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May 29, 2007

DVD Journal: "The Aviator"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"The Aviator." I watched this Martin Scorsese biopic about the engineer, aviator, and tycoon Howard Hughes thinking "Good lord, but Scorsese seems like a spent volcano, doesn't he?" But I also didn't mind sticking with the film all the way through. Final verdict: dull but watchable.

The film's main inspiration is to use the trappings of Hollywood period spectacle -- crowds, cars, costumes, etc -- in the service of what's meant to be an intense character study. Its main shortcoming is that the character study isn't very compelling.

The film's primary drawback is that it has a narrative angle that imposes repetitiveness. The picture -- which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes -- confines itself to a relatively brief stretch of Hughes' life: from his early years in Hollywood making "Hell's Angels" to his triumph / failure with his giant wooden airplane, the Spruce Goose. (There's nothing of Hughes' later years as a legendary recluse surrounded by tissue paper and Mormons.) During the 20ish-year stretch that the film covers, Hughes achieves great things. He's also first touched by, then eaten-away at by obsessive-compulsive behavior.

The film's dramatic idea is that, as Hughes' mental illness grew worse, he channeled more and more of his creativity and his brains into managing an ever-shrinking personal world. As valid or not-valid as this idea is in psychological terms, it means that the film has nowhere to go that you can't see coming. One after another, gorgeous new planes are wheeled out of hangars; one after another, Hughes' obsessive-compulsive behavior problems grow more dire. That cycle -- a new engineering triumph that's contrasted with a new pitch of madness -- repeats itself over and over until, you know, things finally get really bad.

And that's all the 2 hour and 50 minute long film has to offer in the way of dramatic development. I'm sympathetic to the need filmmakers have to shape something narratively coherent out of the infinite bundle of facts that is a biography. But I wonder if in this case the filmmakers (the movie seems to have been mainly DiCaprio's project, with screenwriter John Logan and Scorsese coming on board along the line) didn't over-restrict their possibilities.

They opt, for instance, to forgo spending much time on Hughes' romantic life, although he put a considerable amount of his energies into playing Hollywood Lothario. (Some of his conquests, according to Wikipedia: Billie Dove, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, and Olivia DeHavilland.) More time spent on his luvvv adventures would have provided contrast, shadings, and relief from the cycle of plane / madness / plane / madness that bogs the film down.

Even so, the film might have worked in some monomaniacal way had it achieved more intensity. It got me remembering Truffaut's brilliant "The Story of Adele H.", which told a similar, fact-based story of relentless drive and deterioration. (The Wife was reminded more of Rossellini's "The Rise to Power of Louis XIV," which doesn't seem to be available on DVD.) But "Adele H." was unadorned and relatively short; it was like a quick, simple needle to the brain. "The Aviator" feels bloated and conventional, as though the filmmakers thought they needed to provide a lot of candy-coating to get the public to swallow their harsh little psychological study. Nothing wrong with candy, of course. It's just that, in this case, the heaps of production value seemed to me to dissipate the film's charge.

Another reason "The Aviator" had me thinking of "Adele H." was the film's central performance. "Adele H." featured a feverish and luminous performance by Isabelle Adjani. Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes isn't in the same league. He's certainly a very gifted actor, and as Hughes he certainly shows plenty of his skill and his talent, not to mention his commitment to the project. But he seemed to me to have miscast himself badly.

Hughes was a rangy Texan who was also a spoiled rich kid accustomed to having his way. With his broad, soft face and his stooped, shapeless body, DiCaprio comes across like something else entirely. Hughes was a stud, an engineer, and a tycoon; ego, command, and aggression came easily to him. He took chances, including dangerous and stupid ones, just because he could. DiCaprio is like a slightly overage boy-band singer -- sexy in a puppydog way, but commanding no manly authority at all.

All that noted, the film wasn't by any means an awful experience. As the Wife said, "At least it's a movie." It was made with craft and care ... The planes and the period recreations may muffle the film's dramatic impact, but they're also sorta fun ... Cate Blanchett gives an entertainingly go-for-broke, wayward performance as Katharine Hepburn ... But the film's main payoff is its genuine interest in Howard Hughes. It isn't doing its own thing, or using Hughes as a pretext for something else. It's wrestling with the event that was Hughes. Downside: it was hard not to react to the film by thinking, "If the facts about Hughes are all that I'm finding interesting here, then I'd rather watch a documentary." Upside: at least it rekindled our interest in Hughes.

The filmmakers -- or whoever was responsible for the DVD -- have been generous. The 2-disc package in fact includes a History Channel documentary about Hughes, as well as some interviews and short items about Hughes and obsessive-compulsive disorder, alongside the usual pretty-interesting featurettes about special effects, storyboarding, and such. Afterwards, the Wife and I had a good time researching Howard Hughes online and gabbing about the guy. What a phenom he was. The DVD is an amazing bargain at its current price. Another film for those interested in Hughes to watch is Jonathan Demme's wonderful dramedy "Melvin and Howard."



posted by Michael at May 29, 2007


It's exciting that you mentioned "The Story of Adele H". I think it's Truffaut's best. I love stories that deal with unrequieted love (they generally are more romantic than tales were the lovers do fall into each other's arms). This one is a love story devoid of romance, but not of passionate idealism. "Adele H. reminds me of "Taxi Driver" in it's depiction of a relentless character that begins to go mad and continues to act out their view of the world. However, I will controversially state that I think Isabelle Adjani is a better actor than Robert De Niro! This makes for a better movie. There's something about the way she's photographed in that film that brings a new psychological depth to characterization; something that's missing from the metallic Scorcese film "The Aviator". It's great that you mentioned it. I've been wondering for some time why Truffaut directed "Adele H." so well, and yet never brought the same passion or dedication to most of his other films. Was it the subject matter that raised his talents, and if so, why was Adele Hugo's story so personal for him?

Posted by: David Brown on May 29, 2007 1:18 PM

Interesting. I liked it better than you. I will say that I think DiCaprio came closer to the "real Howard Hughes" than you state, at least from people who knew him. "Command and aggression" did not actually "come easily" to him---although he did plenty of both. He was very shy. It's why he had to have big airplanes. He could say to a starlet "Wanna ride in my airplane?" to give him something to do and show off. I thought DiCaprio gave quite a performance, actually.

Plus, I remember the relationships with Hepburn and Ava Gardner taking up a fair amount of the movie, including the womanizing which ended the engagement to Hepburn. And the opposite end of the spectrum--the crazy posessiveness which ended the relationship with Gardner.

I did think the slow-motion descent-into-madness thing was just too long---at least 30 minutes could be cut out of the movie, if not more. There is an "OK-OK-I got-it-already!" feeling about his increasing obsessive-compulsive problems. I also, before this movie, was unaware of his super-competitiveness with whatshisname who ran Pan Am.

I also wish they had explored a little more of the root cause of his problem---were either of his parents disturbed? Or what? Was any of this evident in his youth? Rather than just giving you the creepy-crawlies about his growing isolation and germ fetish.

But I agree with the Wife---it is a real movie, which seemed rare and surprising to me, when I saw it---a reminder of what seems missing from a lot of current films. I guess Scorsese, even as a "spent volcano" is more talented than most.

Posted by: annette on May 29, 2007 1:24 PM

David -- Truffaut was an odd one, wasn't he? He made three or four really amazing movies, a couple of seriously-intended duds, and a whole bunch of semi-watchable drivel. I wonder how to explain that. I wonder if he found it so painful to make movies that had any sting that he went there only rarely. Maybe he was grateful and relieved just to have made a place for himself in the moviebiz, and was more than happy to crank 'em out. I remember from a bio I once read that he was a very odd duck, and not a totally pleasant one. Shockeroonie: he could be a user. Any theories about this?

Annette -- Yeah, I can see everything you're saying. Seems to me what the film lacked though was a sense of Hughes' drive. Shy or not-shy, he managed to foist an awful lot on the world. Where'd that fire or compulsion come from? Or at least: what was it? Similarly, you never actually see him pursue any of the actresses. I didn't see it in the writing or in DiCaprio's performance, but it's interesting to learn that you did. Funny to learn from the History Channel bio that Hughes loved to go up in one of his planes and just fly around over the ocean and over L.A. ... What a strange guy, eh? Made me wonder about the role being born rich played in it all too. People with inexhaustible financial resources can really live it out in ways the rest of us never have a chance to ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 29, 2007 1:49 PM

If it's Hughes you're after, do check out The Hoax, which is still out now in some places. (Clearview on 62nd & First, according to Moviefone.)

Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving - who as you prolly know wrote a phony bio of Hughes - as a very funnily desperate never-say-die do-anything-to-beat-the-Establishment type loser, who's having so much fun lying he forgets what the truth even is. And the great Alfred Molina plays his hangdog best friend. I'd call it "well done and entertaining".

There's also F For Fake, of course.

Posted by: Brian on May 29, 2007 2:15 PM

Not being a fan of Scorcese's films, I came to The Aviator from a different place. It is certainly Scorcese's most conventional film, and I probably enjoyed it for that reason. The film's central problem to me was DiCaprio. Based on the things I've heard and read about Hughes, he had a rather recessive personality, but since the film's thesis is to present him as a tragically flawed visionary, it needed an actor who could project a force of personality that DiCaprio lacks.

I watched the film a second time and as I thought about it, it diminished in quality. Perhaps the real problem is that the achievements the film touts were much less significant than the film protrays them. Ultimately, Hughes was a very rich guy who made his own rules and bought very expensive toys, including his women. And that's the expression of an adolescent male fantasy that I don't find very interesting now.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 29, 2007 3:14 PM

Yes, I see what you mean---if they should have "explained" the growing madness more, then they also should have "explained" his drive more, or shown from where it sprang. The point of the title "Aviator" was intended to show that Hughes, was, first and foremost, a flyer, an aviator (not a flimmaker, not a recluse, but an aviator). I am unsure if it really did explain him that way, though, although it was clear he was very knowledgeable about and passionate about flying and planes.

Posted by: annette on May 29, 2007 3:57 PM

I remember a made-for-TV movie, 'The Amazing Howard Hughes', that starred an actor who really sold the 'ego, command, and aggression' side of Hughes--Tommy Lee Jones. Now that was a 'stud'.

Michael, when you say that Truffaut may have been a 'user', I'm not sure what you mean. A drug user? I may be revealing nothing more than my obliviousness with the question, but I found that comment a headscratcher. Help?

Posted by: PatrickH on May 29, 2007 4:49 PM

Maybe Francois Truffaut, like Antoine Doinel, was spoiled? I hope not. I never saw Truffaut as a Leonardo DiCaprio type.

Posted by: David Brown on May 29, 2007 6:28 PM

Brian -- Thanks for the recommendation, I'm adding it to my Netflix queue. Gere occasionally comes through with a real performance, doesn't he?

Peter -- Yeah, that all makes sense to me. I wonder sometimes, watching biopics about business titans, how heroically to see them. Tucker, for instance. Or Hughes: interesting that they did nothing in the final film with an incident where Hughes was drunk-driving and killed a guy. He wanted to have things his way and he was maybe a little too eager for that to come true ...

Annette -- I just didn't feel the guy's oomph enough, I think. I mean, even if he had a shy demeanour, he still went to Hollywood, still founded companies, still made movies, still bedded stars, still faced-down a Congressional hearing ... Those aren't things a truly shy person does. So I find myself wondering how they might have shown his driven side more convincingly. Maybe via the babes? But you probably have a better sense of what they might have done.

Patrick H -- The Wife saw that TV biopic! She tells me Tommy Lee Jones was just great. As for Truffaut being a "user," sorry I should have chosen my word more carefully. I don't recall anything about him doing drugs, just that he could be mighty self-centered and cold, especially given his rep for charm. He seems to have married first time around, for instance, almost entirely as a way to get into the movie business. Brrrr.

David -- I think Truffaut was pretty screwy, psychologically. Very abandoned as a kid, compulsive about seducing women, claiming to love them while often treating them not very well ... It seemed clear, in that one bio at least, that he was kind of wreaking his revenge on his mom.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 29, 2007 7:42 PM

Isn't "wreaking his revenge on his mom" what all men are supposed to be doing all the time?? While also trying to get her to love them?? Just like women are always courting daddy...

Just one more comment, as I have thought about your comments about the film. I must ackowledge you have demonstrated insight here. Hmmmm. Upending my whole view of the world, and all...But what Scorsese's best movies always did is demonstrate the motivation if the main, male character. "Taxi Driver", "The Age of Innocence" made you understand where he was coming from---admirable or not, sane or not. I guess you are correct, that it was less clear where Hughes came from, rather than showing were he wound up. (But as for bedding babes...remember, Hughes produced films and was a really rich guy. How hard do you really think he had to "work", or how charming--or even aggressive-- did he need to be, to bed Hollywood actresses? I think he produced movies so he didn't need to "seduce" much.).

Posted by: annette on May 30, 2007 9:41 AM

Annette -- My life, finally explained! (Sorry, Mom.)

I think you're actually suggesting a great idea -- show Hughes' determination to conquer showbiz as (among other things) a way to land the country's most famous babes. Once a successful producer, then he could just let 'em fall in his lap. Or on his lap, or something. I guess I just didn't feel the Hughes egotism, or hardness, or entitlement, or self-interestedness (or whatever it was that drove him) vividly enough. It was interesting to see Hughes in some of the docu footage included on the disc -- they show a clip of him during the Congressional hearings, and he *dominates.* Leo's an awfully gifted actor, but that kind of dominating quality doesn't seem to be in his range. (If Leo plays hardball, he does it in a very different style.) He played Hughes as a kind of artist figure, don't you think? Which is an interesting (and even seductive) idea, but I guess I just wasn't buying it ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 30, 2007 10:17 AM

I think you nailed it, Michael. It's not a bad movie, but casting DiCaprio was like putting a stake in it. It seemed, for all the whizzing about, almost motionless.

The essense of your dialogue with Annette would have made an interesting movie, wouldn't it? Because you're both right. He was both disengaged and brutally, dynamically manipulative. And enormously talented.

DiCaprio is a good actor, but he could no more play Hughes than I could play June Cleaver.

Posted by: Sluggo on May 30, 2007 11:58 AM

Well, Sluggo, I haven't actually met you, so the similarities between you and June Cleaver are a bit unknown...:) tee hee. (It reminds me of a college English class when a prof discussed Hemingway describing Maria's hair as being "like a beaver pelt." And he commented how obscure a reference that would for most people (not all)---how many people have ever really seen a beaver pelt? What a dumb simile, in the prof's opinion).

Anyway---I give, I guess they needed to cast a young Gene Hackman as Hughes, or something.

Posted by: annette on May 30, 2007 12:55 PM

Let's just say I might be cast as the Beev's mom in the Dyspeptic Sumo Road Show.

Hackman would be good. It's got to be someone who can clear the space in front of him.

Posted by: Sluggo on May 30, 2007 1:21 PM

I thought DiCaprio was miscast in THE DEPARTED too, as a dour, sunken-in tough-guy type. I found him much better in BLOOD DIAMOND, as a fast-talking, charming mercenary/hustler. He's better at these quick-witted romantic wiseguy roles, I think. His star-making turn in TITANTIC was a kiddie version of that.

Posted by: Steve on May 30, 2007 3:24 PM

The movie was entitled "The Aviator" for a reason -- it was primarily about Howard Hughes and the golden age of aviation, a topic I clearly find a lot more interesting than you do. I have to give Scorsese a lot of credit for focusing on airplanes, rather than on movie-making or corruption and conspiracy. Who would have expected that from Scorsese?

As for DiCaprio, yes, he looks all wrong for most of his roles, but, oh man, is he ever a movie star... I've given up criticizing DiCaprio for his looks, it's like saying you can't stand "Casablanca" because Humphrey Bogart doesn't look like a romantic leading man.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 30, 2007 6:53 PM

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