April 5, 2006

The Aviator (2004)
Grade: 67/100

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale

What it's about. Young Howard Hughes inherits a ton of money, and invests it in his two chief interests, aviation and movie-making. Aviation is what he knows best, but movies are also profitable, and allow him to chase actresses. Money can't buy everything, though, and this truism becomes apparent once mental illness begins to kick in.

How I felt about it. If any life is fit for a Hollywood biography, it's Howard Hughes, whose unbelievable life story includes romances with movie stars, a nearly fatal plane crash, a successful public battle with a powerful Senator, setting aviation speed records, and mental illness so severe that he lived as a recluse, used Kleenex boxes for shoes, and grew long fingernails.

Great success, and great failure, may not be a strictly American tragedy, but Americans relish it the most. Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and we're only listing popular singers whose wrong turns were followed as closely as their earlier rising fame. Howard Hughes is known as the crazy recluse he was when he died, and the triumphs of his films, romances, and business deals are largely forgotten.

The Aviator presents the young adult Howard Hughes: the boy wonder of Hollywood, the man engaged to movie stars, the aviation pioneer. But the eccentricities that would soon bedevil him are also explored. They needed to be, of course, in order to provide an accurate presentation of his life. But it can be argued that the exploration, if not the exploitation, of his lunacy was the reason Hughes life story was chosen.

After all, I missed Hollywood's big budget bio of film mogul Louis B. Mayer, or whatever other engineer developed a technologically superior plane. Howard Hughes is famous in the same way that Van Gogh is famous. Not so much for their skills, however significant, but because of their eccentricities. If Hughes had cut off an ear instead of merely saved urine jars, perhaps he would have gotten his A-movie bio made sooner.

The Aviator peaks late, when Hughes is led out of a severe bout of mental illness by Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), who apparently forgave him for placing twelve bugs in her house and tapping her phone. Thanks to Ava, Hughes rises to the challenge of bought Senator Brewster (Alan Alda), who is humiliated in Senate hearings by the wily and forthright Mr. Hughes. What percentage of all this is really true is open to debate. It is certainly presentable cinema, however.

Well made as the movie is, I prefer Hughes' own Hells Angels, the fascinating World War I aviation epic that made his name. On the other hand, The Aviator sure beats Hughes' best known film, The Outlaw, which wastes Walter Huston in favor of Jane Russell's cleavage.