The famously reclusive and eccentric Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was born alone and died alone. It was the only two times in his life when he was no different from anyone else. For the rest of his life, Hughes was a rich young man from Texas (heir to his father’s fortune) who made movies, bought airlines, and dabbled as a playboy with many of Hollywood’s biggest beauties. Though also a hot shot pilot and junior movie mogul, Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorders left him a germaphobic hermit. It effectively sealed himself away from the world for the last two decades of his life. The Aviator — directed by Martin Scorsese — wisely focuses on the glory years of Mr. Hughes.
Scorcese excels at exploring characters in which he feels a deep personal resonance. He especially analyzes those who, like him, have often battled with their own demons. With help from writer John Logan (Gladiator) and cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK, Hugo), Scorcese finds excitement once again in a period setting. He effectively recreates the glamour he heard about from the time period of his adolescence.
The film achieves the difficult feat of following two intersecting story arcs. One arc showcases everything going right for Hughes. The other illustrates everything that goes horribly wrong. Leonardo DiCaprio is very convincing as the mogul. He’s able to show Hughes contained — and even trapped — within his secrets. As the film opens, Howard Hughes arrives in Los Angeles as a good looking kid with a whole lot of money. He plunges right into the world of movies by directing a World War I aviation adventure titled Hells Angels. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made. Scorcese and DiCaprio delight in these scenes as Hughes obsesses over every small detail involving the film’s production. These years in question provide Scorcese with an overabundance of material. Hughes also required the construction of a private air force for Hells Angels. His next film (The Outlaw) required the construction of a special bra for Jane Russell.
Given Scorsese’s infallible eye — abetted here by production designer Dante Ferreti and costumer designer Sandy Powell — the recreation of ’20s Hollywood is immaculate. As Hughes’s attention drifts from movies to airplanes, he begins designing and building aircrafts. This would eventually lead to him purchasing his own airline (TWA) in 1939. He broke the airspeed record, and set new marks for flying from New York to Paris (as well as for cycling the globe). In between mustering every ounce of his stylistic verve, Scorcese chronicles Hughes’ stormy relationships. Women were his for the asking, but he didn’t go for the easy kill. Jean Harlow (played by Gwen Stefani) was no pushover indeed. Ava Gardner (played by Kate Beckinsale) wouldn’t take gifts. During his relationship to Katharine Hepburn (played by the incredible Cate Blanchett), they both wore the pants in the relationship. Hepburn liked his sense of humor and his desire for adventure. She was thrilled when Hughes let her fly his planes. However, she often worried about him as his growing signs of eccentricity increased.
Special effects often enhance or drown a film, but Scorcese knows exactly how to use them. There is a sensational scene when Hughes crash lands in Beverly Hills. His plane’s wing was seen slicing through living room walls from the inside. He nearly dies. Much is also made of the “Spruce Goose,” the largest airplane ever built that Hughes is determined to get off the ground. This inspires Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) to charge in congressional hearings claiming Hughes was a war profiteer.
Hughes, already spiraling into madness, defeats Brewster on his own territory — vowing that the plane will fly. It ultimately does in a great CGI sequence that’s convincing as it awesome. By the end, the darkness is gathering around Hughes. He gets stuck on words and keeps repeating them. In one scene, he walks into a men’s restroom and is then too phobic about germs to touch the doorknob in order to leave. With all his power and wealth, he has to lurk behind a door until someone walks in as a means to sneak out without touching anything. Hughes’ friends and aides, especially his long time right hand man Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), try to protect him. Eventually, he falls into complete isolation and seclusion from the world. As the visual tone shifts to keep pace of the times, the pastel hues of the 20’s give way to the oversaturated Technicolor of the 40’s. Hughes himself transforms from a brazen young mogul into a twitchy, paranoid obsessive. Against the backdrop of failed relationships and a besieged empire, Hughes struggles to keep a grip on his failing sanity.
Despite the lush production of this film, the question of what exactly made this man tick is unanswered. When he’s pulled from the wreckage of his plane crash, the only words Hughes manages to get out are, “I’m Howard Hughes, the aviator.” We know precious little more than that. There’s a match here between the director and his subject — perhaps because the director’s life journey allows him to see Hughes with insight and sympathy.
The women in this film are also wonderfully cast. Blanchett is superb as Hepburn, who herself was so close to caricature that to play Hepburn accurately involved much risk. Her performance is delightful and incredibly touching. DiCaprio shines as Hughes. The performance dispels fear that he lacks the weight of an actor to carry such a complex and forceful role. He is subtle and incredibly intentional in a role where playing madness is a notorious invitation to overreact. What a sad man he was, and what brief glory he obtained. Nevertheless, the story of Mr. Howard Hughes is fascinating.
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