THE AVIATOR - 2005 - movie - A Classic Review - directed & written by Martin Scorsese – the players are: Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn), Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner), Alec Baldwin (Juan Trippe), Alan Alda (Senator Brewster). This film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 5 – Best Actress Cate Blanchett, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Cinematography.
Both Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan considered taking on the Howard Hughes story but eventually backed away from the project. When DiCaprio was brought on board he favored Michael Mann as director, but producer Charles Evens, Jr. weighed in with his pick, Martin Scorsese.
Cate Blanchett, who looked as if she was channeling Katherine Hepburn, threw herself into the project watching all of Hepburn’s movies. In addition to golf and tennis lessons she also took those famous cold baths. The old reliables – Beckinsale, Baldwin, Alda … fulfilled their roles in their usual outstanding fashion. On June 23, 2003, Hepburn, making the perfect Hollywood exit, died as Cate Blanchett walked onto the set of Scorsese’s movie for the first time.
It looks to me like Scorsese was born to make period movies. He obviously loves to re-create, in high drama, the march of events as we lurch onward through history. And this film propels us with hardly a pause thanks to it’s rapid style editing – for which they received an Oscar. In post production, for all the scenes that occurred prior to 1934, he used After Effects to color balanced the film so it would duplicate the two-strip technicolor process of that time. In scenes after that date he restored the missing full blues and yellows, bringing the look of the movie into the modern era.
Most of us of “a certain age” watched the headlines and witnessed how Hughes’ mind spiraled out of control and left him powerless to resist the impulses that eventually ruled his behavior. We now know that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be triggered by traumatic events that take place during childhood. Scorsese lays the groundwork in the opening scenes as we witness the seeds of his decline firmly planted in his subconscious. In a dim, wood paneled room illuminated by a flickering fireplace, we watch a naked 9 year old boy standing nude in the bath while his mother bathes him.
She lectures him on the importance of cleanliness and the dangers of cholera, typhus and malaria – warning him that he could be quarantined. She insists that he spell the word… and then tells him, “You are not safe.”….. CUT!
TO….medium shot – Hughes – 1927 - directing a noisy action scene and surrounded by airplanes moving about. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a blind passion for flying Hughes had arrived in Hollywood a few years earlier with a yearn to establish himself in the motion picture business. He is now a twenties something millionaire directing his third black and white silent movie,
“Hell’s Angels”, a monumental film about WWI aviators staring Jean Harlow and James Hall. The movie is famous for its stunning aerial photography. Seven fliers and crew members died during the filming.
As he was shooting this movie, sound was just being introduced to the industry. Recognizing that sound was the way of the future, Hughes hired a voice director and reshot a big chunk of the script. Now over budget, Hell’s Angels became the most expensive film ($3.9 million) ever produced to date. The success of this three-year effort establishes him as a movie mogul and he launches into a series of affairs with various starlets; including Kathryn Hepburn and Eva Gardner.
Although he was caught up in the excitement of his Hollywood successes, he never neglected his love for airplanes and flying. In 1935 he introduces the retractable landing gear and incorporates it into his new H-1 Racer. He manages to crash the plane, but during the test flight he becomes the world’s fastest human at 352 mph.
In 1938, he set the record for around-the-world flight, piloting a modified Lockheed plane.
Scorsese inserted DiCaprio into the black & white Movietone News Reel coverage showing him at the New York airport after he landed and in the tickertape parade in downtown Manhattan.
Using on-board radio and during his epic flight, Hughes bought TWA for $15 million. Afterwards, he quickly contracts with Lockheed to build a fleet of transcontinental aircraft. This puts him in direct competition with Juan Trippe, president of Pam Am.
It’s ten years later and the competition has heated up. We learn that Trippe has secured the help of his long-time ally Senator Brewster, a supporter of the KKK and a friend of Joseph McCarthy. In 1947, Trippe, in an effort to monopolize the air travel, prods Brewster to accuse Hughes of war-time profiteering. When the hearings ended Hughes's testimony had won public opinion and Brewster was revealed as being in Juan Trippe’s back pocket.
As if on cue Hughes’ obsessions with cleanliness and order increasingly exhibited themselves. In one scene his fear of germs has trapped him in the men’s room because he could not touch the door nob. The seeds that his mother planted at those dark, stressful moments while bathing him, began to take control. She had been excessively worried about polio, which was prevalent at the time. She worried about what he ate and was fearful of any disease he might be exposed to. As an adolescent, he was unable to walk and was paralyzed for several months. The symptoms disappeared after a while. Throughout his life, during episodes of high stress, the deep seated memories of those events with his mother burbled up from his subconscious and triggered his compulsions and obsessions.
Hughes with Hepburn: “Sometimes I get these feelings…ideas….crazy ideas about things that may not really be there, sometimes I truly feel that I’m losing my mind.” Hepburn… “You taught me to fly Howard. I’ll take the wheel.” When Scorsese wrote that line I’ll bet he felt he deserved a shot of scotch.
Two years after his death, Dr. Raymond Fowler (American Psychological Association) conducted a psychological autopsy to ascertain what caused his breakdown, and to help determine his mental state in the years just prior to his death. Fowler theorized that as a child, feeling under great stress, Hughes subconsciously used the paralysis as an escape from reality.
Coincidentally, DiCaprio suffered from a mild case of OCD as a child and while he was playing this role his brain allowed the dormant symptoms to reappear. He was actually aware that this was taking place and allowed it to happen because it gave him greater insight into Hughes’ character. The problem continued to plague him for a short time even after the filming was over.
My memories of Mr. Hughes date back to the 50s when he was much older than Mr. DiCaprio. But I must give DiCaprio considerable credit for his ability to capture the terror that Hughes must have felt as he became a slave to his obsessions and a victim of his compulsive behavior.
Scorsese does not take us into the hellish life into which Mr. Hughes plummeted. In the final scene with Hughes on the cusp of his descent, DiCaprio leaves us with the impression that Hughes had accepted his fate, but powerless to resist.