I have a problem with folks mucking about with biographies in their
movies. After all, these are cinematic presentations of the lives
of real persons who, apparently, were interesting enough to have
movies made about them. Howard Hughes had quite
a little life, nearly any pre-recluse section of which would make
a ripping yarn. Little need to, say, telescope events so that he
romances Ava Gardner hard on the heels of his affair
with Katharine Hepburn.
But then, for much of today’s moviegoing population, Howard
Hughes is not the larger than life mystery man that he was in my
youth. Back in the day, a millionaire was special in a way that
must seem quaint to those raised in times when Dell and Microsoft
millionaires abound and when folks can become celebrities, or at
least widely recognized names, with such ease. I know young people
who have only the vaguest notion of who Howard Hughes even was.
The Aviator won’t do much to enlighten them. Aside
from some skin-deep psychology in the first scenes, Martin
Scorsese’s movie gives us very little idea of who
this man was and what motivated him. Showing tics and compulsions
isn’t the same as getting inside a character’s skin,
which we know Scorsese can do (see Raging Bull and Alice
Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). (And I can’t help thinking
that he could have put us more in touch with Hughes if he’d
made an R-rated movie.) Fortunately, you can tell a heck of a tale
just by showing what Hughes did, and The Aviator is a heck
of a tale, saved by the fascinating material and by a couple of
performances that kick out the jams.
Hughes’s deals and his doings, seized the imaginations of
the American public. The notion of his wealth was so fantastic,
it seemed like the treasure cave of the 40 thieves. It’s interesting
that a biopic about Hughes, who inherited his money, appeals far
more than one about the life and times of someone who became fabulously
wealthy by thinking for his money. I wouldn’t cross the street
to watch a free movie about Bill Gates if Gates
himself did a naked toe dance [especially if], would you? No, because
there’s no glamour to Bill Gates’ life. Hughes’
had it in spades.
Part of the pleasure of The Aviator comes from its evocation
of said glamour. There’s eye candy galore, and not just in
the sumptuous sets and costumes, and the very cool aircraft. Dig,
for example, the PanAm chief’s tripped-out office, complete
with the dome of the heavens and constellations on its ceiling.
The Aviator also serves up the eye candy by having a different
look for the different eras of Hughes’ life. Sometimes this
was accomplished by different, period-specific film processing techniques.
There are scenes where Leonardo DiCaprio’s
eyes are such a bright blue that they practically pop off the screen.
Sometimes the look was signaled by the use of period photoplay makeup,
which can be rather jarring. In the early scenes, men have the clearly
defined and lipsticked lips of early matinee idols.
If pretty Leonardo DiCaprio has not struck you as an actor to
be taken seriously, this movie makes it undeniable. He’s good
and he transcends his boyish countenance to make a convincing Hughes
from age 21 into his 40s, though you may reflect as you watch that
he would’ve made a much better Errol Flynn
than Jude Law did. But full marks to the old lions,
Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda, who
show us how it’s done as they just walk off with the show.
Baldwin plays Juan Trippe, the head of PanAm and
Hughes’ main airline rival. Alda plays Ralph Owen
Brewster, the Maine senator who carries Trippe’s
water in Congress and who puts Hughes on the hot seat in Congressional
hearings. The best performance in this movie—and I can’t
believe I’m writing this—is Alda. I always enjoyed the
guy, notwithstanding a reputation as the ne plus ultra of male sensitivity
that has made him something of a punchline. Alda’s portrayal
of Brewster is revelatory, and no, it’s not just because he’s
playing against type. It’s the smile of the crocodile—so
polite, so reasonable, but those teeth! The scene where Senator
Brewster sits down to lunch with Mr. Hughes is both DiCaprio’s
and Alda’s very best in the movie. There’s also a very
fine scene with Trippe and Hughes having a business conversation,
though they’re on opposite sides of a door, that’s mighty
fine. Much has been made of Cate Blanchett’s
Katharine Hepburn, and one has to admire Blanchett’s
go-for-broke performance. But what a thankless role. Those who count
themselves movie fans know the genuine article all too well; those
unfamiliar with Great Kate will wonder what ails this affected bitch.
The Aviator is a very good example of a latter-day Christmas
season movie: It’s big, it’s chockfull of talent, it’s
more than two hours long, it’s got loads of crashingly awful
Howard Shore music. Plus, it will actually make
you want to go out and read about the life and times of Howard Hughes,
and maybe even rent Melvyn And Howard. If you’re
into Aha! moments, check out the lounge singers at the famed Cocoanut
Grove, and see if you can spot Brent Spiner, a.k.a.