Film Reviews

THE AVIATOR

By • Dec 25th, 2004 •

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Miramax Films / 170 minutes

QUOTE: Fantastic! DiCaprio channels Hughes. Scorsese finally breathes life into his muse.

It’s “Blame The Mother” month. ALEXANDER had Queen Olympias gnawing at him in her snake-adorned bedroom; Young Hughes had his mother – on her knees before the standing boy – inappropriately sponge bathing him while talking about germs.

(FINDING NEVERLAND’S J.M. Barrie’s parents were cleared of any wrongdoing while Alfred Kinsey’s father was a bully.)

With the kind of germ phobia Howard Hughes suffered from, how did he ever have sex with women?

Because it is very clear from THE AVIATOR that Howard Hughes was a stud! He had underage starlets stashed all over Hollywood. He romanced the most desirable women in film – but did he have sex with them?

There were other rumors about Hughes that have now made it into an explosive new book, “Howard Hughes: The Secret Life” by Charles Higham. It is called “a feast of scandal.” Apparently, Higham has unearthed facts regarding Hughes’s long-whispered bisexuality with several male movie stars, including Cary Grant and Tyrone Power. There was also a heavy sadomasochistic affair with movie star Linda Darnell. And those blood transfusions? Could they have brought on an AIDS-related death?

With the kind of germ phobia Howard Hughes had, how did he ever have sex with men?

After Martin Scorsese’s 2002 GANGS OF NEW YORK starring Leonardo DiCaprio, I was honestly worried about their teaming up for a biopic on the very complicated Howard Hughes. Would DiCaprio have what it takes to follow Scorsese’s former protégé and alterego Robert De Niro’s trailblazing path?

THE AVIATOR marks the return of Martin Scorsese. DiCaprio is terrific.

Apparently, extreme germ phobia is a slow moving affliction. After opening with the disquieting scene of a young Hughes bathed by his mom, we fast forward to a young, vibrant Howard Hughes (DiCaprio). He’s fantastically wealthy, having inherited a 75% interest in his father’s Texas-based business, Hughes Tool Co.

While Hughes has a lust for airplanes, he is enthralled with making a movie, “Hell’s Angels.” This four million dollar aviation epic took him three years to finish. He also likes publicly dating famous women and starts living with movie star Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). When Hepburn meets actor Spencer Tracy and leaves him, Hughes takes up with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), who refuses to accept his extravagant gifts. Ava dumps him when she finds out he is having her tailed, the house is bugged, and her telephone conversations are being transcribed. Yet, when Hughes needs her she is there for him. By this time, everyone in Hollywood and aviation knows about Hughes’s peculiar foibles.

Upon seeing his filthy, boarded up mansion, Ava says to Hughes: “I like what you’ve done to the place.”

Hughes has time for flying, building fast planes, creating TWA, hiring indulgent right-hand man Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), and causing rival PanAm owner Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) to become obsessed with him. Trippe lets us peek in on the nastiness of corporate business by telling his men to follow-up on all the rumors he has heard about Hughes.

It is Hughes’s horrific plane crash that sends his obsessive-compulsive disorder reeling out of control. He is horribly burned and disfigured. Dietrich has the best line of dialogue here. When the doctor tells him that they used their stock supply of blood for Hughes’s transfusion, Dietrich replies: ”Oh, Mr. Hughes is not going to like that.”

The audience loved it. This is clever screenwriting.

The screenplay by John Logan, and Scorsese’s deft direction, gives us all the subtle clues (okay, there is no wink to a Cary Grant assignation) to Hughes’s mental deterioration without going into what his chief officers did to help him. It appears that all anyone did was indulge Hughes’s every whim.

Hughes takes to his screening room, gets naked, and litters the place with Kleenex and bottles of urine [Fun fact: Hughes stored his urine in large glass bottles, each carefully labeled and dated, in a garage near his home. As the number of “volumes” in his collection increased, he employed an assistant whose sole responsibility was to count and watch over them]. When Hughes finally decides to open the screening room door, his employees are shocked to actually see him for the first time. They are all walking around with white gloves on.

Ah, the things one can do when you have hundreds of millions of dollars.

Trippe wants TWA and gets his flunky, Senator Ralph Brewster (Alan Alda), to hold hearings on Hughes’s war profiteering. Remarkably, Hughes is able to travel to Washington, D.C. and appear perfectly normal for several days of testimony. How was this masterful feat achieved?

Apparently, Hughes went in and out of craziness while the ever-patient Dietrich handled his empire. The film ends with Hughes thinking about moving to the desert – Las Vegas.

Even though rock star Gwen Stefani – with a mere two lines of dialogue – has gotten the most press, Alan Alda is brilliant. At least Jude Law boldly admits he has only one brief scene as a fist-flying Errol Flynn. As I said, Reilly knows when he has the best line in the film. Blanchett dazzles in a tough role since Hepburn was not as likable as her iconic image. Scorsese can get great performances out of supporting actors. Everyone does an outstanding job, especially DiCaprio. As Hughes ages, DiCaprio grows with the role and you can see the emotional strains taking hold.

The entire production is breathtaking in detail. While I would have preferred Logan delve even deeper into the complexity of Hughes’s mental state on himself and those who suffered with him for a paycheck, THE AVIATOR covers a great deal of ground and leads us right up to a fascinating man’s cruel decline.


A RELATED REVIEW BY GLEN ANDRIEV

HELL’S ANGELS (Universal) 1930. 2 hrs. 11 mins. B&W with color.

Produced and Directed by Howard Hughes
Co-directed by Edmund Goulding (uncredited)
Dialog scenes staged by James Whale
Written by Joseph Moncure March
Cast: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow

In Martin Scorsese’s newest film, THE AVIATOR, we witness three burning passions that guided a young Howard Hughes: flying, beautiful starlets and film-making. With the DVD release of HELL’S ANGELS, the epic war film Hughes made in 1930, we see those passions first-hand.
HELLS ANGELS follows the aerial adventures of Roy and Monte Rutledge, two Oxford students who enlist into England’s Royal Flying Corp at the start of World War I. After sharing a few death-defying adventures, as well as sharing the same sexy volunteer, Helen, Roy and Monte are called upon to lead a dangerous air attack against the Germans.
Hughes is credited as this epic’s sole director, but he had assistance from skilled directors like Edmund Goulding (GRAND HOTEL), horror maestro James Whale and action film pioneer Howard Hawks. It would be fascinating to know who were the creative forces behind some of this film’s amazingly visual moments.
These moments include a nighttime zeppelin battle that has truly eerie and suspenseful images. During a climatic air battle, vast wide shots of battling planes are intercut with scenes where the camera stays with screaming and bleeding pilots spiraling into tailspins. These scenes make HELL’S ANGELS a DVD keeper.
The Rutledge boys tend to drag the film. Ben Lyon, as Monte, overacts at times, you would think he’s doing a parody of old-fashioned acting. James Hall, as Roy, is too bland and cheerless. One wonders why the sexually charged Helen attaches herself to him. 19 year old Jean Harlow plays Helen with energy and spunk. It’s appropriate she makes her grand entrance during this films’ soft pastel eight minute two-tone Technicolor sequence (By the way, this is the only time Harlow appeared in a color film.)
The other stars of the film are the war planes themselves. Hughes flavors HELLS ANGELS with tidbits of aeronautic info, such as how to control a crashing plane, or how to boost a zeppelin to gain speed, and more.

In 1930, Hughes produced three amazing films, this one, THE FRONT
PAGE (directed with hyperactive zip by Lewis Milestone) and SCARFACE
(with Howard Hawks as director. I prefer the Hawks/Hughes SCARFACE
over the Pacino remake.) As Hughes conquered other businesses, built his
empire, and perfected his phobias, his film legacy wobbled. His later films,
like THE OUTLAW (1943, with Jane Russell in a bra based on egg-head engineering) and VENDETTA (1950, with one of his last discoveries, Faith Domergue) lacked the energy found in HELL’S ANGELS.

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