THE AVIATOR (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Martin Scorsese’s directorial contributions to American cinema are dubious; his films, including Mean Streets (1973) and Raging Bull (1980), are shallow, structurally deficient, mean-spirited—for instance, misogynistic. The charm of Scorsese the tireless advocate for good cinema is hard to reconcile with the god-awful movies he has mostly made. (Robert De Niro, Sarah Bernhard and Jerry Lewis help lift up 1983’s The King of Comedy, though, and the 1997 Kundun is visually entrancing.)

The Aviator, about Howard Hughes as a young man, is easily one of the best things Scorsese has done—a colorful, at turns thrilling account of one of the most intriguing figures in American history, a man of mythic proportions. But Scorsese’s film stops short of the time when Hughes ran RKO Radio Pictures into the ground, aggressively wielded rather than nervously acquiesced to the Hollywood blacklist at RKO, supported fascistic dictators elsewhere (such as Batista in Cuba and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic) and right-wing causes at home; and the film, at best, only hints at the dirty, drug-addicted recluse that the billionaire eventually would become.

Indeed, following John Logan’s sanitizing script, the Howard Hughes that the film shows is a clean-freak, a victim of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), with an attention to detail that, early on, actually assists him in business, but who ends up in something of a fog (for which his partial deafness becomes a metaphor) where he compulsively repeats phrases as though clinging to a security blanket as he dips in and out of extreme paranoia. Young Howard Hughes can’t stand messiness, and his career as an aircraft designer and a record-busting pilot-adventurer, it is implied, is grounded in his impulse to transcend the messiness he identifies with Earth.

The film opens beautifully. In Houston, Texas, the eight-year-old Howard stands naked in a dark room. His (s)mother is instructing him about the danger of germs as she lovingly bathes him. She has a point. It is 1913, at the time of a cholera epidemic. In truth, though, Howard’s mother is seizing an opportunity to express a bone-deep fear and disorder. This prologue is brilliant; it introduces one of the film’s essential themes, to wit, the ways in which Hughes, like his mother had done with her own demons, will manipulate his environment in order to hide from view the darkness inside him. In time, as Hughes’s grip on reality further loosens, others—“enablers”—will assist him in this activity. (This is the role that Noah Dietrich, who works for Hughes in business, will primarily fill.) Of course, there is a difference in motivation. Hughes’s closeting of his demons represents a desperate attempt on his part to negotiate reality—to “fly above the weather,” to use the stunning metaphor that Logan and Scorsese supply, referring to one of the visionary Hughes’s ideas for expanding the attractiveness of passenger flight by smoothing the transport. But when others try to hide Hughes’s demons from public view, they are (however misguidedly) motivated by affection for the man. Perhaps Scorsese would have been even more alert had he arranged for a more complex motive, one including an element of self-interest, since the fortunes of others proceeded from Hughes’s fortunes. Regardless, Scorsese can be acquitted of the charge of sentimentality because he is, however imperfectly, analyzing sentimentality; he is showing, with an astuteness of which I did not think him capable, the utter helplessness that we feel when confronted with the mental illness of someone we care about. How often have we been able to credit Scorsese with working near the level of John Ford?

I am not going to defend other aspects of the film, which is largely routine and superficial (it reminded me several times of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 Tucker), and which promotes the false notion that Hughes directed, when he merely produced, Howard Hawks’s wonderful 1932 film Scarface. Most of Hughes’s playboy romances are scantily and unconvincingly rendered. Moreover, the central performance, by Leonardo DiCaprio, is lackluster, totally lacking the charisma that would have been necessary to draw the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner into his bed—charisma that the real Hughes had in spades. How sad: it was young DiCaprio who got this project going, so much did he want to portray Hughes; but his acting has yet to expand beyond the artificial level of his role on the television sitcom Growing Pains. He is an embarrassingly bad actor.

On the other hand, John C. Reilly is excellent as Noah Dietrich, Ian Holm is expert and hilarious as Hughes’s meteorologist, and Cate Blanchett, who won an Oscar, is dead-on as Hepburn, with whom Hughes had a long live-in love affair. Blanchett, looking gorgeous, offers something more than a mere impersonation of a famous celebrity; her Hepburn is a misfit coping with her own demons, and her Hepburn’s attempts to calm Hughes into a recognizably human relationship allow Hepburn to calm herself. (Hepburn hides her own demons by quieting his.) Early on, I was annoyed by Hepburn’s casual reference to her brother’s suicide; but the rest of Blanchett’s performance catches up with that note of flippancy, revealing a store of woundedness, perilous pride, pursuit of stability. This is how good Blanchett is: When she breaks up with him, Hepburn tells Hughes that they were too much alike for their relationship to prevail—and the comment sticks. Blanchett’s whole performance is predicated on the ways that Hepburn mirrors Hughes. Also, it permits us to realize that the actual Hepburn’s subsequent care of the alcoholic, bedeviled Spencer Tracy enabled her to cope with her demons without also requiring her to face the mirror with which Hughes had confronted her.

Perhaps DiCaprio fails to illuminate Hughes, but we learn something about him from the script and the direction. From Blanchett, who is normally one of my least favorite actresses, I expected to learn nothing about Hepburn, but learned a lot.

By the way, didn’t Kate play an aviatrix in Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933)?


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