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The High-Flying Life of Howard Hughes
By Leslie J. Thompson

Hughes (DiCaprio) is taken with the fiesty Kate Hepburn (Blanchett).
Hughes (DiCaprio) is taken with the fiesty Kate Hepburn (Blanchett).
In his soaring cinematic narrative, The Aviator, director Martin Scorsese takes viewers on an exhilarating three-hour trip back in time and into the life of an American icon. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a young Howard Hughes during the 1920s-1940s, as the budding industrialist turns a sizeable inheritance into the foundation of his vast empire with ventures in filmmaking and flight. Along the way, Hughes launches the careers of starlets like Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani, in her brief big screen debut), and courts such Tinseltown luminaries as Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett in an OscarĀ®-worthy performance) and Ava Gardner (an immaculately polished Kate Beckinsale).

Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner
Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner
I’ve never been a big fan of the biopic, as many I’ve seen are little more than meandering, interwoven chapters from some luminary’s less-than-gripping life. But, The Aviator is quite the opposite. Howard Hughes’ early adulthood was filled with compelling twists and turns spawned by a combination of his creative genius, obsessive eccentricities, and formidable wealth. Although Hughes degenerated into a pitiable, paranoid recluse in his later years, Scorcese’s tribute depicts the mogul in all his youthful glory. We see a dashing entrepreneur filled with passion and vision, working on the cutting edge in every enterprise to which he lends his mind and heart. His first film venture, the WWI epic Hell’s Angels, takes four years and nearly $4 million to complete and becomes a masterpiece of early 20th century cinema. Likewise, his first forays into flight eventually lead Hughes to purchase an entire airline and match millions in federal funding to develop technologically advanced aircraft for the U.S. military.

Hughes (DiCaprio) holds a press conference in front of the infamous Grey Goose
Hughes (DiCaprio) holds a press conference in front of the infamous Grey Goose
It was this relentless drive and lust for life that made Hughes irresistible to the ladies, and unbeatable by business magnates. In the film’s last half hour, we see him take the stand to defend his honor before the Senate War Investigating Committee in a hearing headed by Maine Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). The Senator, we learn, is in the pocket of Pan Am chief Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), who is seeking to secure exclusive rights to international air travel. The story ends soon thereafter, before Hughes’ decline into dementia marked by a bizarre, solitary lifestyle that likely would be a drag to watch on the big screen. Better to remember him as the pre-war playboy, a sharply dressed, sharp-witted man who used his charm, savvy and imagination to build an empire.

Ironically, one of the film’s few shortcomings is the prevalence of glaringly bad edits,the kind where someone is holding a spoon and then they’re not and then the spoon is back again, all within a few seconds as the camera angle shifts during a conversation. One of the most obvious such gaffes comes about halfway through the film, as Hughes sets out to break the air speed record in a new prototype plane. The close-up shots show DiCaprio in the cockpit with the glass canopy wide open, but the wide angle shots show the canopy closed (which would make sense, as this would reduce drag on the plane). Such observable flaws are especially disheartening in a movie that centers in large part around moviemaking, spearheaded by a skilled director, like Scorsese.

Still, it’s easy to forgive the few minor technical blunders when measured against the overall enjoyment of this Technicolor thrill ride. The vivid and immaculately tailored costumes alone are worth the ticket price. More than a glimpse into Hollywood history, however, The Aviator offers an intriguing look into the mind of a man who shaped much of how we experience our world today, and unveils the human foibles of a near mythological figure who, for many, remains larger than life.

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