Film — The Aviator (R)

The Aviator (R)

by Amy Diaz

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio bring glamour to crazy in The Aviator, the recounting of Howard Hughes’ movie-making, starlet-bedding, airplane-flying years.

Those years would be roughly the mid 1920s to the late 1940s, when Hughes lived his most extravagantly, or at least his most extravagantly while still living outside a sealed room. He dated Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Jean Harlow, among others. He made two movies — Hell’s Angels, which was almost pornographic in its display of aviation-related special effects, and The Outlaw, which was almost pornographic in its display of Jane Russell’s breasts. He flew a variety of planes, including two which he built for the US government. Both planes were of the excellent-idea, unsuccessful-execution variety — they got off the ground but never got into regular government use. He bought TWA and took on Pan-Am for a share of the trans-Atlantic travel market.

And, oh yes, he started to go crazy.

Exactly why Hughes (DiCaprio) went nuts is hinted at in the movie’s first scene where a childhood Howard is creepily bathed by his mother, who simultaneously warns him about the dangers — especially from germs — that lurk everywhere. Skip forward some dozen years and Hughes is orphaned, rich and a bundle of nervous energy. Some of it he pours into his (at the time) outlandishly expensive Hell’s Angels, some of it he uses to put the moves on the better-looking girls of Golden Age Hollywood and some of it manifests in nervous tics and strange habits (such as an anxiety-brought-on urge to wash).

Luckily, in the early years, the stranger parts of Hughes’ behavior are hidden. Thusly, he beds Harlow (Gwen Stefani) and begins an obsession with building a fast, completely aerodynamic plane. Both interests seem to take a back seat with the appearance of Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). As brusque and twittery as Hughes, Hepburn seems to understand Hughes — both his faults and his drives. But she can’t take the fame he acquires for his aeronautical achievements during one of her career low points and leaves him for Spencer Tracy. He soon takes up with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), but with the knowledge that she has no intention to be either faithful or around for very long.

And then there is his fight for the skies. As daring about airplanes as he is about sex and movies, Hughes buys controlling interest in TWA and then attempts to compete with then-industry-leader Pan-Am, leading to an ugly fight in Congress with a senator (Alan Alda) and a corporate fight with the Pan-Am president (Alec Baldwin).

It’s this warfare and a number of accidents that, at least according to the film’s reading of events, helps to push Hughes’ existing obsessive-compulsive behavior and his paranoia. After rehabilitation from one accident, he locks himself in a room and begins growing his hair and fingernails and collecting certain bodily fluids.

The Aviator is much like Hughes himself — glamorous and fantastically engaging and impressive with notes of absurdity and a tendency toward mania and excess. DiCaprio — who seems to be Scorsese’s young new De Niro — is still a bit too much of a lightweight to pull off the roles that the director keeps throwing his way. His baby face and boyish mannerisms undercut some of the actual decent acting he does, especially when it comes to Hughes’ drive and paranoia.

Blanchett is as Hepburn both fascinating and occasionally too campy for words. She speaks every line through a clenched, jutted out jaw — a Hepburn impersonation more than a performance. Yet she really provides the only window into the human parts of Hughes. Everything else we see is legend or history. Therefore, when Blanchett walks off the screen the movie effectively switches off its emotion and just sticks to dramatization of facts.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the movie is its look — glamorous to the bone, with an unrealistic but atmospherically perfect use of color. The movie has a glossy retro look that heightens the wow-factor — we don’t just see old movie stars and half-a-century-back technology. We see it with the sense of wonder and astonishment that would have accompanied such objects of awe back then.

Imperfect and occasionally faulty, The Aviator nonetheless captures the imagination.

- Amy Diaz

 
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