US, 2004, 169 minutes, Colour.
Leonardo di Caprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Riley, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Jude Law.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Golden Globe winner for Best Picture and a nod for Leonardo di Caprio as Best Actor, this is a Hollywood epic about one of the United States leading capitalist giants who led a glamorous life before mental illness got the better of him and he lived and died an eccentric recluse, Howard Hughes.
For those who know of Hughes only through his final years, this film may prove a very interesting surprise. It is really a tribute to him, an acknowledgement of his achievement in the field of aviation, an acknowledgement of his eccentric achievement in movies. It is also an affectionate tribute to him. Martin Scorsese’s direction enhances John Logan’s very sympathetic screenplay, giving something of a glow, especially to the 1920s and 1930s when Hughes was a hero and a glamorous playboy as well. The lighting for the 1940s approaches the light of day as Hughes’s story has to face harsher realities.
Hughes was also known as a womaniser, especially with Hollywood film stars. This is all in the film – although again he appears as less of a predator with expectations that women will fall for him (they generally do) but a more gentle man who is hurt by rejection.
Leonardo di Caprio proves again what a talented actor he is (think This Boy’s Life, Gilbert Grape, Romeo and Juliet) playing Hughes both younger and older than di Caprio is.
There are many fascinating sections of The Aviator. The years of filming his World War I movie, Hell’s Angels, the clash with the Motion Picture Board because of Jane Russell’s famous cleavage in The Outlaw; the design of his planes and his testing them as well as his breaking flying records, the establishing of TWA (and his rivalry with Pan Am boss, Juan Rippe (Alec Baldwin)), the design of the Hercules, his two spectacular crashes and his injuries; the 1947 Senate Hearings to defend his good name against the allegations of Senator Brewster (Alan Alda), where di Caprio is very strong; and the glimpses of Hughes’s fastidiousness, growing obsession with cleanliness, culminating in a powerful sequence of his seclusion. This is the stuff of good drama.
The Hollywood side is taken care of with his visits to the Coconut Grove, his years with Katherine Hepburn (who was exhilarated by his flying), relationships with the young starlet, Faith Domergue, and with Ava Gardner. Cate Blanchett gives an eerie and fascinating impersonation of Katherine Hepburn, mannerisms and all. The sequence where Hughes meets her family and they talk down to him is nervy. Kate Beckinsale is Ava Gardner but does not give any impersonation of her at all, which is very disappointing and just makes her an independent spirit who is kind to Hughes.
Almost three hours in length, audiences might be dipping in and out of The Aviator, depending on their main interests in Hughes, his life and career.
1. The awards, popular acclaim? A piece of Americana? Impact for non-Americans?
2. The career of Martin Scorsese, his style, interest? The stars and their strong performances?
3. The re-creation of the 1920s, 30s and 40s? Los Angeles and California? The world of Hollywood, movie-making? Night life? The world of aerodynamics, planes, building planes? World War Two? Politics, Washington hearings? American film censorship?
4. The visual style, the style of the biopic, of the musical, the Hollywood drama? The footage of Hell’s Angels, The Outlaw? The mood and look of the past?
5. The musical score, the range of songs for each of the periods, the popular songs, the melodies?
6. Howard Hughes and his reputation, people knowing about his madness and eccentricity in old age, his seclusion, his obsessions? The portrait of his early life, the film helping to understand him and his final decades? The film as a tribute to him and his work, affection for him, allowance for his failures? A critique of him? Howard Hughes as embodying the American dream, capitalism and the American way, especially in government money for aviation and for World War Two planes? An objective look, a subjective look – where did audience sympathies lie?
7. Hughes’s contribution to aviation, his film-making with Hell’s Angels, the stunt work for the film, the engineering for the planes used in the film? His continually modifying them, his building planes, his perfectionism, his breaking records, his flight around the world, the dream for building the Constellation, for the Hercules? The end of the film and his focusing on jet flight?
8. The prologue, his mother, washing him, spelling ‘quarantine’, her talk about disease, wanting to protect him? The memories of this scene, the psychological influence of his mother, protection, cleanliness, illness and disease, threats? The repetition of the scene at the end and his declaring his ambitions to be wealthy, fly planes, make films?
9. The issues of health, his growing fastidiousness, specks, obsession with washing his hands, doorknobs, looking at meat and finding them distasteful, drinking milk? This leading to his seclusion, burning his clothes, beard growing, nails growing, the milk bottles, the urine bottles? His coming out for the Washington hearings? His finally not coming out of his seclusion in his real life?
10. The title, the focus on planes, World War One and the dogfights, the need to see the plane’s speed and the visuals of clouds? The 20s and travel, the 30s and building new planes, continuing speed, his testing planes, his knowledge, perfectionism, examining everything to rivets? The character of his assistant, relying on him, his continually supporting him over the decades? Sharing finally in the success of the Hercules? His own exasperation, his loyalty? Hughes working out mathematics in his head? The meeting with the designer of the Constellation, the planning of the Hercules, his first test and crashing in the field, the second test and his crashing in the houses, the visuals of this crash, people’s homes, fright, the fire, the burns and his suffering, hospitalisation? The conflict with Juan Rippe, with Pan Am, the establishing of TWA and wanting it as a competitor to Pan Am, the political implications in the postwar world, monopolies? His finally flying the Hercules? Dreaming of jets?
11. Hughes as a person, the basis of his wealth, Texas background, Houston? His attitudes towards his wealth, spending his money? The opening sequences and the spending of millions on Hell’s Angels, meticulous re-creation of the scenes, having the pilots waiting, speed, the professor and his wanting clouds, eight months passing? The premiere of the film, the party, his seeing The Jazz Singer, wanting to re-edit the film for sound and remake it? The range of people who worked with him, building the planes, editing the films…? The media comments and criticism, the mockery? His wanting to do everything instantly? The final premiere of the film, his pulling a face during the screening, accompanying Jean Harlow, his laconic interviews with the press, the acclaim? The importance of his deafness, Katherine Hepburn pointing it out, the scenes of his not hearing, his finally admitting it?
12. Noah Dietrich, his character, the discussions about work, Hughes hiring him, his continued advice, relying on him for all business aspects? The others who relied on him, Oty, Jack and the building up of TWA, the constructors, the designers? The professor, his being bought, his assisting at the hearings about The Outlaw, his being on the Hercules at the end? His pushy agent, the issue of trying to borrow the cameras from MGM?
13. His relationships with women, his chatting up the cigarette girl, his style, young girls, actresses? His attitudes towards the actresses – that they were only movie stars? Gentle, the playboy, his being hurt?
14. Cate Blanchett’s portrait of Katherine Hepburn, the impersonation of her talk, walk, clothes, attitudes? The scene with Cary Grant and George Cukor? Playing golf with Hughes, going out, their talk, her forthrightness and attitudes, the kiss, the meal and the meeting with Errol Flynn, the insults to Hughes, her going flying with him? The affair, living with him for so many years, their being together and suitable for each other, the issue of fame, her seeking publicity, his shunning it? Her ego at the premiere of The Women, talking with Louis B. Mayer, neglecting Hughes, apologising? Taking him to see her parents, the snobbery, the discussion at table, her ex-husband, the photos, the parents and Hughes perceiving them as rude? His leaving? Her irritation at him answering the phone and neglecting her, the blunt leaving him, the relationship with Spencer Tracy, the photos, Hughes and the photographer and buying him off? Her later coming to his door in seclusion and thanking him?
15. Faith Domergue, her age, the audition, Hughes’s infatuation, going out with her, her eating and not knowing what was happening, plans for a film career, his neglecting her, her crashing the car when he was with Ava Gardner?
16. The portrait of Ava Gardner, her style, flirtatious, only wanting dinner with him, able to talk with him, Faith Domergue’s crashing the car? Her finally being able to transform him from his seclusion, dress him and groom him for his Washington hearings?
17. The film world, MGM and Louis B. Mayer and the mockery, not lending the cameras? Sets for films, stars, premieres? Hell’s Angels, Scarface and its violence, Breen and his motion picture code, the hearing about The Outlaw, Jane Russell and the cantilever, the scenes being shown, his watching them in seclusion? The hearing about Jane Russell’s mammaries, the professor measuring, the photos of the other stars, the watching over and over of The Outlaw?
18. Juan Rippe and his attitudes, building up Pan Am, the rivalry with Hughes, spying on him, the influence of Senator Brewster, the writing of the legislation? His going to Hughes’s door, their dialogue, failure for compromise? His watching the hearings, the issues of monopoly, his being defeated?
19. The political background of World War Two, the postwar world, flight monopolies, Senator Brewster, his relationship with Rippe, his discussions, the legislation, his wanting to be the head of the hearing? The visit of Hughes, the verbal sparring, the meal, the fish, the picture of the llama, Hughes’s shrewdness in seeing that Brewster had been bought? His refusal to do a deal, not wanting to go to the hearings? His change of heart, coming out, his strong speeches, the expose of Rippe’s relationship with Brewster, his besting Brewster in the talks, his walking out, people’s applause?
20. The success of Hughes, yet his becoming paranoid, seeing things, the sequences of his looking suspiciously at people, his growing fastidiousness, seclusion and the image of the future?
21. His character, the capitalist, the American dream, the work ethic, his wanting his privacy, his using his own money – and his defence of his use of money and his effort with the war planes and their not being used, the Hercules, his final success? The film as a tribute to his risks and daring?