I don’t know why I was so fascinated by Howard Hughes at such a young age, but the name must have kept creeping into popular media I just so happened to come across as I was growing up. From character reflections on Hughes in Diamonds Are Forever, to adverts on television punning a man afraid of germs (that he had to be escorted by men in suits everywhere) to actually portrayals of the man in films like the Rocketeer. He was a familiar figure for me in history – so news that a biopic was in the works from one of my favourite directors; Michael Mann had me spinning with joy.
Of course as you may know – Mann decided not to direct and handed the project over to Martin Scorsese (Mann produced instead). I was a little disappointed, and yet Scorsese is hardly a man to balk at. So I remained enthusiastic. Even when DiCaprio (and not the rumoured Johnny Depp) was cast I remained onboard – ready for this one to take flight. And oh my did it take flight.
The Aviator is perhaps solely responsible for making me turn 180 degrees on my opinion of Leonardo DiCaprio. Before this I had had to endure such calamities (in my opinion) as Romeo and Juliet and yes that big boat movie. Each with an annoyingly squeaky voiced DiCaprio grating my nerves along the way. Every now and again a skinny, but good looking actor will come along to test your nerves. They perhaps try to act out of their league either by taking on a role that demands an older more mature voice and face (Ellen Page in Juno?). I think in my youth I revolted against the likes of Brad Pitt until Seven came along. Perhaps today it is Zac Efron who elicited a similar response from me until I saw Me and Orson Welles. DiCaprio was that person in the mid to late 90’s. Even the decent films he was in like The Basketball Diaries; The Quick and the Dead and even What’s Eating Gilbert Grape bugged me. There were also films that justified my opinion (The Man in the Iron Mask). Then at the turn of the century he started to work with Martin Scorsese.
But although I started to register he was taking on a plethora of roles and interested in doing serious work (however far-fetched the idea) – I remain “not” a fan of Gangs of New York. So as much as I was still excited about The Aviator – it could all very easily go wrong for me.
The best way I can sum up my turn as I watched this film was in a scene well into the 2 ½ plus hours running time. It occurs when Hughes is having dinner with Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). In a prelude to the scene we see that Brewster is fully aware of Hughes struggle with germs as he places a very visible thumb print on Hughes’ drinking glass. During the meal, Brewster we can see observing Hughes reaction with full on smug. Hughes has to battles his own internal demons at this very moment in order to preserve his decorum and, despite recognising the issues on the table in front of him, holds his own in order not to lose this personal battle between him and the Senator. The genius of the scene though however is the aftermath when Hughes collapses into a sweat induced quivering wreck of a man as he exits the lunch. It’s a wonderful moment and one that adds credence to DiCaprio’s ability as a mature actor.
Cate Blanchet may have run off with an Academy Award for her role as Katherine Hepburn, but I was perhaps more interested in Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardener. It isn’t as fleshed out a role, but like with DiCaprio- it affirmed to me that she can be appealing as an actress when she is in the right dramatic role.
Both female roles are in for support of the Hughes character – mainly in how he differs from the rest of the world and how these women come to aide or fail him when he needs support. Hepburn makes for a good foil, but ultimately cannot help him as he spirals out of control. But Hughes is ever in support of her – even long after she has begun her affair with Spencer Tracey. Gardener on the other hand who has refused all of Howard’s advances is the one to clean him up and make him see sense long enough to get cleaned up and face his persecutors in court.
There are many other character actors who crop up in the film, but it is DiCaprio’s movie. Each character he has to face represents an issue for him either in advancing his genius, his films, or causing issues for him personally.
Another great character based scene is when he goes to the Hepburn home and has to endure a table full of rich sycophants, whom he in the end has to simply have it out with in the end. If a bit contrived, it really gets you on Hughes’ side (despite him being reclusive and rich himself. And especially when you consider he has fired a janitor for looking at him the wrong way). So it’s a balance that is swayed back and forth.
As for Hughes affliction, DiCaprio gets across the urge to repeat the same words over and over again as a compulsion very well. You can see the character breaking down and at the point of gritting his own teeth to survive having one of these anxiety attacks.
All of these relationships and personal demons are what make the man all the more fascinating to us. These all lie under the surface of a tale of an extraordinary man who made strong advances in the aviation business, broke records, fought off competitors and even made strong contributions to the world of film. All of this alone would have made for an entertaining watch. But with all of the shady areas in Hughes life touched upon it makes the story all the more tragic for the man.
I am thankful more over not just for delivering a story I was hoping for that met expectations, but also for turning me onto an actor who has since delivered time and time again in some terrific roles, and he’s only just getting going. This was the second (out of four so far) film outing for DiCaprio and Scorsese. Fingers crossed they continue down this path together from time to time.