You can almost feel Martin Scorsese exorcising the specter of Gangs of New York in the first act of The Aviator, another leisurely two-hour, forty-five-minute exercise in lavish period Americana starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Howard Hughes biopic opens in 1927 with the young filmmaker-entrepreneur on the set of Hell’s Angels, his WWI dogfighting epic. Like Gangs of New York, Hell’s Angels reflected the filmmaker’s personal obsessions — planes and women for Hughes; violence, lawless behavior, and New York history for Scorsese. Both films are also visually spectacular but narratively trite, with melodramatic conflicts centering on two men who share some kind of family bond and are entangled in romantic triangles.
Most importantly, both films faced myriads of delays and production problems, went badly over schedule and over budget, and seemed never to get finished — or rather, got finished, and then finished again, and then finished some more.
If Scorsese didn’t succeed in making Gangs of New York as watchable as Hell’s Angels, he’s made up for that now with The Aviator, an intriguing portrait of a troubled golden boy in a golden age, a man who lived as if he had a charmed life, and whose charm and charisma and vision were enough for awhile to make it seem as if he really did.
As this suggests, Scorsese is interested in the young, vital Hughes of the twenties and thirties and forties, not the tragic, reclusive figure of the seventies shuffling in Kleenex boxes. But Hughes’s demons haunted him for decades before destroying him completely, and what we do see here is far more unsettling than typical movie OCD or schizophrenia (e.g., A Beautiful Mind; As Good as It Gets).
The film also deals in varying degrees with Hughes’s relationships with a parade of leading ladies — Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) — plus teenaged starlet Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner). It would arguably be unfair to say that the film glamorizes Hughes’s decadent love life; more accurate might be to say that, frankly, the man’s life was glamorous — but also tragic and rather pitiful, and the film acknowledges this side of things as well as the other.
DiCaprio is riveting as Hughes, thoroughly inhabiting every nuance of his protagonist’s complex story-arc. Blanchett gives a brave performance as Hepburn, one that isn’t immediately quite persuasive but becomes convincing over time. Beckinsale isn’t given as much time to find Gardner’s character, and is less successful. Alan Alda is remarkably successful as another unsympathetic scoundrel (cf. What Women Want), Senator Owen Brewster, whose politically motivated attacks on the unbalanced Hughes prompt an unexpected rally to lucidity, leading to the film’s most riveting sequence as Hughes testifies before a congressional hearing. Needless to say, the period set design — the Chinese Theater, the Cocoanut Grove — is fabulous.
Unsurprisingly, The Aviator recalls another film that, like Hell’s Angels, was made by a first-time director golden boy: Citizen Kane. Though newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst is a well-known inspiration for Orson Welles’s protagonist, Charles Foster Kane is actually a composite with more than a bit of Hughes in him.
Like Kane, Hughes spends his millions heedlessly to get whatever he wants, thrives on the cult of his own celebrity, and sees the promise of his startling early successes in youth increasingly give way to a morass of setbacks, failures, disillusionment, and isolation. Perhaps the most direct cinematic parallel to Welles’s masterpiece is the unsettling prologue with Hughes as a child being sponge-bathed by his mother, a scene critic Jonathan Rosenbaum goes so far as to call "an acute case of Rosebud."
If it needs to be said, The Aviator is no Citizen Kane. It’s well crafted, but hardly comparable to Kane’s narrative and cinematic stylings or existential themes. Citizen Kane is an existential tragedy about a man who wanted to be loved by others but had no room for love in his own proud heart. The Aviator is also about a man with no room for love in his heart, but what drives him isn’t the need for love, but ambition to achieve and fear of what will happen to him if he ever stops. What undoes him in the end isn’t pride, but a degenerative mental condition, which is still tragic, but not existential.
The press called her a “lady pilot,” but Amelia Earhart called herself a “tramp flyer.” She seems to have preferred “flyer” to “pilot”; perhaps it was just a manner of speech, or perhaps it was the sky she cared about more than the airplane, the act of flying rather than the mechanics of manning an aircraft. The other word she liked was “vagabonding.” As imagined in Amelia, Mira Nair’s handsome biopic, Earhart craves freedom above all: “no borders, only horizons.”
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.