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Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Icarus films again
Howard Hughes is remembered -- when he's remembered at all these days -- as the poster-boy of wacko reclusive zillionaires, the kind of guy Michael Jackson can look at and breathe a sigh of relief when he wants to feel normal.
For several decades before his death in 1976, Hughes was barely glimpsed in public; he had retreated to hermetically sealed rooms, in which he paced about naked -- except for empty tissue boxes as slippers -- living in his own filth, addicted to codeine, his hair and fingernails looking like those of an Indian sadhu. Most people get committed to an institution for behavior like this, but when you've got $454 million at your disposal, the world can be more accommodating. Wash my hands five times and wrap myself in plastic before bringing up your 100 bottles of milk? No problem, Mr. Hughes, sir!
But what many people don't recall is that this man was one of America's top celebrities in the 1930s and '40s, a man who, at age 21, made the most expensive Hollywood film ever (at the time); who broke the air-speed record shortly thereafter; who made another fortune in aircraft design; who smashed Charles Lindbergh's round-the-world flight record; and who was romantically associated with almost every top starlet in Hollywood. Playboy, innovator, daredevil, mogul, multimillionaire -- how did this man, who had it all, sink so low?
Leave it to director Martin Scorsese to want to find out. His latest work, "The Aviator," which has Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hughes from his glory days to the onset of madness, is but one in a long line of Scorsese flicks about deeply flawed men who scrabble for fame and fortune, only to see it all crumble beneath them.
Think of Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy." Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull," Henry Hill in "Goodfellas" or Ace Rothstein in "Casino." In each of these characters, their madness and achievements are inseparable. Or, more specifically, they show how the compulsions that drive a man to greatness also contain the seeds of his undoing.
"The Aviator" fits neatly into this catalog of self-destruction. And yet it seems like Scorsese -- who's battled his own demons of substance abuse and self-doubt -- is less interested in chronicling how Hughes wrecked his own career, than in admiring him for what he achieved despite his crippling phobias.
Both his strengths and flaws are pretty clear from the film's outset. It's 1927, and Hughes is off in the California desert to direct "Hell's Angels," a mammoth re-creation of World War I aerial combat. The film's way over budget, way past deadline and industry insiders see Hughes' extravagance as evidence that "he's out of his mind." When he makes his entire cast and crew lie around for eight months while awaiting some clouds, we're inclined to agree. But there's method to his madness: Clouds increase the illusion of speed in the air. The movie opens, and is the "Titanic" of its day; Hughes is vindicated by its success.
For the first act, it's all up-up-up as Hughes does what any red-blooded young American male would devote himself to, with a vast inheritance at his disposal: the unbridled pursuit of speed and sex. Hughes parlays his aircraft design innovations from "Hell's Angels" into a proper aeronautics company, and eventual ownership of TWA, the first airline to go trans-Atlantic. All the while he personally tests the company's boldest new designs, resulting in some near-fatal crash landings (which Scorsese parlays into some terrifying sequences). His role as Hollywood mogul seems largely for the purpose of landing the hottest babes fame and money can buy: Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and many others.
And yet, as the film goes on to show, Hughes had to succeed because he was particularly ill-suited to failure. When Katherine Hepburn -- the only woman he could share his eccentricities and weaknesses with -- dumped him, or when Pan Am exec Juan Tripp decided to play hardball with him, he went to pieces. DiCaprio handles the young, brash woman-charming Hughes with ease, as would be expected, but he's particularly good in these moments, where Hughes' dark fears bubble up and he retreats to the bathroom, washing his hands obsessively until they bleed, or repeating a phrase like a skipping CD. (He must be the first actor in decades not to get an Oscar for his portrayal of mental illness.)
The film follows Hughes through his last moments of triumph: his victory against a corrupt, Pan Am-bought senator trying to crush TWA, and his final flight of the "Spruce Goose," the largest airplane ever built (as big as a city block), which had been largely ridiculed as a government boondoggle. Scorsese paints this as a moral victory of sorts, but he kind of misses the point. Hughes' obsessiveness in micro-managing this airplane's design, of calling for ever greater size, was a failure, not a triumph: The plane arrived too late to contribute to the war. Scorsese's generous fade-out at this point in Hughes' life leaves a false sense of achievement.
More damning are the crucial omissions in Hughes' back-story. The film includes one scene of Hughes as a child, being bathed by his mother, who warns him about life-threatening diseases. It's a sop to explaining his conflicted psyche and obsessive-compulsive disorder. But how does one explain his inability to become close with others without noting that Hughes' mother died suddenly when he was 16, and his father two years later? Now that could screw you up.
"The Aviator" is a gorgeous, rich film to watch. Cinematographer Robert Richardson mimics the look of film stock from the '30s and '40s, while production designer Dante Ferretti constructs opulent re-creations of the swank Hollywood nightclubs where Hughes took actresses on dates. And, as expected in a Scorsese film, it's scored to a jukebox's worth of period tunes, including ones from big-band giants like Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.
And yet, something seems to be missing. Perhaps it's all those great actors like John C. Reilly, Ian Holm and Jude Law who just seem like so much set dressing. There's a reason that Kate Blanchett got an Oscar for her turn as Hepburn here: It's an inspired, fearless piece of imitation, yes, but also the only performance that breathes with life, depth and intensity.
Intensity -- there's a word. There was a time when that was almost assured in a Scorsese film, in works like "Raging Bull" or "Taxi Driver" that hit you with the sickening jolt of a mescaline rush. Even a superficially mannered film like "Age of Innocence" burned with passion and emotional violence. But "The Aviator," despite its charms, never hits the same voltage, and the similarity of its themes to vintage Scorsese -- especially "Raging Bull" -- works to its detriment. Like "Kundun" and "Gangs of New York" before it, "The Aviator" seems so caught up in its historical detail that it fails to fully involve us in the characters. It's somewhat disconcerting to see a director who's so defined himself in opposition to Hollywood, falling into the same trap as other big-budget filmmakers. Be that as it may, all Scorsese is worth seeing, and "The Aviator's" three hours fly by all too fast; just don't expect to soar too high.