Comfortable and Furious

The Aviator

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by John Logan

– Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes
– Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn
– Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner
– John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich
– Alec Baldwin as Juan Trippe
– Alan Alda as Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster

Matt Cale likes what he saw…

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Euripides

While a large part of me mourns the loss of the more “personal” Scorsese from decades past, the transition has done nothing to diminish his storytelling ability, which is on full display in The Aviator. Grand, old-fashioned, and packed with a who’s-who of star cameos, this bio-pic of famed tycoon Howard Hughes lacks the signature style that has defined most of Scorsese’s career, but the film forges ahead with such confidence that at the very least, we are certain that a master craftsman is at the helm. Despite its 169-minute running time, it moves along with without ever getting sidetracked by unnecessary details, and I sat riveted throughout, never once believing that a bit of trimming could save the day. Working with long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (as always, one of the best), Scorsese has given us an epic with heart and brains, although many will complain that what we see is not the full story. And surely it isn’t, but Scorsese (and screenwriter John Logan) don’t risk biting off more than they can chew, preferring to concentrate on Hughes’ early days as a filmmaker and aviation innovator.

Despite the narrowed focus, we get plenty of drama, as the two decades of coverage are enough to encompass dozens of lives. Indeed, Scorsese once again brings to the screen the life of a troubled outsider (as much as a multi-millionaire can be an “outsider”), so we do understand what attracted the great one to this project. Cynics will see this is Marty’s last, best hope to secure an Oscar (not completely off base, in my opinion), but in all the best ways, the film springs from the belief that throughout history, individual desire and passion, far from leading to glory, often end in destruction.

What makes Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) such an interesting figure is that his madness (evident even before the truly dark days arrived) rarely compromised his talent or work ethic. As the film begins, we watch Hughes’ work on Hell’s Angels, a film that even today has cinema lovers amazed by its stunt work. At the time the most expensive film ever made, Hell’s Angels featured aviation acrobatics so dangerous that several pilots were killed during the lengthy shoot. Hughes exerted such tight control that after shooting wrapped, he decided to start fresh after believing that it would play better as a sound picture. In addition, he viewed rushes that didn’t bring out the breathtaking nature of the flying sequences (in a clear sky, the planes don’t appear to be moving that fast), so he waited months for clouds to appear and moved the production to Oakland.

Films about filmmaking always excite the cinephile in me, so I appreciated the decision to open The Aviator in this manner. Hughes is established as an obsessive control freak, but we believe in him because, well, it’s “the movies.” We instinctively understand doing anything for one’s art. The film angle also allows us to meet the greats of the era, including Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), who is just the sort of woman who can deal with an ego of Hughes’ magnitude. Their romance — one of the many highlights of the film — is a great deal of fun, mainly because Blanchett is so damned believable as the immortal Kate. She captures the essential woman; that undying self-confidence, the cool demeanor, and that heady approach to all of life’s challenges. As presented, there’s nothing she couldn’t handle. Except, of course, a man like Hughes, who eventually loses her to Spencer Tracy. In many ways, though, we know Hepburn holds out a great deal of affection for Hughes because of her innate attraction for men of action and will.

In addition to the work on Hell’s Angels, we hear about his work on 1943’s The Outlaw, a naughty western with Jane Russell (and her heaving bosom) that ran afoul of Hollywood’s prudish censors. While we’re always unsure whether Hughes’ fight was motivated by ego or genuine artistic inspiration, we do know that he remained at the center of controversy. It would be easy to believe that Hughes, having inherited a great deal of money, felt entitled to “try it all” (much in the same way that Michael Jordan gave baseball a shot), but that same wealth gave a rebel like Hughes a great deal of power, at least enough to challenge the status quo from time to time. He never really made a great film, and had dubious personal tastes (or obsessions, citing Ice Station Zebra as his favorite film), but he refused to accept labels. As the film shows us, he was never really a part of the filmmaking community (not even his millions could buy a few cameras from Louis B. Mayer), but Howard Hughes was not the sort of man who belonged anywhere. Despite that, he managed to bed many a starlet, including Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).

Filmmaking aside, the main thrust of the film concerns Hughes’ efforts in the aviation industry, from his contracts with the U.S. government to the legendary flight of “Hercules” (known to most as “The Spruce Goose”). At the center, though, is the battle between his upstart TWA and then-giant Pan Am, run by the slimy Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). Perhaps Scorsese stacks the deck at this point, for we are clearly meant to cheer the underdog Hughes against the monopolistic designs of Trippe (who also has an influential Senator in his pocket), although someone with Hughes’ wealth is, again, hardly a hand-to-mouth scrapper. Nevertheless, the bias of this film — which is one most thinking people can support — is that capitalists are hypocrites in that they fight for the spirit of competition, yet seek to eliminate that same competition at every turn. This might be the point of the free market, after all, but once government gets involved in taking sides, it becomes a rigged game.

And despite Hughes’ status as a rich man, he did seek to expose the corruption that keeps politicians in bed with industry. Fine, it was a self-serving fight and if Hughes could have owned that same Senator, it’s likely he would have, but you catch my meaning. Or perhaps you don’t. At the very least, Hughes helped kill a proposal that would have screwed airline passengers by providing no incentive for Pan Am to lower prices. Who knows, had that bill passed, there’s a chance commercial aviation would have been set back by being priced out of reach of the average citizen. Also, this clash of the titans provides great drama in the Senate chamber, where Hughes dukes it out with Maine’s Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). These scenes can often be cheesy (see The Majestic), but this one works.

While the film doesn’t extend to the Vegas days, we do get one particularly “mad” sequence where Hughes, troubled by his financial and airline woes, retreats to his screening room. Sporting a nappy beard, growing his hair out, letting his fingernails reach ugly lengths, and saving his urine in milk bottles placed neatly in a row, Hughes has clearly reached full dementia, although it never seems exploitive or voyeuristic. The beauty of the film is that Hughes’ madness (a form of OCD gone way, way overboard) is never fully explained, although we do get an opening shot where a young Hughes is bathed by his mother and warned that “you are never safe” from disease and dirt.

Obviously, this is a dramatic device to show probable cause, but to attribute his illness to momma’s suffocating chats is a gross oversimplification. Like many manic-depressives, Hughes had a creative streak a mile wide, but was simultaneously cursed with the inability to endure day-to-day life. Many biopics are faulted for only showing “the highlights,” but with someone like Hughes, we can believe it. This man would never be caught resting or wasting time. He might be off washing his hands until they bled while repeating the same phrase over and over, but he never stopped doing.

And that’s why we discuss Hughes to this day, but that’s also what has made him the source of endless jokes since his death. It’s not fair that Hughes is largely remembered for his retreat from sanity, but Americans have always loved a freak show. He was indeed a pioneer and a dreamer, but we’re more comfortable with some rich dude wasting away among used tissue boxes and newspaper-covered floors. The true, lasting spirit of Hughes is best captured when he visits the Connecticut estate of the Hepburn family, a truly snooty bunch who interrupt constantly and verbalize their boredom with Hughes’ vocation. After Kate’s mother says, “We don’t think about money here,” he shoots back, “That’s because you’ve always had it.”

Yes, Hughes owes his parents an enormous debt for the head start, but rather than gather dust, he put his money to work in ways that impacted millions of lives. His anger and sense of hurt might stem from insecurity, but he also recognized the rewards that extended beyond self. As he so rudely reminds Kate as they end their affair, “Remember, you’ll always be just an actress.” Kate had the strength to continue, of course, but no blow could have cut as deep. Yes, you’re articulate, witty, and charming, but never confuse what you do for anything truly important. And that seems to be what always troubled Hughes; it was always about “the future,” and as such, there would never be an end to the bitter fight.