This year’s crop of prestige Oscar-bait pictures is turning the movie listings in your local newspaper into a vintage edition of Who’s Who in America.Biopics are all the rage this season, which is not necessarily good news for moviegoers hoping for a year-end fix of adventurous fare.Even a worthy effort like Kinsey can’t transcend the predictable rise-and-fall arc, while a shameless vanity project like Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin revival, Beyond the Sea, can make the skin crawl.
Martin Scorsese’s take on the life of Howard Hughes does not entirely avoid the pitfalls of the biopic genre, but it’s rarely less than entertaining, and sometimes downright exhilarating. Following up Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese continues the “eccentric epic” phase of his career, but although The Aviator is a smoother, sleeker ride, it never reaches the delirious (some would say delusional) heights of its predecessor.
While it’s tempting to contemplate what Gangs star Daniel Day-Lewis might have done with the role of Hughes and all its attendant quirks, it was Day-Lewis’s co-star Leonardo DiCaprio who originated the project and recruited Scorsese. The director in turn assembled an all-star supporting cast, including Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Jude Law, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda and Ian Holm.(Be advised that No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani’s much-ballyhooed motion picture debut as Jean Harlow barely amounts to a cameo.)
It makes sense that Scorsese would find his way into the Hughes story through the young entrepreneur’s turbulent turn as an obsessive filmmaker.After a brief prologue spotlighting young Howard’s relationship with his germ-phobic mother, we are plunged right into the making of Hell’s Angels, Hughes’ directorial debut.Having inherited a fortune from his father’s drill bit company, Hughes is free to pursue his twin passions for aviation and the movies, and his film-in-progress combines the two in spectacular fashion. With a veritable air force at his command, Hughes spares no expense and heeds no production schedule in assembling his World War I dogfighting picture.
Scorsese is having a bit of fun with his own reputation here as Hughes’ vision spirals out of control (after two years of production, the advent of talkies prompts Hughes to scrap most of his footage and re-shoot the picture with sound).Since he’s spending his own fortune on the epic, Hughes has to answer to no one – an aspect of the story that must have tickled the director still licking his wounds from his battles with Miramax over Gangs of New York.
Hell’s Angels is a big success, and Hughes becomes the toast of Hollywood, dating a succession of starlets.This is where the cast-of-thousands approach makes sense. Cameos by big-name stars can be a distraction, but they’re perfectly suited to the story of a man who suddenly finds himself in the midst of celebrity central.As it turns out, this is not a world Hughes can deal with for very long.
While dating Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett, walking the line between performance and parody), Hughes builds his aircraft empire and pursues his passion for flight, breaking speed records along the way.After a horrifying crash in the Hollywood Hills, however, the mogul retreats into seclusion and his obsessive-compulsive quirks become full-blown psychosis.
David Lynch was once described by Mel Brooks as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” and that phrase neatly sums up the approach DiCaprio takes here.His Hughes is lanky and twangy, but right from the beginning there’s something off-kilter about him. He’s simultaneously folksy and detached – not unpleasant company, but not really connecting with the people around him. DiCaprio doesn’t quite pull off the transition from eccentricity to madness, but neither does the movie.It’s as if the Howard Hughes of the future – the naked, scraggly hermit confined to his germ-free chamber atop Las Vegas – is transported 20 years back in time for a few scenes, just because that part of the story is too juicy to give up.
It’s a harrowing sequence, as the post-crash Hughes lets his hair and fingernails grow long, saves his urine in jars, watches movies over and over in the dark and speaks to associates only through closed doors, and DiCaprio conveys the anguish of a man fighting for his sanity.All of this is undercut by the scenes that follow, however, as Hughes miraculously pulls himself together to testify before a Senate committee in the rousing finale.
It’s not that The Aviator’s depiction of Hughes’ performance in the Senate hearings is inaccurate; indeed, it’s remarkably faithful to newsreel footage of the time. It’s simply hard to believe that Hughes could have already been as far gone as the movie suggests, or that he pulled himself together in the manner depicted here. Combined with the “triumphant” flight of the massive wooden aircraft known to Hughes as the Hercules and to his critics as the Spruce Goose, the effect is to end the movie on a (mostly) celebratory note that feels bogus.
Scorsese has brought the Hughes story to the screen with more flash than depth.His aerial sequences have vigor, his production design has panache, but his psychological foundation is fundamentally unsound.As The Aviator’s three hours breeze by, you can almost convince yourself you’re watching a story of the American Dream.It’s a fun ride, but aside from a few moments, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Scorsese is keeping the truest part of himself, the poet of the American Nightmare, under wraps.