The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s film biography of Howard Hughes, is as tight and economical as his last picture, Gangs of New York, was logy and bloated. At a running time of nearly three hours, Scorsese has included not a wasted minute, nor any scene that doesn’t achieve its purpose. The screenplay, by John Logan (The Last Samurai), takes an elliptical approach to Hughes’ life, focusing largely on the period from 1927 to 1947, in which Hughes made his greatest achievements but also began his long, sad decline. Scorsese makes no attempt to ease the viewer into the story; the opening scenes are all quick jabs, giving us names, locations, and events seemingly at random, sketching Hughes’ temperament and habits without any unnecessary exposition. As the film builds, it slows down a little, bringing events into sharper focus and clearer chronology without losing emphasis or form. The script telescopes time and condenses incidents into punchy vignettes, giving us the flavor of the period and the character of the man while not adhering strictly to historical fact.
The first hour of the film, covering roughly a decade, recreates the feel of its time and place — giddy high spirits and grandiose ambitions — without condescending to them, making them seem merely quaint. The early scenes at the Hollywood night club, The Cocoanut Grove (where singer Rufus Wainwright lewdly and ecstatically recreates the vocal stylings of the period), are full of the slightly degenerate pleasures we recognize from some ’30s films, and the recreations of Hughes’ exploits filming his directorial debut, Hell’s Angels, and the other aeronautic sequences capture the heady excitement and danger of the early days of aviation. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is vivid, rich, and excitingly layered; the sequence of Hughes’ XF-11 crash in Beverly Hills (which nearly killed him) is thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.
Scorsese has dreamed up an ingenious method of specifying the period — he’s printed each sequence so that it matches up with the color film process available at the time it’s set, so that the earliest scenes are toned in the browns, grays, and deep reds of Cinecolor; the next have the greenish tint of early two-strip Technicolor; and the closing scenes have the overripe intensity of classic three-strip Technicolor. Not everyone will catch what’s going on — it hit me out of the blue a couple of days after I saw the film — but it’s an effective way of establishing the period visually, even if you don’t know squat about color processes.
As Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio ages, disintegrates, and rallies convincingly throughout the two decades depicted. His accent is off — a high, nasal bark, it sounds more Southeastern than Texan, and it doesn’t match Hughes’ actual voice in archival recordings — but his performance brings out Hughes’ daring, aggression, obsessiveness, and weakness without resorting to cliched tricks. He uses his high, wide, unusually expressive forehead like a little movie screen, projecting Hughes’ agitated mental state into it through an ever-evolving array of furrows and twitches.
Scorsese gets an even richer performance out of Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Hughes’ lover in the late ’30s and early ’40s. In her early scenes, Blanchett’s performance seems merely like skillful mimicry, capturing Hepburn’s Bryn Mawr accent and coltish manner, but as the relationship evolves and she fleshes out the character, it builds into a convincingly rounded portrait of Hepburn’s wit, vivacity, and brittle Puritanism. Blanchett’s features are less delicate than Hepburn’s, but she has the right sharp physicality for the role, and, with the dead-on costuming and hair and her grasp of Hepburn’s distinctive style, she embodies her spirit so well that at times you forget you’re watching a mere recreation. A visit to the Hepburn estate in Connecticut provides background; watching the interaction of the various Hepburn family members and Katherine’s ex-husband (Ludlow “Luddy” Ogden Smith, whom the family virtually adopted following their split) gives us a greater understanding of her high-minded eccentricities and offers a stark contrast to the plain-spoken Hughes and his more plebeian tastes. As Hepburn’s mother (also named Katharine), Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”) is costumed and styled like Hepburn in her grande dame years and does a creditable job of recreating her voice and manner.
In smaller roles, Kate Beckinsale delivers a delightfully overheated, breathy Ava Gardner and Alan Alda is alternately slimy and apoplectic as Ralph Owen Brewster, a Senator in the pocket of Hughes’ major rival, Pan-Am’s Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), who tries to use his power to bring Hughes down. Ian Holm delivers a fine comic performance as the meteorologist Hughes hires to find clouds “like breasts full of milk” for a sequence in Hells Angels and then becomes a sort of mascot and occasional pinch-hitter in some of Hughes’ more outlandish schemes. The performances are uniformly great — even the smallest roles are well cast; no one ever seems off-pitch.
Hughes’ life has been fodder for films since at least 1948 (in Max Ophuls’ roman à clef, Caught), with over a dozen versions of his life developed for either the big screen or television. Scorsese takes a characteristically idiosyncratic approach. Having been brought in as a hired gun by DiCaprio, who shepherded the development of the project over a period of years, Scorsese made it his own, imposing his own interests and preoccupations, using Hughes’ story to explore the America and especially the movie industry of the period. Scorsese is clearly captivated by the glamour and electricity of old Hollywood, when the stars really did seem larger than life and a maverick movie director could appear positively Homeric. The Aviator is a film made by a movie nut for other movie nuts; I, for one, am grateful.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Aviator / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()