That Reprehensible Man and His Flying Machine

If ever a man lived the darkside of American success, it was Howard Hughes. Inventive, fabulously wealthy and addicted beyond reason to risk, Hughes was a pioneer of our two most glamorous industries, film and flying. He was an ambiguous public hero, a private monster and, finally, a sad case, which makes him a natural subject for the movies. Yet while Hughes has popped up as a character in other people's fictions—in Max Ophls' Caught, in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, as Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons and in Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard—until now no one has been able to bring a feature about Hughes to fruition. On paper at least, Hughes is a perfect match for Martin Scorsese, whose love affair with larger-than-life American deviants continues to fuel his career, albeit with diminishing returns. Scorsese was hired to direct The Aviator by its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, and by producer Michael Mann, who is not known for tiptoeing around a subject. Yet the movie is, if not exactly chipper, then maddeningly circumspect about a man who treated almost everyone he came into contact with horribly and ended his life naked, filthy and barking mad.

At nearly three hours long, this lavish period spectacle gives great airplane and Hollywood revelry, but pays no more than lip service to what drove the tortured inner world of a tycoon whose gift for unhappiness made William Randolph Hearst look downright jolly. Scorsese and his screenwriter, John Logan, have chopped off Hughes' life at its most dramatic watershed, when he began his downhill slide into reclusive paranoia and drug dependency. After Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis and The Last Samurai, Logan seems an odd choice for a story as pregnant with contradictions as Hughes'. The Aviator spans the two decades between 1927 and 1947, during which Hughes inherited a vast fortune from his father's power-drill patent and spent great chunks of it on making his most acclaimed (Hell's Angels) and reviled (The Outlaw) movies. He also bought and all but bankrupted RKO Radio Pictures, frittered away millions on casinos and hotels in Las Vegas, built and flew the world's biggest airplanes, and, through his airline company TWA, propelled the aviation industry into the jet age.

Like many of Scorsese's movies over the last decade, The Aviator is a triumph of production design, as cold and blue as DiCaprio's eyes. Decked out to look like a Hollywood picture of the interwar period, the movie offers spectacular set pieces of Hughes carousing at the glamorous Cocoanut Grove, of the making of famous dogfight scenes in Hell's Angels and, most of all, of Hughes' erotic fingering of the gleaming lines of his planes, the only true loves of his life. As a character study, though, The Aviator is downright squeamish, skimming only the more palatable facts from the several informative biographies that exist of this increasingly secretive and paranoid man.

By almost any measure Hughes had a malign childhood. His parents were strict and overprotective, and it seems likely that he was seduced by a beloved uncle. The movie skates over his early years with a brief introductory moment in which Hughes' mother, as neurotic and racist a germophobe as her son would later become, cups seven-year-old Howard's face between her delicate hands and hisses into his ear, “You're not safe.” It takes more than this to ruin a child: we never learn what shaped Hughes into the man he became—glamorous and charming, but also cold, manipulative and cruel, especially to the countless women and men he slept with—or into the ill-concealed anti-Semitism that proved less than an asset around the predominantly Jewish studio heads. Watching DiCaprio's capable, if vapid and dainty, reading of Hughes, I kept thinking how much more of a dynamic show we'd have gotten from Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell or, better still, the seasoned David Strathairn, who would surely have given Hughes his dark due. DiCaprio renders Hughes as little more than a galloping case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, furrowing his brow, scrubbing his hands and desperately struggling to control his repetitive tics. The movie glides tactfully over his bisexuality, now proven, though Charles Higham's hastily written and mostly hostile biography of Hughes improbably has him running into “darkly handsome” young men every few pages. Instead, this compulsively unfaithful huckster—like many rakes, he was at best average in bed—is painted as no more than a naughty boy in his relationships with Katharine Hepburn (a merely imitative Cate Blanchett, horsy and cursing, “Hot dawg!”) and Ava Gardner (crisply played by Kate Beckinsale), both of whom remained his friends when the affairs had run their course.

The Aviator warms up in its last hour as Hughes begins to lose it, rerunning Ava Gardner movies while sprawled naked in his red-paneled screening room with milk bottles of urine lined up in neat rows, while friends and employees try in vain to coax him out. Desperate to retool Hughes as a great American hero, Scorsese ends the movie with a victorious rebound in which he outmaneuvers a U.S. senator (Alan Alda) who's on the take from rival airline Pan Am, and sends his gargantuan, beautiful, ridiculous flying boat, the Spruce Goose, on its first and last flight out of Long Beach Harbor.

How perverse is it to giveHoward Hughes an upbeat ending? That he was a visionary is certain, but he was also a captain of crooked industry, a faithless lover and friend who ended his life a broken man. Scorsese seems not to want to face up to this, or what it says about the American way of doing business and taking pleasure. For all his wealth and power, Hughes was a walking tragedy, and there's more insight than any biopic can handle in Demme's wonderfully sweet and goofy Melvin and Howard, which takes far more liberties—and achieves a larger truth—with a fact-based incident that occurred at the nadir of Hughes' life. Wild-eyed and bearded as Nick Nolte on a bad day, Hughes, played by Jason Robards, is picked up and treated kindly by a truck driver, who subsequently finds himself a joint beneficiary of Hughes' vast fortune in a will discovered in Salt Lake City after his death. In real life, the will was thrown out of court, but Demme, with saving humor and compassion, seizes on the encounter to throw the whole question of American winners and losers up in the air and watch it fall to the ground in smithereens. All his life, Hughes seems to have felt like a loser in winner's clothing. In leaving him a winner, Scorsese may be acting like a true American, but he's not necessarily acting as a true artist.

THE AVIATOR was Directed by MARTIN SCORSESE; Written by JOHN LOGAN; Produced by LEONARDO DiCAPRIO, MICHAEL MANN, SANDY CLIMAN, GRAHAM KING and CHARLES EVANS JR.; and stars DiCAPRIO. now playing at Edwards Newport, Newport Beach; Edwards “Big One” Megaplex, Irvine.

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