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 most astonishing 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, Cagneyesque features and pleasant tenor, was much less imaginable as Hughes than, say, Warren Beatty, who had 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, considered the finest American filmmaker of his 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 such 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 at once chilling and deeply moving.
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.
*Beatty finally played Hughes, albeit the Howard of 1958, in Rules Don’t Apply (2016), which he wrote and directed.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross