You get a sense of Howard Hughes being Icarus with the waxed wings…He’s gotta fly out of the labyrinth. But he never could, because the labyrinth was himself.
— Martin Scorsese
That combination of internal struggle and grandiose mythmaking gets at the heart of what makes The Aviator as powerful as it is. It represents the union of Scorsese’s two conflicting artistic urges: to expand outward into a recreation of the panoramic epics of his youth and to contract inward into an intimate study of the individual human mind. Think of it as a hundred-million-dollar Taxi Driver.
The movie has done something to restore its subject’s reputation, dramatizing his earlier, happier years in the production of Hell’s Angels, then the most expensive movie ever made, his relationships with glamorous stars like Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, as inhabited by Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale, and his many aviation innovations. But his future in that dark hotel room in Las Vegas is always lurking in the shadows.
It’s nothing new for a biopic to depend for much of its power on the viewer’s previous knowledge of its subject. As our own Miller so aptly put it, most of them are “movies that aspire to be dioramas,” recreations of familiar people and moments. But The Aviator is something else entirely: the public image of Hughes as a creepy, old, obsessive recluse looms ghostlike of the young, glamorous Hughes we see here. Every involuntary tic and nervous breakdown is a foreshadowing of the illness that would eventually destroy him.
I have to imagine this would be an entirely different film for someone who was learning about Hughes for the first time, and I wonder if that’s a failing. But then, if you don’t already know, The Aviator drops enough hints to show where Hughes’ life is going. There’s even a preview of his ignominious Vegas residency in the film’s most harrowing sequence, when he locks himself in a screening room for weeks. DiCaprio is at his best here, but the horror comes out most vividly in subtle visual details, like a pan across Hughes’ carefully lined-up bottles of urine that just keeps on going and going long after we think there couldn’t possibly be any more.
At some points, Hughes seems literally haunted by his future. He interrupts a consultation with Matt Ross as his engineer, Odekirk, to obsess over an old man sweeping across the room. We see through Hughes’ eyes as the screen flashes an extreme close-up of the man’s long, dirty fingernails, an image that’s as associated with Hughes himself as Lincoln’s mole or Gorbachev’s birthmark. And then we get a flash-forward, so brief it’s almost literally a flash, of the future Hughes, shaggy, naked, and alone.
To say that Hollywood has a less than stellar history portraying mental illness is about as big an understatement as saying Jaws was a little unkind to sharks. But Scorsese puts the work in here, drawing on the same deep well of experience with depression and isolation that informs all his character studies and working closely with UCLA psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. For his part, DiCaprio spent a long time working with a real-life OCD patient, who inspired one of the film’s most visceral shocks, when Hughes scrubs his hands until they bleed.
For my part, I’ve never had to deal with the same illness as Hughes did. But I have reckoned with some of the same symptoms, and I’ve never seen them captured so intensely onscreen: the suffocating terror of crowds, the struggle of maintaining composure in public when your body and brain seem to turn against you, the overwhelm of trying to keep up with a conversation that seems to be racing in a million directions at once.
Certainly, no other movie has so powerfully captured the horror of social anxiety. There’s a scene in Raging Bull of a wall of photographers intercut with brief, extreme close-ups of their equipment and the explosions of their flashbulbs. Starting around the time he made Casino, Scorsese worked a recreation of this scene into nearly every movie he made, and with The Aviator, it becomes clear why. He was molding the technique into its perfect shape before he found the perfect use for it. In The Aviator, the flashing cameras become a horrible image of sensory overload, no longer a filmmaker reveling in showing off the tools of his trade, but a nightmare of the searing, judging eye of the crowd. Cinematographer Robert Richardson had made overexposure his personal fingerprint, and he too finds the perfect outlet for his artistic tics here to create a world where the light of day is as harsh and blinding to the audience as it must have been to Hughes.
When my gigantic Scorsese Experience project collapsed under its own weight a few years ago, I was disappointed I ran out of steam just as I was getting into this, the most exciting period of Scorsese’s career. After box-office successes like Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese finally had the power to put his own stamp on the spectacles he loved as a child. He wasn’t messing around either — just as Hughes kept shoveling pile after pile of cash into Hell’s Angels, Scorsese put up $50,000 of his own money to keep production running to his satisfaction after it went over budget.
It’s ironic, given the shitstorm he recently ignited by dismissing the Marvel franchise as “theme park movies,” but the theme park movies of another era have always loomed large in his filmography — though as we’ve seen, it coexists with the “cinema of human emotions” he criticized newer blockbusters for lacking. In his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and dozens of interviews, he’ll wax poetic about the westerns and Technicolor Cinemascope epics that made him want to be a filmmaker. Even as an adult, he lists the more cerebral spectacles of Powell and Pressburger and Jean Renoir’s The River among his favorites.
You can see that impulse in Scorsese’s generation-spanning gangster epics. But the critical emphasis on these relatively minimalist, macho films overlooks one of the greatest strengths of Scorsese’s epic period: its sumptuousness. That’s on full display in The Aviator, thanks in no small part to Richardson and production designer Dante Ferreti. Scorsese’s ascension to Hollywood royalty came at the perfect time, as new digital technology gave him unprecedented control over the colors onscreen. Most turn-of-the-millennium filmmakers abused this power to create eye-gougingly garish images, Scorsese and Richardson apply them with a painter’s touch.
There’s nothing here quite as spectacular as Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography on Gangs of New York, where he somehow managed to create fleshtones that were red, green, and gold all at once. But it’s miles ahead of nearly every other film.
Almost the first hour of the movie recreates the two-strip Technicolor process of early color film, turning everything into shades of pink and blue — most mind-bendingly when Hugh meets Hepburn for a golf game and the green isn’t green. It’s quite possibly the most elaborate inside joke in movie history, and I have no idea what the millions of viewers who don’t know this historical tidbit would make of it.
But it’s more than just a joke to Scorsese: he explains, “The reason is that when I think of Old Hollywood, when I think of that time and the old Hollywood, I see it in my mind as kind of a memory, a sense memory of having seen films when I was a kid in a theater that had less expensive color techniques, usually two-color techniques called CineColor and things like that. So they were kind of magical in a way. So I imagined like a little paintbox of Hollywood at the time, almost like hand-painted frames.” And it’s not just empty style. Form follows function: the technique makes DiCaprio’s haunted blue eyes seem to pierce through the screen.
As we move into the World War II era, the frame transitions from two-strip Technicolor to an emulation of the more mature and widespread three-strip process. Scorsese smooths the transitions by dividing the two sections with black-and-white documentary footage. But then, he doesn’t want it to be too smooth. Why else would he slam it right into your face by filling the first full-color scene with eye-poppingly rich green, the color that had been missing up until this point?
That scene takes place in the office of Alec Baldwin as Hughes’ rival aircraft mogul Juan Trippe, and it probably says something about Ferretti’s approach that such a quotidian location is so gorgeously designed, historically accurate or not. The casting’s just as extravagant, with stars like Gwen Stefani, Jude Law, and Willem Dafoe popping in and out in bit parts. It’s another tribute to the star-studded spectacles of Scorsese’s youth, though fortunately none of them are as out of place as, for instance, John Wayne’s one line in King of Kings (“Surely this is the Son of Gawwdd.”) And on another level, their presence makes sense, because you need a star to play a star — who’d ever believe Joe Schmoe Character Actor as Errol Flynn or Ava Gardner?
The most notable of these performances is Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning role as Katharine Hepburn. When she first appears, she inspires some apprehension that we’re entering movie-as-diorama territory. Hepburn was practically a cartoon character in real life already (as well as in dozens of Looney Tunes cartoons using her catchphrase “Raaahhhhlly I do”), and in her introductory scene, Blanchett seems less like she’s playing the real Hepburn and more like she’s playing her motormouthed character from Bringing Up Baby. Fortunately, that’s not the case for the rest of the movie. As it goes on, Blanchett fleshes out progressively more humanity behind her New England drawl, until her final scene, where she reappears (like real biographies, and unlike most movies, characters simply drift in and back out, some never to be seen again) to try and shake Hughes out of his isolation.
Unfortunately, the task of fleshing Hebburn out is all on Blanchett’s shoulders. Scorsese directed some truly great female characters in the first half of his career, either as leads, like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, or in the strong supporting roles played by actresses like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull and Rosanna Arquette in New York Stories, all of them battered but never beaten. But, depending on how you look at it, that streak ended with either Sharon Stone in Casino or Rossana’s sister Patricia Arquette in Bringing Out the Dead. He’s still gotten great performances from his actresses, like Margot Robbie’s star-making role in Wolf of Wall Street. But he seems to have lost his interest in or ability to give them three-dimensional characters to inhabit.
Spectacle means special effects, of course, and Scorsese adapted to the new age of effects technology far better than many far younger filmmakers, just as he adapted to the new possibilities of color correction, and just as he did in the expansive green-screen universes of his previous film, Gangs of New York and his later 3D spectacular, Hugo. It helps that old-fashioned was in at the time he made The Aviator: Michael Bay’s disastrous Pearl Harbor inspired Scorsese to use solid models instead of digital illusions as much as possible, even reviving tricks from Hughes’ time like hanging miniatures that could align with the actors standing behind them. And even if what CGI there is looks a little dodgy from a distance of fifteen years, scenes like Hughes’ second plane crash are still shocking, in no small part thanks to old-fashioned filmmaking bravado, as Scorsese focuses, Spielberg-like, on the reactions of the ordinary people feeling the ground rumble and seeing an enormous blade slicing through their homes.
Scorsese’s most obvious debt to the classic epic film is in The Aviator’s epic length; like most of his late-period films, it runs nearly three hours, even if it doesn’t include an overture or intermission. When I reviewed Goodfellas years ago, I said that, “at barely more than two hours,” “it feels like a three-hour bum-number.” That’s never a problem in The Aviator — I paused it a few times in my last viewing to see how far along I was, and I was always shocked by how much time had flown by.
Many critics have said that The Aviator, like Ed Wood, is the kind of movie its subject might have made about himself. Like Ed Wood, it takes a character who’s long been dismissed and scorned as a freak and reclaims his humanity, takes a legendary failure and illuminates the scale of his achievements. The two movies certainly share this much: they both pull off the trick of finding a happy ending to an unhappy life by choosing the exact right moment to end on. Ed Wood ended with Ed walking out of the premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space before it could be held up as the worst movie ever made and he could descend into alcoholism. The Aviator ends with Hughes finally completing his own labor of love, as his massive boondoggle of an airborne troop transport, the Spruce Goose, finally lifts off.
But Howard Hughes didn’t make The Aviator, and it’s much more cynical than Ed Wood about how high of a note its hero goes out on. In the middle of a party celebrating Hughes’ greatness, he’s suddenly struck by his paranoid delusions. We see two partygoers, perhaps as they appear in his deluded mind, in suits and white gloves, slowly advancing towards him with military posture. Worse, Hughes’ own mouth turns on him, and he begins repeating “the way of the future” seemingly hundreds of times, not just mad but maddening.
This is a condition called palialia, and it’s one we’ve seen Hughes deal with many times before. But all those other times he dealt with it, returning to his fragile normalcy after a minute or less, even after he cut himself off from reality and had to bring himself back for his negotiations with Juan Trippe. But the “way of the future” won’t stop, and all Hughes’ handlers can do is hide him from the crowd by stuffing him in the bathroom. In there, Scorsese takes his mainstream Hollywood epic somewhere artier and stranger as DiCaprio continues repeating “way of the future” in the dark until the credits roll. The implication is clear, hopefully even to viewers who know nothing about Hughes. The way of his future leads nowhere.
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