they seem to be re-enacting a scene from Bringing Up Baby together. At first Blanchett appears to be doing a quivery caricature, but once she has established the character, she grows progressively more convincing. She and Hughes are portrayed as a companionable pair of odd ducks, but his lack of genuine interest in her, in fact in anyone, dooms the relationship.
Fortunately for Leonardo DiCaprio, few of us have any strong impression of Hughes as a young man. DiCaprio, though he's 30, still has baby cheeks and a teenager's voice (thickened into a Texas drawl). In the performance that makes or breaks the movie, he makes it. The pomaded hair and double-breasted suits add gravity on the outside and DiCaprio successfully channels Hughes's inner duality: the man of destiny and the boy bedevilled.
One moment Hughes is mortgaging his fortune on his latest scheme; the next he's cowering in the washroom waiting for someone else to turn the germ-covered doorknob. Though he shudders that his things might be touched by others, he thinks nothing of slipping his hand up a strange woman's dress.
Both fearful and fearless, Hughes twice crashed test planes when he became too enraptured to pay attention to the fuel gauge. One of these crashes represents the cinematic peak of the film -- an astonishing sequence depicting Hughes as he crashes the experimental XF-11 in suburban Beverly Hills, with the plane's wheel slicing through a startled housewife's kitchen ceiling.
Running at about three hours, The Aviator is long, and the momentum occasionally flags. The depiction of Hughes's first mental breakdown feels a little obsessive-compulsive itself. In a recapitulation of the movie's opening scene, Hughes sits naked in a private screening room, the fireplace of his youth replaced by a projection of a Jane Russell movie. Around him are scores of milk bottles filled with his urine. While this is icky, the depiction of Hughes's plight doesn't compare to Scorsese's other obsessive heroes, from Travis Bickle to Jake LaMotta.
There's also a lot of attention paid to Hughes's corporate and personal rivalry with Pan-Am CEO Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). In the script, this corporate scrap serves mostly to drag out a note of triumph from Hughes's chaotic life.
Bolstered by a shave and nail trim from his friend Ava Gardner, Hughes drags himself from his lair to testify before a government committee investigating his wartime contracts. As he rises to the occasion to dismiss these lesser mortals who harass him, the scene is freighted with pathos -- we all know how he ended up.
If the intention of writer Logan and director Scorsese is to make the case for Hughes as a tragic figure, they've failed. Though he realized many of his grandiose plans, he remains a person stunted in his empathy and ethics, who understands himself poorly. By the end of The Aviator, we feel the same way.