Laura CliffordToday’s public remember Howard Hughes as germ-obsessed billionaire recluse and scraggly-haired, unwashed resident of the top floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas depicted in the 1980 film “Melvin and Howard.” But, in his early days he was wealthy owner of a tool manufacturing company, epic film producer/director and inventor of the half-cup bra. He also made another claim to fame when he received his pilot’s license and became “The Aviator.”
Martin Scorsese, for all of the sometimes-great films he has made over 3+ decades, has never won an Oscar, coming close several times but the golden boy with sword has always eluded him. He gives it another shot and may pull it off, finally, with his true-life tale of the formative adult years in the life of the world’s first billionaire.
The Aviator” begins in earnest with Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the thick of shooting his Great War air combat epic, “Hell’s Angels.” With the world’s largest private air force at his beck and call, the budding filmmaker took years, using dozens of cameras – even trying to borrow four from uber-producer Louis B. Mayer himself – making and remaking his famous film, the most expensive ever made at the time, costing nearly $4 million (remember,this was during the Depression). His immersion into all things airplane set Hughes’s ambitious life plans – to be the world’s richest man, biggest moviemaker, fasted flyer and best golfer. He succeeded in three of these endeavors and this is the meat of the film.
The story, by John Logan, covers the years from 1927, while making “Hell’s Angels,” to his famous flight of the largest airplane ever built, the Hercules flying boat disparagingly nicknamed the Spruce Goose. The intervening years are filled with movie stars such as Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Eva Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), Jean Harlow (Gwen Stephani) and Errol Flynn (Jude Law) and airplanes, lots of airplanes. The glamour notwithstanding, “The Aviator” is about flying and the planes that Howard Hughes help create and this is where Scorsese and company excel at recreating the past in an exciting, often sweaty-palmed way.
Leonardo DiCaprio really finds his métier with his performance as the eccentric Hughes. His boyish looks would seem to preclude his being able to depict the incredibly wealthy, larger-than life legend over a span some 20 years. But, the 30-year old actor owns the role, giving a relaxed, assured performance and, toward the end of the film, actually resembles Howard Hughes at times with his fedora and moustache.
As one would expect in a big-budget, star-strewn epic, there is an enormous supporting cast. Most notable, though not necessarily in a good way, is Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn. The actress does a dead-on impersonation of the legend and this is the problem – she is more a caricature than a character, making it obvious that Blanchett is acting the role rather than being the person. Conversely, Kate Beckinsale, as Eva Gardner, is glamorous and caring and comes across as Hughes’s friend and sometimes lover. She puts a likable spin on the character and gives the glam a glow. Gwen Stephani simply doesn’t look or act like Jean Harlow, despite the platinum blond locks, and only brings attention to this lack.
The rest of the cast is peopled with veteran thesps as historical figures surrounding the energetic genius of Hughes. Alec Baldwin gives a ruthless air to Juan Trippe, the president of Pan Am Airlines who will use any influence to block Howard’s attempt to compete against him when the toolmaker’s acquired TWA. Alan Alda, as Maine Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, plays the politically hard-nosed watchdog whose investigations into the Hughes government contracts smack of collusion with Trippe. The rest of the supporting cast help give dimension to the background.
As enjoyable as it is to see the stars and movers and shakers of the time bought to life it is the past-paced flying action that is the real draw. As expected in a film called “The Aviator,” the flying sequences are sublime, both in execution and editing. Hughes was a true daredevil of the skies, breaking speed records (some still stand) and bringing aviation to new levels. Several aerial set pieces – Hughes breaking the air speed record, the spy plane flight and crash, the Spruce Goose maiden (and only) flight – are beautifully rendered and, in every case, exciting.
The screenplay by John Logan captures the man, Hughes, and all of his strengths and weaknesses. Flashbacks to his childhood show how his mother’s own obsession with cleanliness would have a lasting affect on Howard as an adult. Hughes’s fixations are painstakingly shown in his quest for perfection: he spends years bringing his silent epic, “Hell’s Angels,” to the screen only to pull it from release and re-shoot the entire film to incorporate the advent of sound in moving pictures; his visionary efforts to bring aviation to every man, woman and child in America; Hughes’s vanity project to build the largest airplane ever. The billionaire’s daredevil persona is give full shrift, too, as he is the first to test his aviation creations – to near deadly results in one gut-wrenching scene.
Techs are noteworthy across the board from costume (Sandy Powell) and production design (veteran Dante Ferretti) to editing (Thelma Schoonmaker) and cinematography (Robert Richardson). Howard Shore score fits the epic nature of “The Aviator.”
Martin Scorsese and his talented cast and crew have created an epic tale of a real life prophet of flight that made tools, movies, airplanes and history. The story ends in 1947 but the events taking place up to then would resonate for decades after. I give “The Aviator” an A-.
Laura gives "The Aviator" an A-.
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