The Aviator
Produced by Warner Bros. and Miramax Films
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by John Logan
Distributed by Warner Bros.

From the late 1920’s to the late 1950’s, Howard Hughes seemed to own the world.  Backed by the wealth of his father’s patented oil-drill business, he moved from Houston to Los Angeles in 1925 at age 20 to indulge his two passions: aviation and movies.  There, he became an upstart filmmaker who broke Hollywood’s rules, producing films that exceeded normal budgets ten-times over and successfully flouting the censors with projects such as Scarface (1932) and The Outlaw (1943).  At the same time, he was a champion pilot who broke speed records flying cross-country in 1936 and 1937 and then around-the-world in 1938.  The public was abuzz with his accomplishments and pruriently intrigued by rumors that he enjoyed the favors of a floating harem of stars and starlets.  By the late 40’s, however, Hughes began to succumb to a weird congeries of phobias and obsessions, exacerbated by a massive addiction to codeine and Valium.  As time went on, he increasingly isolated himself from the world behind a phalanx of creepy retainers who catered to his every childish whim, no matter how bizarre, unlawful, or depraved.  At his command, this palace guard sealed his rooms with masking tape to fend off imagined bacterial assaults, bottled his urine and stored it in a closet, supplied him with limitless drugs, solicited teenage girls for his occasional pleasure, and much more.  In the end, he was reduced to a 90-pound, six-foot-one wraith scribbling screeds of insanely detailed directions to his underlings on such matters as how to hang his clothing, squeeze his orange juice, and lift his toilet seat.  Like Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz lost in the Congo, Hughes lost his way traveling between his lairs in the fantastical worlds of Hollywood and Las Vegas.  As the jungle had “whispered” to Kurtz, so America’s vulgar, glittering wilderness had whispered to Hughes, telling him “things about himself which he did not know.”  As with Kurtz, “the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.  It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”

Many have claimed to understand the obsessive, narcissistic Hughes, but Alfred Hitchcock—no stranger to obsession himself—got there first with a stroke of comic relief in Vertigo (1958), his otherwise somber meditation on romantic delusion.  In the film’s second scene, an ex-detective named Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) visits his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), a freelance artist.  He is mildly startled to see a feminine undergarment positioned next to her studio drawing table.  “What’s this do-hickey, here?” he inquires.  “It’s a brassiere,” she answers with amusement.  “You know about those things.  You’re a big boy, now.  It’s brand new.  Revolutionary uplift.  No shoulder straps, no back straps, but does everything a brassiere should do.  It works on the principle of the cantilever bridge.  An aircraft engineer down the peninsula designed it.  He worked it out in his spare time.”

The unnamed engineer is, of course, Howard Hughes, who famously took time from designing flying machines to construct a high-tech brassiere for his protégé Jane Russell.  He wanted to display her twin charms as prominently as possible in The Outlaw.  This was the film, he promised his public with boyish drollery, that was going to “knock both your eyes out.”

Besides making fun of Hughes, Hitchcock’s brassiere scene advances Vertigo’s theme: the risks implicit in the way women collude with male sexual obsession, molding themselves physically and emotionally to satisfy men’s romantic fantasies.  Hitchcock shared such an obsession with Hughes, but, unlike the unreflective Texan, he understood it for what it was: an adolescent fixation that, indulged uncritically, inevitably led to disillusionment.  Hughes’ need to improve Russell’s bosom, however, was symptomatic of more than this.  It was of a piece with his compulsion to control everything and everyone around him.  Seemingly incapable of irony, Hughes couldn’t put his obsession into perspective.  It may have been an early manifestation of what seems to have been a mental illness that eventually took over his life.

Martin Scorsese has cleverly smuggled Midge’s drawing into The Aviator, his sweeping, astonishing, but incomplete rendering of Hughes’ life.  It’s 1941, and Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has been dividing his time, as he so often did, between designing airplanes and “acquiring” starlets for his movies.  At a meeting with his engineers, he holds up a drafting pad filled with drawings, all but one of them of airplane parts.  The exception is a rendering of a woman in a strapless brassiere, an exact copy of the drawing Bel Geddes would show Stewart 17 years later in Vertigo.  This cinematic anachronism is an inside joke that will amuse only a small portion of the audience.  Nevertheless, you don’t have to get the connection to get the point.  By combining the mechanical with the human drawing, Scorsese and scriptwriter John Logan visually indicate Hughes’ arrested psychological development.  He approached people in the same utilitarian manner as he did machinery, with this difference: He was more comfortable with compliant machines than with willful human beings, especially women.

Scorsese repeatedly underscores Hughes’ obsessive need to control his environment, the better to insulate himself from its supposed dangers.  We first see Hughes in 1910, at five years old, being warned by his mother that he is not safe.  He must defend himself against all manner of infections.  This, we are to understand, is the beginning of his lifelong mission to erect barriers between himself and germs.  In the next scene, we jump seven years ahead, and Hughes is directing his fourth film, Hell’s Angels, which features World War I air combat.  He is disappointed with the rushes.  On screen, the planes seem unaccountably sluggish.  Suddenly, he realizes what’s wrong.  There is nothing stationary in the frame to give a sense of their speed.  The planes are flying in a cloudless California sky over an empty desert.  He needs, in his words, “clouds like huge breasts swollen with milk.”  (Hughes’ breast fixation surely forecast his final infantilization.)  When he finally finds his clouds over Oakland, he insists on reshooting the aerial footage.  This sequence is an exhilarating montage of aerobatic grandeur aloft and comical mania below.  The one still point is a curious close-up shot of the back of DiCaprio’s head as he sits hieratically in a director’s chair, looming motionlessly over the frenetic panorama.  It is an image that recurs at key moments to suggest Hughes’ need to exert a god-like dominance over all he surveys.  Later, after some reverses and several soured love affairs, his will to dominate turns ugly.  We watch him from behind once more, sitting as if on a throne in a darkened sound stage, awaiting the arrival of the 15-year-old would-be actress Faith Domergue.  When she shows up, he hires her ostensibly to be his next star—but, in fact, to be his occasional mistress, as he obliquely but unmistakably makes plain to the girl.  Gone are the sunlit antics of aerial choreography.  Here we have the dark will of a control freak.  Frustrated that adult women such as Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner would not submit to him completely, Hughes made a habit of exploiting compliant girls, always careful to have them sign a legal “agreement” first.

In filming Hughes’ life, Scorsese has attempted to make his own Citizen Kane.  In some shots, DiCaprio has clearly been made to resemble Orson Welles, with his manly mustache contrasting mischievously with his baby face.  That Scorsese nearly succeeds in his Kane ambition testifies to his skills and his vision.  As an entertainer, he has never been better.  At almost three hours, his film never once bogs down.  It is a series of miraculously gorgeous scenes seamlessly sewn together, each fulfilling its own distinctive purpose.  When Scorsese wants to show Hughes being sucked into the vortex of celebrity, he has DiCaprio walk a red carpet into the opening of Hell’s Angels with its star, Jean Harlow, on his arm.  A cadre of cameramen descend on the couple, their flashbulbs going off like an endless volley of fiery pistol shots.  The ejected bulbs litter the carpet with shards of glittering glass over which Hughes, rendered nearly sightless by the flashes, must gingerly pick his way.  This is fame, a blinding gauntlet threatening laceration at every step.

Another scene illuminates Hughes’ reckless pride.  It relates an incident worthy of fiction, and Scorsese has made the most of it.  Against the judgment of his engineers, Hughes insisted on flying his experimental reconnaissance plane, the XF-11, in 1946.  From the start, there was trouble.  Once in the air, he could not retract the landing wheels.  His repeated attempts to do so caused him to lose control of the plane.  He crashed into the suburban rooftops of Beverly Hills, the neighborhood of many of his film industry enemies, including Louis B. Mayer.  As the plane’s wing slices through several elegant Spanish-style houses, uproariously scattering their tiles and grinding their stucco into dust, you cannot help thinking this was something more than an accident.  Hughes should have returned to the airfield as soon as he detected the landing gear failure.  Instead, he continued flying, later explaining he wanted to analyze and fix the problem.  That he made the attempt over Beverly Hills seems telling.  Did Hughes have a death wish, a longing for both suicide and revenge?  As it was, he almost killed himself and badly frightened Beverly Hills homeowners.

The Aviator is a hugely enjoyable film, but it does not have the impact of Citizen Kane.  Orson Welles and his screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, fictionalized their subject, William Randolph Hearst, and that gave them leave to shape their story as a caustic parable of American materialism.  Scorsese, on the other hand, has chosen—at least nominally—to stick to fact, thereby denying himself the plastic resources of fiction.  Yet, at the same time, he has edited his account severely, attempting to make Hughes a tragic hero.  This will not wash.  If Hughes suffered from mental illness—and there seems little doubt that he did, probably from his earliest years—he cannot be judged wholly responsible for his fate and is therefore not tragic in the classical sense.  Awkward with people, obsessed with cleanliness, trapped in repetitive routines (steak with exactly 12 peas was his invariable dinner), given to repeating himself endlessly, he seems to have suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition similar to milder forms of autism that is said to have afflicted a number of highly accomplished individuals, among them Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jascha Heifetz, and Bobby Fischer.  Whatever it was, it left Hughes a pathetic infant, squalling to have his way over the most trivial personal matters as his empire was slowly taken away from him.  This is not a tragedy; it is a case study.

>With a few exceptions, the film’s acting is vibrant and convincing.  DiCaprio makes Hughes at once engaging and opaque, a man infinitely more at ease with planes than with the many women whom he is supposed to have bedded.  (There are some who have plausibly speculated that Hughes was not the lover he pretended and that his many relationships were more calculatingly decorative than passionately erotic.)  Cate Blanchett almost makes us forget she looks nothing like Katherine Hepburn, one of Hughes’ more distinguished mistresses.  With a staccato, angular energy, she virtually channels Hepburn’s eccentricities.  Kate Beckinsale is less successful as Ava Gardner, another questionable dalliance.  She is beautiful but simply does not have the smoldering gaze Gardner put to such good use.  Alan Alda is superlative as Sen. Owen Brewster of Maine, cat’s-paw for Pan Am in its struggle to hobble Hughes’ airline, TWA.  I cannot think of a more credible portrait of an unprincipled political chameleon, sycophantically wheedling one moment and pompously bullying the next.

All in all, Aviator is a film to see and, just perhaps, see again.