The Aviator

2004 will be remembered as the year of the biopic. We’ve had them about ancient conquerers, whimsical Scottish playwrights, the inventer of soul music and, with Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator, an aviation pioneer and independent movie mogul. I confess that I don’t know much about Howard Hughes. He’s popped up in movies before, namely Melvin and Howard, which I’ve never seen, and the The Rocketeer, which probably isn’t very informative about his life.

Apparently, in his early years, Hughes was an innovator in the commercial airline industry as well as a maverick Hollywood producer who busted budgets as well as social mores. Pun intended. He was an extreme personality. (They don’t make movies about accountants) Oh, and he was nuts.

This is the early Hughes before his obsessive compulsive disorder completely took over. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he storms out of Texas with an inherited fortune, ambition and a taste for glamorous women. But even in the early years of his career he is the ultimate control freak, driving everyone around him crazy with his obsessive quest for perfection. He shelves Hell’s Angels, a movie that cost him millions, and reshoots it with the new technology of sound. It pays off; the movie is a hit and Hughes becomes the toast of Hollywood, discovering Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) in the process. Most of his early endeavors in both film and business pay off in the beginning. But as time goes by his luck changes and by the end he’s hemorrhaging money. He enjoys it while he has it though, dating Harlow, Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckensale) and others. Unfortunately, he loses all of them to his increasingly erratic behavior.

Scorcese depicts the frenetic whirlwind of Hughes’s life by making the camera swirl and dive like the airplanes that Hughes flies. There are several sequences of flashing bulbs and photographers shouting his name as he grows more famous and more uncomfortable with that fame. It’s not always an enjoyable ride for the audience–there are several scenes of Leo laying around listlessly–but it is a memorable one.

Leonardo Di Caprio is intense in The Aviator, portraying Hughes’s high motor style. He makes snap decisions like when he spends 18 million in a second. This is a very good performance, although he never makes you forget that it’s Leo. This could be a problem for him in the future.

Much has been made of Cate Blanchett’s performance as Katherine Hepburn. The praise is well deserved. Oh sure, her New England accent often slips into southern belle but it doesn’t matter; Cate captures the essence of Kate from her tomboyishness to a sensuality that those in my generation never got see. She just wasn’t all that sexy in Rooster Cogburn or On Golden Pond.

John C. Reilly turns in his usual great job as Hughes’s much put upon business manager Noah Dietrich. Alec Baldwin is his reliably oily self as Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am and Hughes’s chief adversary, and Alan Alda is great as Ralph Owen Brewster, Trippe’s pet senator. Kate Beckensale shines as Ava Gardner.

The Aviator is, I believe, the last of 2004’s biopics. So where does it stack up? Well, it’s not the best. That would be Ray or maybe Finding Neverland. But it’s certainly better that Alexander. In a perfect world Scorcese would have been recognized by the Academy for Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. The fact that he’s never won a best directing Oscar is an oversight of historic proportions. But hey, these things happen. That’s why they invented lifetime acheivement awards. I’ll probably be rooting for Marty on Oscar night, but I fear that once again, the competition is too rough and his entry falls too short of the mark.

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