Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Aviator

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 31, 2004

Directed by Martin Scorsese/Screenplay by John Logan/starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda/Miramax – Warner Bros.

Howard Hughes becomes a pioneer in the worlds of aviation and filmmaking, but is brought down by his own obsessions and neuroses.

I’ll just come out and say it: this is a great film. The Aviator is the kind of film that other films want to be when they grow up.

Howard Hughes lived the kind of life that legends are made of. The guy was like Bill Clinton, James Cameron and Neil Armstrong rolled into one. He achieved some pretty incredible things in his lifetime, but sadly he’s remembered mostly for a crippling case of what we now call Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which led him to do some amazingly odd things.

To its credit, The Aviator covers both segments of his life. We see him conquer Hollywood by making Hell’s Angels, the 1930 airplane movie which took him three years and several million of his own dollars to shoot. Hughes was considered a foolhardy, unrealistic megalomaniac for this alone, but ultimately the gamble paid off. While it’s largely forgotten now, Hell’s Angels was a huge hit in theaters and is considered one of the most innovative films of the era.

He also romances a truckload of starlets, from witty, classy Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett) to va-va-voom gorgeous Ava Gardner (Beckinsale) and pretty much everyone in between. Now that’s an accomplishment. Oh yeah, he also designed and flew airplanes and started TWA Airlines. Not to mention running RKO Studios, which the film really doesn’t cover but it’s worth mentioning anyway. Type A personality doesn’t even begin to describe him.

Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness, especially an obsession with germs that led him to make unusual demands on himself and those around him. He would go to great lengths to avoid touching doorknobs, for example, yet he didn’t seem to have a problem with having sex with every woman he laid eyes on. Funny how that works.

In his later years, Hughes would become a notorious recluse, locking himself away in his home for years at a time. While the film doesn’t really cover those years, we do see him during a protracted spell in which he shut himself in his screening room and wouldn’t come out. It’s pretty creepy at times, yet it’s also incredibly sad.

One of the things I hated about the overrated As Good as It Gets was that Nicholson’s character never really acted like he had OCD. It seemed like he was just using that as an excuse to behave like a flaming asshole. I happen to know a little bit about OCD, and I wasn’t convinced for a second that he suffered from it. If you were to tell me that he suffered from a raging ego, combined with an extreme personality disorder that made him incredibly unlikable, THAT I would believe. But generally, OCD doesn’t turn you into a loudmouth dick. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that James L. Brooks didn’t do a single bit of research on the subject, or that he really didn’t understand what it actually means to have OCD.

No such problem here. DiCaprio is absolutely riveting as Hughes, pulling off every side of this fascinating character with what seems like effortless grace. It’s no surprise that he’s got the charm and likability to play the roguish, womanizing, ambitious side of Hughes. But he’s downright incredible at displaying Hughes’ quirks as well as his psychological anguish. He never overplays it, always showing you just enough. Let’s face it – if you didn’t believe him as Hughes, the whole movie would collapse. He carries this film like a champion. It amazes me that some people still think the kid can’t act. Seriously, watch Gilbert Grape, Catch Me if You Can and then this, and then tell me DiCaprio can’t act. It’s time he got his due as the best of his generation. When he’s on fire, no one can even touch him.

It’s a good thing too, because a lesser actor would’ve let Cate Blanchett steal the movie right from under him. I don’t know who had the genius idea to cast her as Hepburn, but that person deserves a kiss on the mouth from the hot actress/actor of their choice. She’s pretty damn amazing. I honestly can’t think of anyone else who could’ve played this role without coming off like a bad standup comic. From her very first scene, you never doubt her. Not for a second does her performance seem too exaggerated or cartoonish. She and DiCaprio have remarkable chemistry as well – who would’ve thought? These two exceedingly odd characters are absolutely convincing as the loves of each other’s lives, and that couldn’t have happened without great performances.

What’s really fascinating about the film’s portrayal of Hughes is that it doesn’t play like your conventional biopic. One would expect it to come off like an E! True Hollywood Story – “he was riding high, but then his fatal flaw was revealed”. Whereas most movies would portray Hughes as merely a victim of his own psychological difficulties, The Aviator shows that his strengths and weaknesses derived from the same pathology. The incredible drive that led him to his admirable achievements came from the same place as his bizarre obsession with cleanliness and unrelenting phobia of germs. He obviously had a very unusual mind, and the film argues that one probably wouldn’t have happened without the other. For better and for worse, Hughes couldn’t NOT do what he did. His “greatness” and his “craziness” were two sides of the same coin.

It’s not overstating the case to call Scorsese one of the master storytellers, and throughout the film’s 170-minute running time we feel like we’re in the capable hands of one of the greats. Like so much of his best work, The Aviator feels jet-propelled (appropriately enough), like it’s running on an engine that just refuses to slow down. His re-creation of Old Hollywood is just too loving and rapturous not to be enjoyed, and even in the film’s quietest moments, it’s nothing less than riveting, spellbinding entertainment. It’s a fascinating story told with unimaginable skill – what more do you want?

As much as I love Scorsese’s work in general, I wasn’t too big a fan of his “personal epic”, Gangs of New York. I liked and admired parts of it, but to me it seemed like the point was lost somehow. I didn’t feel like the story was relevant to anyone who doesn’t care about New York history the way he obviously does. The Aviator may be less personal to him, but every frame of it feels alive and necessary. We walk out knowing exactly why we should care about Howard Hughes, and why he was such an important and misunderstood figure in American history. The facts may not be exactly as they were in reality, but what’s important is that it’s a well-drawn portrait of a man who was well worth learning more about.

I make no predictions, but if Marty wins the Oscar this year, it may in fact be for his body of work. But this time he’ll deserve it.

**** 12/31/04

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