Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
The myth of Howard Hughes in his later years, a gnarled weirdo cocooned in a hotel room, casts such a powerful spell that The Aviator’s presentation of the magnate in his youth as a swashbuckling entrepreneur, airman, and lover, was almost bewildering. Inevitable accusations of soft-pedaling dogged it. Indeed, whilst the film is grazing in contemplating genius dissolved by madness, it avoids Hughes the obnoxious control freak, the rabid anti-Communist, anti-unionist, and anti-Semite. The younger Martin Scorsese would have loved tearing apart such a figure and his place in society. But The Aviator was a pet project of star Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off Gangs of New York. The appeal for him was a different Hughes legend, that of the upstart Texan who marched into Hollywood, spent a fortune to make a fortune, and set about doing all the sorts of things we’d like to do if we were young and rich—fly fast planes, make love to gorgeous movie stars, fearlessly boss around money men and politicians, and look good doing it. Michael Mann was originally going to direct, but with Mann tired of doing biopics, DiCaprio offered the reins to Scorsese. The director and DiCaprio’s visions matched in that The Aviator offered Scorsese an opportunity to evoke an era of glamour, electric with cultural action.
Inspired by his dark side and incipient madness, many filmmakers had built stories around that older, troubled Hughes, including Max Ophüls with his 1947 noir Caught, Jonathan Demme and his Melvin and Howard (1980), and even the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971). DiCaprio, screenwriter John Logan, and Scorsese succeeded by realizing that the best way to sell Hughes’ story was primarily as a giddy adventure, keeping one step ahead of Hughes’ assault from within and without. Hughes and the people who jostle in his world, like Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), Errol Flynn (Jude Law), Hughes’ pet what-the-hell plane designer Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), are infinitely much more vivid and interesting than the dullards who populate today’s celebrity and business worlds—including the actors who play them.
The Aviator follows Hughes’ career beginning in the late 1920s, when he set up the self-financed production of the WWI aviation epic Hell’s Angels, a production that dragged on for years, shifted from a silent to sound production, introduced Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), and ended up costing so much it didn’t make its money back on its first release in 1930. Hughes is swiftly introduced as a high-powered young man glad to have finally shoved off the mantle of “junior” with his parents’ deaths (perhaps also signaling DiCaprio’s determination to escape his post-Titanic boy heart-throb status). He’s going to spend his fortune from a company that manufactures drill bits as he wants. Hughes’ independent production is anathema to the Hollywood of the time; Hollywood titan Louis B. Mayer (David DiSantis) mocks his production methods and advises him to go home. At one point, Hughes keeps his fleet of aircraft—the largest private air force in the world—on the ground for months, waiting for clouds, the only way he can communicate to the camera lens, via relative motion, the speed of the aircraft. He hires a UCLA meteorology professor, Fitz (Ian Holm) just to keep an eye out for them. When they finally come, Hughes and his fleet cavort through the clouds to the strains of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in the first of the film’s brilliant aerial scenes.
When Hell’s Angels opens, its lavish premiere and rapturous reception make Hughes a star. But cracks are already beginning to show. In a vintage show of Scorsese’s technique, Hughes’ march along the red carpet with Harlow on his arm is a nightmarish experience, as flashbulbs explode (a Scorsese fetish) and shatter under his shoes, the crowd screams deafeningly, a woman hurls herself in front of him, and Hughes, deaf in one ear, can barely hear an interviewer’s questions. His brow, slick with pomade and jazz-baby style, wrinkles with fierce concentration of will just to make it through. It’s the first sign that though he loves courting adulation, it assaults his fragile senses.
Nevertheless Hughes launches a career as a Hollywood producer and playboy. He gets a date with Hepburn using the direct approach—he flies a seaplane to a beachfront set where she’s working with George Cukor and Cary Grant and asks her for a game of golf. In the course of this contest, however, she quickly outpaces him, with her mannish gait and motor-mouthed confidence: “Now we both know the sordid truth: I sweat, and you’re deaf. Aren’t we a fine pair of misfits?” Although their affair is possibly not much more than a fling, The Aviator pitches the Hughes/Hepburn romance as the centerpiece of his romantic life largely for the chance to explore oppositions—Hughes’ Texan industrialist rough edges against Hepburn’s Brahmin poise. Blanchett’s sharp, if initially broad, performance (the fifth in a Scorsese film to get an Oscar) aids her creating a portrait of Hepburn patterned after her signature character, Tracy Lord, from The Philadelphia Story—an apt characterization as Lord was in turn built around Hepburn’s persona. Hughes snares Hepburn by treating her to uncommon pleasures, like flying her by her night over Los Angeles, and keeps her dazzled with his energy. She quickly deduces Hughes’ underlying fragility, and warns him: “Howard, we’re not like everyone else. Too many acute angles. Too many eccentricities. We have to be very careful not to let people in, or they’ll make us into freaks.”
Hepburn comes from an arty old-money Connecticut family (her ex-husband lives with them). When she takes Howard to meet them, his true pride in his work and talents is swamped by familial blather and pseudo-intellectual talk. When Hepburn’s mother (Frances Conroy) casually says, “We don’t care about money here,” Hughes irritably ripostes, “That’s because you’ve always had it!” This places Hughes firmly among Scorsese’s socially resentful heroes. Though rich from birth, Hughes sees himself as combating “high-hat Ivy League assholes” and corporate giants like Pan-Am with earthy grit and old-school American can-do. His mix of neurosis and down-home intransigence spectacularly annoys Hepburn. One fight between the combustible pair results in her heading to a film set in tears, where Spencer Tracy (Kevin O’Rourke) asks her what’s wrong. “There’s too much Howard Hughes in Howard Hughes.” she sniffs, focusing on the actor who will soon fill her life instead. When she officially busts up with Hughes, he is snaky: “Don’t you ever talk down to me! You’re a movie star, nothing more!” Yet later he will intervene when a photographer (Willem Dafoe) plans to publish pictures of her and Tracy, who is still married to someone else.
Simultaneously, Hughes is conquering aviation. He achieves tremendous fame when he flies around the world. He and Odekirk work on a racing plane, which eventually becomes the fastest aircraft in the world. The H-1, which, when he flies it, breaks a speed record before running out of petrol, forcing Hughes to crash-land in a beet field; Hepburn at first mistakes the juice caking his legs for blood. Soon he’s taking over TWA and competing with Pan Am’s lethally smooth boss Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) for the future of commercial aviation. Key to his efforts is the new fleet of Lockheed Constellations. He also helps the U.S. Army’s war effort by producing the spy-plane XF-11 (“My Buck Rogers ship”) and his behemoth transport plane, the H-4 Hercules, also called the Spruce Goose. Such efforts anticipated today’s tactical and commercial airships, but were pursued with wild abandon; Hughes orders his frazzled manager Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) to hock assets, ignore shareholders, and generally spend fortunes on his latest wild idea. Hughes approaches business like a sport, delighting in defying belief and beating competitors, even as it slowly tears his mental muscle to ribbons.
Scorsese goes to town in evoking the thrill of Old Hollywood, as when Hughes and Hepburn visit the Cocoanut Grove, playground of Hollywood’s A listers, where dancing girls ride on swings and gloriously corny 1930s-style singers perform. Hughes and Hepburn are pestered by Errol Flynn (Law), who picks a pea off Hughes’ plate, preventing Hughes from being able to touch his meal, before Flynn gets in a fight with a man who calls him a “Limey bastard.” “I’m a Tasmanian bastard, you ignorant prick!” Flynn responds before ironing him out. It’s the most entertaining scene of Law’s career. The film’s visuals reproduce the effect of two-strip Technicolor, which Hughes used to shoot some of Hell’s Angels. He moves to the ripeness of three-strip Technicolor, making for gloriously weird effects, as the peas on Hughes’ plate appear turquoise. DP Robert Richardson won an Oscar for the film, though these effects were done post-production. Oddly enough, considering cinephilia has powered so much of his oeuvre, The Aviator is also the first Scorsese film to portray film-making and the movie world.
Hughes’ mental state begins to deteriorate after Hepburn leaves him. He incinerates all his clothes and searches for a new starlet to mould, interviewing ingénue Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) at night in a hangar. Hughes is seated in forbidding shadow, foreshadowing his ultimate retreat into monstrous isolation. When she tells him she’s 15, he mutters “Holy Mary, mother of God.” This doesn’t stop him romancing her and Ava Gardner simultaneously. Gardner, fiercely independent, resists Hughes’ romantic style of buying a girl, and mocks his personal cheapness. When Hughes takes Gardner out to dinner, a furiously jealous Domergue crashes her car into theirs—if only she’d ever been that spunky in her acting career! Later Gardner physically assaults Hughes and drives him from her house when she finds he’s been bugging her place: “What do you mean, all the microphones?”
Hughes finally cracks in the wake of a terrible crash—a tremendously powerful cinematic sequence in which the XF-11 falls from the sky and crashes into suburban Los Angeles. Hughes is almost pulped, and spends months recovering. His ambition for TWA to compete with Pan Am in post-War transatlantic trade results in Trippe calling in favors from bought-and-paid-for Maine senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), who proceeds to hound Hughes through several Senate committees and reinforce Pan Am’s monopoly with legislature. The Civil Aviation Board grounds all Constellations after a crash, threatening TWA’s future. Treating Howard to a luncheon in his New York hotel room, Brewster presses him to sell out to Pan Am, before he spills the dirt he’s collected and brands him a war profiteer for money Hughes made on the XF-11 and the Hercules. Brewster coolly assumes the mantle of government authority: “We just beat Germany and Japan. Who the hell are you?” The combined effect of all this drives Hughes to lock himself in his office for months, spiraling into a prolonged obsessive-compulsive fit.
Although efficient, Logan’s script is one of the most standard and Hollywoodish of Scorsese’s films. And yet, under the candy-colored gloss of The Aviator is an acute portrait a man in whom genius and mental illness were intricately linked. Hughes’ business in the 1960s reflected his own paranoia, as he made listening devices for the government. The Aviator opens with a warm yet creepy scene from Hughes’ childhood, where his beautiful mother Allene (Amy Sloan) washes him down at a disturbingly advanced age in a tin bath, making him spell the word “Q-u-a-r-a-n-t-i-n-e” and harping on about outbreaks of illness. From this point of textbook Freud onwards, Hughes’ obsessions are delicately entwined, especially his sensual thrills. The erotic satisfaction Hughes gains in flying—he needs to fly in front of clouds that look like “giant breasts full of milk,” and caresses the skin of the H-4 like that of a woman—matches his fixation on large breasts and his desire for cleanliness. He swills milk, both because of its maternal and sexual associations and because it’s reliably disease-free. He alternates design discussions over the Hercules with blueprints, indiscernibly different, of the cantilever bra he’s designed to show off Jane Russell’s boobs when he directed her in her debut film, The Outlaw. Hughes’ eroticisation of technology predicts a strong tendency today in everything from advertising to pornography. He can swap bodily fluids with all the women in the universe, yet still fear touching a steering wheel because of the association he has between sleek curves and cleanliness. “I want her clean, Odie!” he commands in reducing the wind resistance of rivets on the H-1.
Scorsese reveals Hughes’ brain as working like a supercomputer in one scene when he refocuses his attention to the Hercules’ design; Scorsese inserts quick-scrolling blueprint images. Shortly thereafter, Hughes fixates on a sweeper, his simple acts imbued with alien quality, establishing a direct link in film-making between Hughes’ mind working precisely and Hughes’ mind working faultily. His commitment to detail underpins both his success and his ultimate collapse into obsessive-compulsive disorder. Increasingly, Hughes deals with moments of romantic or business trial by retreating to the bathroom and furiously scrubbing his hands with a cake of soap he keeps in a tin. In a grimly funny scene, after such a cleansing session following a run-in with Trippe, he realizes he can’t touch the doorknob to leave the washroom.
Once Howard locks himself in his office, his disease runs riot as he endlessly repeats phrases, strips naked, and fills up precisely placed milk bottles with his own urine. He watches his films in endless loops, Jane Russell’s lips constantly zooming up like an offering of sexual annihilation, or violence from Hell’s Angels projected on his body evokes his mental and physical agony. Hepburn’s entreaties at his door are ineffectual. He receives a provocative visit by Trippe, promising his destruction in public hearings Brewster is holding. Trippe even blows smoke through the keyhole to irritate him. Hughes soon gathers himself together enough to leave his office, and lets Ava clean him up. Hughes proceeds to reduce Brewster’s interrogation to comedy, turning all of his questions back and effectively answering all charges. He proceeds to give the Hercules its first and only flight, managing to coax the mammoth plane whose size and shape predicts the airbus, into the air. It’s a rousing moment, but Scorsese delivers a mean sucker punch of an anticlimax, as Howard, raving to Gardner, Dietrich, and Odekirk about the coming jet age, spies white-gloved handlers who his brain processes once again as alien, and begins repeating the line, “The way of the future,” over and over. And over and over. Escorted into a toilet to get a grip, Howard gives up trying to control it, staring at himself in the mirror, still repeating “The way of the future”—a phrase that winds together his vision of progress and an acceptance, even an embrace, of his fate, retreating into solitary, self-obsessed dissolution.
The portrait of a man who wins everything but loses to himself is heartland Scorsese territory, but The Aviator lacks the lacerating weirdness of Raging Bull or his other portraits of humans who stake their souls on victory in the rat race. That’s not to condemn the film, which, though Scorsese’s brilliance comes in short bursts rather than rapid fire, moves sleekly and with huge entertainment value for nearly three hours. The film is much like DiCaprio’s performance at the center; dynamic, sustained, delightful, but lacking the manly muscle and loopy, personal force of its precursors.