The Aviator (2004)

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By Scott Ross

At first glance, Leonard Di Caprio seemed an odd choice to portray Howard Hughes, just as Cate Blanchett was far from what one expected of Katharine Hepburn. This had nothing to do with their respective talents; Di Caprio gave one of the finest performances ever captured on film as Johnny Depp’s retarded younger brother Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and has built on that promise steadily through the years, while Blanchett’s gifts are obvious to anyone who experiences her work. But she has nothing like the classic beauty of the young Hepburn, and Di Caprio, with his round face and Cagneyesque features and pleasant tenor, was much less imaginable as Hughes than, say, Warren Beatty, who has hoped to make a film about this great American eccentric for decades. Or was, anyway;: The Beatty of the Reds era could have pulled it off; the Beatty of today would be believable more as the older, demented Hughes than as the dashing aviation pioneer and renegade movie mogul with his movie-idol looks and youthful panache.

Two minutes into Di Caprio’s performance in The Aviator, however, and all doubts were dismissed. Even the face seemed to alter over the movie’s running time; by the end, he was Hughes, mustache, cracked baritone voice and all. (By contrast, Blanchett never quite overcomes her somewhat lumpy, un-formed features, although her performance is superb.)

The selling points, for me, then, were not the stars but the movie’s director and screenwriter. The playwright John Logan has a history both of taking on well-known historical subjects (Leopold and Loeb and Mark Rothko before The Aviator, Alice Liddell and Sue Mengers since) and for splendid dialogue, characterization and approach. Scorsese, long a personal favorite, has more than sufficient cause, in spite of his varying box-office, to be the finest American filmmaker, certainly of his generation if not of any generation. It seemed like a dream combo.

And so it was. In an epoch in which success in Hollywood is defined more by mass popularity with sub-literate audiences overseas than with the craft of making smart, engaging movies about recognizably human beings, Scorsese and Logan created that rarest of rarities, an intelligent epic—to my mind the most artistically successful, and satisfying since Reds.

The look of The Aviator is remarkable; in the first third of the movie, Scorsese emulated the look of two-strip Technicolor (three-strip in the following third) giving the images a vibrancy and color that make a serious movie surprisingly light, airy and beautiful to watch. The arc of the narrative takes in Hughes’ obsessive, and seemingly capricious, follies (The Outlaw, the H-4 Hercules, sneeringly referred to as “the Spruce Goose”) and his increasingly, if slowly arrived at, mental and emotional instability. The scenarist first merely hints at the now-fabled “crazy old rich man” to come, then, in a long and agonizing sequence following Hughes’ near-fatal crash, makes it clear that whatever lucidity Hughes re-establishes is momentary only. Di Caprio heart-breakingly suggests the disorientation of those early brushes with dementia, his eyes expressing mounting panic and confusion at what his mouth is saying (“The way of the future… the way of the future…”) and it’s chilling and deeply moving at once.

After several decades of unfettered violence and gore at the movies, I am seldom shocked by what I see on an American screen. Disgusted, certainly, often repulsed and upset, at the assault on my senses. But genuine shock at the movies is rare, and in The Aviator, Scorsese and Logan pull it off not once, but twice. I can vividly remember my gasp, near the beginning, when, while Di Caprio’s Howard is shooting aerial footage for Hell’s Angels, another biplane’s propellers smack into his hand-held camera. Hughes merely reaches for another. It’s a moment of genuine terror immediately alleviated by logical (and relieved) audience laughter.

The second moment of shock comes at mid-point, during the crash of Hughes’ experimental FX-11: The stunning shot of that huge wing bisecting the upper story wall of a Beverly Hills mansion. It was so unexpected (or was, to this viewer, who knew little about Hughes’ history as a pilot) that I heard myself gasp a second time. In neither sequence was the shock I felt so viscerally related to violence in the usual sense of that word, but to the sudden up-ending of the immediate surroundings, and its effect on a human being.

If I felt any disappointment with The Aviator, it was at the movie’s refusal to examine Hughes’ alleged bisexuality. For all I know Logan may have included that element of Howard’s persona in his original script, but a major, expensive ($110 million) Hollywood movie, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was hardly going in that direction. One can imagine the usual Bonnie and Clyde excuses being given and arguments offered (“We’re telling a story about a man so obsessive and weird, we can’t risk alienating the audience with that too!”)

That, even in 2004, perception still trumps complete honesty, in this single area at least, is itself something of a shock.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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6 thoughts on “The Aviator (2004)

  1. I see that we have again hit that Scorsese speed-bump in our correspondence. I could not get through 10 minutes of this… I just wish the man would learn to shut-up and film. The relentless swoops and dives of the camera seem totally pointless to me, unless taken in the “Look ma, no hands” sense. I can’t do it. If he doesn’t have the simple basic confidence to tell his story, why should I bother to look at it? He gilds the gilding… Ah well. We can’t agree on everyone…

    • Do you mean the swoops and dives of the camera as Hughes & Co. are filming in the skies, in little biplanes that are also swooping and diving?

      Ah — I knew some day we’d reach this particular pass in our relationship, Mildred.

      • “Do you mean the swoops and dives of the camera as Hughes & Co. are filming in the skies”
        Nothing so significant. The annoying, distracting camera movements he uses in everything for no reason. And then there is his constant “quoting” from other movies. He and Tarantino should just start a fan site and leave us alone… Aside from that…

  2. You will like this. A friend of mine in LA went to one of the first screenings of Reservoir Dogs. Outside he saw the guy who manages the local video store; a fan of obscure movies. He asked my friend what he thought of the movie. My friend said he thought it was derivative junk and panned it. His friends who were with him were aghast. Later one asked “How could you say that to him of all people?” My friend said “He’s just the guy from the video store.” They said it was Quentin Tarantino. He said, “yeah, from the video store.” And they said, almost as one, “THE DIRECTOR OF THE MOVIE!”

    Personally, I have an even better foot-in-mouth story but that’s for another time…

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