While not quite as prolific as Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes’ life has yielded a few biopics over time. I gave my thoughts on Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal in The Amazing Howard Hughes in 2012 (in a nutshell, it wasn’t that amazing), while Larry Buchanan’s Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell continues to elude to me (and that’s probably a good thing!). It was only a matter of time before I tackled the big-budget look at Hughes life – although there are rumors Warren Beatty is close to tackling Hughes life for himself. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator was a passion project for him, winning five Oscars back in 2005 and cementing its status as the de factor take on the eccentric billionaire. Is the praise warranted? Let’s find out.
Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a successful multimillionaire who yearns to conquer Hollywood, the skies, and beyond. Unfortunately, his mental eccentricities threaten to derail his burgeoning empire.
Back in 2004, The Aviator was an intriguing enigma. Scorsese, best known for his gangster films, was turning away from guns and blood to a full-scale epic examination of a figure many people had forgotten about. Although he’d made serious dramas before, like The Age of Innocence, this was a bit of a gamble. Furthermore, he was cementing the bond with leading man DiCaprio, working with him for the second time after Gangs of New York. (The two have gone on to make another three films together.)
Scorsese reveres classic film. He’s done successful work archiving feature films, and he certainly does his part to hearken back to early cinema with The Aviator, right down to recreating Cinecolor and two-strip Technicolor. Look at the color of the grass when Howard and Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett in her Oscar-winning role) play golf, or Howard’s food in the nightclub. The lush, yet muted greens and almost garish backgrounds hearken back to those earlier styles of color treatment. Everything about the movie looks expensive, opulent, and of the period. The various nightclub scenes, the Hollywood premieres, the aerial shooting during Hughes flights, even the houses of the characters ensconces you in the time period. Say what you will about the quality of the movie, Scorsese frosts everything with grandeur.
Now, in comparison to The Amazing Howard Hughes, The Aviator takes an all-encompassing look at Hughes’ life. We touch briefly on his childhood in the opening – spelling “Quarantine” and setting up his fear of germs – and jump immediately into his filming of Hell’s Angels. From there, the movie vacillates between Howard Hughes: Hollywood mogul and Hughes: the aviator, taking time to examine Hughes relationship with several Hollywood leading ladies as well as his issues with Pan Am founder Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). With a near three-hour runtime, there’s plenty of room for events to unfold, even if Scorsese seems to be juggling a lot. Your overall enjoyment of the film really stems from which Hughes you’re the most interested in. Personally, the Hollywood elements of the movie play better than the business side and the later moments of Hughes’ descent into madness. While these scenes are good, John Logan’s script gives the actors a lot to chew on, they just don’t have the pizzazz of the Hollywood moments.
This also stems from how good the actors picked to play Hollywood’s hoi polloi truly are. As mentioned previously, Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn, Hughes’ one-time paramour. I’ve read several biographies on Hughes and, oddly enough, none of them talk extensively about the Hepburn/Hughes romance. Scorsese and Logan play up their romance as one of Hughes’ biggest regrets. Whether that’s true or not, DiCaprio and Blanchett work famously with each other. Blanchett did her homework, taking on Hepburn’s accent and mannerisms. Instead of her just being the Hollywood arm candy, we watch her struggle in the light of being labeled “box office poison,” working the room and giving Hughes a self-esteem slap because he isn’t into schmoozing. It’s a performance that the other stars fail to live up to, particularly Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner. Unfortunately, Blanchett’s characterization is so spot-on, and the script has more to give her, that Beckinsale does little more than poof up her hair. Gardner didn’t have a particular accent like Hepburn, so the script seemingly doesn’t know anyway to make her stand apart. When a big star like Beckinsale is outshined by Kelli Garner, playing B-movie starlet Faith Domergue, the script isn’t interested in you.
There’s a few other celebrity cameos that don’t really come through, particularly Jude Law as Errol Flynn and Gwen Stefani as blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow. These two come off as pure stunt casting, brought into the film because of their accent (Law) or hair color (Stefani). They’re reduced to one identifying trait and then quickly dropped. Jude Law’s big sequence has him talking about partying with women and getting into a fight, because apparently that’s all Flynn was known for. It couldn’t have been more salacious than if he showed up with two high-schoolers on each arm. Stefani is limited to one line and, again, was cast purely because her hair’s so blonde. The sad thing is these are moments of pure laziness on the script’s part. When everything else looks so beautiful, and the script takes the time to delve into everyone else, the stunt casting sticks out like a sore thumb.
Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for an Oscar, that continues to elude him to this day, and while the eccentricities Hughes was best known for are displayed – the repeating words, the obsessive cleaning – they’re never ramped up to the point of being silly. They’re elements of his personality he tries his damndest to control in public, for fear of being labeled strange or unreliable. When he attends a lunch with Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), Brewster plays on Hughes’ fears by putting fingerprints on his glass and cooking fish with the head still on it. Brewster attacks Hughes by exploiting his weaknesses, and DiCaprio harnesses the disgust the character would feel, showing the audience his struggles to maintain normality. In terms of looks, there’s little differentiating the costuming here from Tommy Lee Jones in Amazing Howard Hughes (both require a pencil mustache and dark hair), although I think the script gives DiCaprio more complex emotions to work with than Jones did. The flying scenes are where DiCaprio gets to show his intensity, particularly in the terrifying crash sequence that nearly killed Hughes.
The Aviator won’t please everyone due to the two distinct halves of Hollywood and aviator. DiCaprio and Blanchett are great, as well as the smaller character actors like Danny Huston and Adam Scott (Adam Scott rocking a Clark Gable mustache is a must-see in itself!). The stunt casting is painfully apparent in certain instances, and Kate Beckinsale gets little intriguing material to work with. If you haven’t watched Scorsese’s tribute to classic Hollywood, give it a go.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.