Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
The Aviator

The name Howard Hughes conjures up two different icons. There's the vintage Hughes, circa the '30s and '40s—the eccentric and restless and handsome rich kid who loved women, airplanes and movies.

But that image has largely been replaced by the wretch he had turned into by the time of his death in 1976—the feeble, pathetic recluse imprisoned by a combination of his obsessive-compulsive fear of germs and of the staggering wealth which allowed this phobia to be fully indulged.

The story of his later years is like an awful 20th century variation on the Midas myth. Everything he touched turned to gold, but he couldn't bring himself to touch anything.

The Aviator follows the younger Hughes, starting—after a brief and troubling boyhood prologue which connects the hero's complexes to his mother—in the late '20s, when he's sinking years and millions into his epic WWI movie Hell's Angels, through to 1947, and the lone flight of his notorious, Brobdingnagian Spruce Goose airplane.

It was not, I must admit, a film for which I felt much enthusiasm going in, in part because of the director, Martin Scorsese, and in part because of the star, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Don't misunderstand—Scorsese is one of the great film artists of his generation, and his best movies are undisputed classics. But not much of his brilliance has shown up in his work of the last few years.

Always flamboyant, his style, especially in last year's deeply disappointing Gangs of New York, had grown increasingly chaotic and flashy and uninvolving. And while that delicate perennial boy DiCaprio is by no means without talent himself, he seemed laughably wrong for the role of Hughes, and maybe for any character older than, say, 18.

I'm delighted to have been wrong on both counts. The Aviator is Scorsese's best film since, probably, Goodfellas, and one of the most enjoyable epic-scale movies in years.

Here Scorsese, superbly abetted by cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, keeps his visual and narrative touch sinuous and unfussy and balanced.

There's nothing routine about the direction, but you don't have that exhausting sense that he's constantly trying to dazzle you. And despite his seemingly unshakable callowness, DiCaprio is strikingly good in the lead, holding the screen convincingly for the whole three hours.

Working from a solid script by John Logan, Scorsese uses the glamour and grandeur and technological whimsy of Hughes' heyday to counterpoint the essential poignancy of the story. Hughes was no less of a nutjob, by this film's account, when he was courting Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), or setting airspeed records, or crashing a spy plane prototype into Beverly Hills, or grandstanding at U.S. Senate hearings, or assigning industrial engineers the job of redesigning Jane Russell's bra.

He was just a slightly more functional—and more libidinous—nutjob, and the obsessive tendencies that would eventually debilitate him and drive him into seclusion were already plaguing him.

Along with DiCaprio's star turn, Scorsese gathered a team of first-rate character players to impersonate the various stars, starlets, cronies, yes-men and rivals who played supporting roles in Hughes' psychodrama.

Blanchett and Beckinsale, fine beauties both, can hardly be faulted for being unable to capture the goddessy allure of Hepburn and Gardner. Allowing for this near-inevitable shortfall, both do fine work, especially Blanchett.

Same goes for Gwen Stefani in the small role of Jean Harlow, though she doesn't resemble Harlow at all. John C. Reilly is reliable as ever as Hughes' long-suffering right-hand man. As Pan Am boss Juan Trippe and shameless Maine Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda both ham a little, and it brings the film an amusing level of smiling, unctuous corruption.

Whether Trippe and Brewtser were really the stage villains that they’re depicted as here, or indeed how close to accurate any of The Aviator is, I certainly can’t say. 

I couldn’t tell you the accuracy quotient of Taylor Hackford’s shapeless but smashingly acted Ray, or of Bill Condon’s touching, trenchant Kinsey, either.

But all of these films—they’re three of the year’s best—show that the biopic genre, however disreputable and untrustworthy it may be as history, still has plenty of power to entertain.