The Mother of Invention
Michael Koresky on The Aviator

Howard Hughes is one of six Martin Scorsese men based on a real-life American. It’s worth noting that the others—Raging Bull’s Jake La Motta, Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, Casino’s “Ace” Rothstein, Gangs of New York’s Bill the Butcher, and The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort—seem decidedly less real than the entirely fabricated personages in Scorsese’s other films. Every-guys like New York, New York’s Jimmy Doyle, The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, or After Hours’ Paul Hackett are some of our national cinema’s most vivid losers, so relatably, poignantly pathetic that we can’t help but constantly cringe in their presences. The real-life characters, listed above, are similarly on downward spirals, yet because of their misguided self-assurance, they are hard to connect with (even the indefatigable Pupkin on some level knows he’s unwanted). Their confidence is a blessing and a curse, giving them the sense of being somehow outside of morality, the law, even time. At one point or another in their respective careers—often of the criminal variety—these men are undeniable successes; but it’s success itself that quickens their downfalls. Hughes, in Scorsese’s 2004 biopic The Aviator, is perhaps the ultimate example of this trajectory, and perhaps the most disturbing: for him, success and failure are at all times inextricable.

It’s crucial to note that Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is the only of these characters born into money. This gives his life a particular kind of toxicity. From the beginning of the film, his very “larger-than-life”-ness feels aptly bizarre, irreconcilable with the ever-withering man who contains it. The film starts with a brief scene of Hughes as a child being bathed by his mother, but rather than the idyllic remembrance this might have been, it’s nothing less than a nightmare vision: the boy’s wan, naked figure standing in a tub set oddly in the middle of an ornate turn-of-the-century living room, his body illuminated by an antique chandelier turning on one ominous bulb at a time; a mother’s hand reaching out of the dark, claw-like, to open up a metal case containing a holy bar of soap. The woman spells out the word quarantine with obsessive care, enunciating each letter with caution, and telling her speechless son, with her elegant Texas accent, “You’re not safe.” The statement is an expression of the social fears of ivory tower white America, as she tells him to stay away from the “Negro houses” for fear of germs. It’s a little vampiric and also a little Tennessee Williams in its depiction of a southern prosperity rotting from the inside. From the somnambulant prologue, we immediately shuttle to 1927, year one of Hughes’s epic, bank-breaking production of Hell’s Angels, and we’re off to the races. The rest of the film, fueled by the crazy-making primal moment at the outset, is a single-minded rocket blast detailing twenty years of Hughes’s life, from the cusp of sound cinema to the immediate post–World War II years, and how his manic drive toward the American dream was itself a grand work of psychopathic engineering.

A sometime filmmaker, inventor, business tycoon, titan of industry, and in his later years America’s most famous recluse, Howard Hughes has always been difficult to categorize, which is what makes The Aviator’s title so fascinating. It’s definitive, and it’s impossibly reductive and lofty at once. Naturally, Scorsese is particularly engaged with Hughes’s time spent making movies, depicting him as a brash young visionary who, in the film, has the audacity to approach Louis B. Mayer at the Cocoanut Grove and ask if he can borrow cameras from MGM for Hell’s Angels’ soon-to-be famous dogfight sequence. The punchline? He already has twenty-four cameras. Established thus as a man who plays by his own rules—and whose rules are clearly dictated by a manic antisocial behavior—Hughes doesn’t quite belong, even amidst the decadent horror that is Hollywood. Scorsese’s film is perhaps never better than here, when it so fleetly depicts the unreality of pre-depression, movie-star-drenched Los Angeles; with Robert Richardson’s continuously dynamic cinematography, Thelma Schoonmaker’s emphatic yet precise cutting, and a near cacophony of expertly selected music (from “Stairway to Paradise,” crooned onscreen by a slicked-back Rufus Wainwright at the Cocoanut Grove, to Bach’s rumbling “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor” to accompany the CGI-fueled recreation of Hell’s Angels’ dogfighting), The Aviator’s first act is so intensely experiential and bizarrely fast that it feels like we’re watching a civilization in freefall, a three-ring circus with Hughes as its reluctant master of ceremonies. His position as both overlord and outsider is cemented in an image of him entering the already packed Grove, a place as decadent as the Kit Kat Club, the lights in the cavernous place coming up as though his presence triggered them himself—but all we see of Hughes is a brilliantly expressive close-up of the back of DiCaprio’s head, ominously filling the frame.

In this early section, Hughes is an unrepentant smoothie; the astronomically rich man, orphaned at 19, is used to getting what he wants, as shown in a moment when he nearly seduces a cigarette girl right there on the club’s floor simply by looking in her eyes and feigning interest in her life. In just under three hours of screen time, Hughes will graduate from fresh-faced romancer hobnobbing with celebrities to a paranoid, brittle-boned, shut-in terrified of germs and barely able to interact with others. Because the transformation—in terms of actual historical time as much as movie trajectory—may seem abrupt, Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan pepper the film with ominous harbingers and portentous premonitions (Hughes staring intently at his own bare hands while screening Hell’s Angels; Hughes unsettled by a bearded, scraggly janitor who looks like nothing less than a vision of his future self) that function as insertions of dramatic irony, playing off our knowledge that Hughes the eccentric, long-haired billionaire has easily usurped Hughes the handsome Hollywood player in the American consciousness. And because of this, The Aviator has often been criticized as Scorsese’s most “obvious” or “on the nose” film, one that indulges in the kinds of audience handholding and psychologizing that so often plague the much derided (if oft-Oscared) biopic genre. Yet Scorsese uses these techniques less out of dramatic expediency than to inject Hughes’s life with a truly unsettling apparitional quality. He often seems like a specter, an idea of himself rather than a person in full. This is, after all, a man who demands that a restaurant arrange his green peas in perfect, fascistic rows so they look like candy buttons perched above his steak. Whether it’s because of his extreme wealth, his intimidating brilliance, his incipient deafness, or his ever-worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder, or an unholy combination of all of these, he doesn’t quite live in our world.

In Scorsese’s film, most of these qualities also help make him a unique Hollywood artist, an individual who stands out in a sea of game-playing workhorses. The three-year, hugely over-budget Hell’s Angels is given prominence in the narrative, as it allows Scorsese to paint Hughes as a heroic rebel, standing up to naysaying money men and studio stooges alike in order to realize what seems like an epic folly, even reshooting much of the film for sound once The Jazz Singer makes its fateful debut. Scorsese gives the finished Hell’s Angels, and this chapter of The Aviator, a triumphant sendoff, with a premiere sequence at Grauman’s Chinese, complete with a red-carpet appearance from flying ace Roscoe Turner, a reverent clip reel from the film showcasing its most amazing sights, and a standing ovation for the boy genius. After this, however, when basking in the glow of post-screening adoration and applause outside the theater, things seem off: the flash bulbs from the camera momentarily blind Hughes, from our vantage whiting out his face to the point of invisibility.

The rest of The Aviator follows Hughes as he enacts a kind of self-erasure, even as his dreams get more grandiose. Turning his attention away from filmmaking (save for his obsessive need to complete The Outlaw, a nominal western made primarily to showcase Jane Russell’s breasts, held in place by Hughes’s own specially designed bra), Hughes wishes to not only invent and oversee the manufacturing of visionary aircraft—from the world-record-setting H-1 Racer to the doomed XF-11 to the legendary 200-ton H-4 Hercules, a.k.a. “Spruce Goose”—but also to change the landscape of American air travel, first buying TWA for fifteen million and later trying to single-handedly put an end to Pan Am’s monopoly of the industry. This latter endeavor gets Hughes into hot water with Pan Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), who sends dirty-dealing Maine Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) to mount a failed Senate investigation into Hughes for alleged war profiteering because his F-11 designs only resulted in two completed military planes. Scorsese and Logan use these hearings, and specifically his crowd-pleasing dressing down of the ethically dubious Brewster, as the film’s dramatic climax, allowing Hughes one more chance to come across as a hero, a man of moral fiber despite his ever-growing propensity to cut himself off from everyone.

The film’s insistence on painting Hughes as a worthy man of the world who exists outside of that world manifests also in its depiction of his romantic life. Among the film’s greatest claims to fame is Cate Blanchett’s near-parodic, expertly mimicked portrayal of Katharine Hepburn, whose relationship with Hughes is the film’s central one. Blanchett’s Hepburn is so stylized that it comes across as more of a recreation of the actress’s performance style than an inhabitation of the woman herself, as though Bringing Up Baby’s Susan Vance or The Philadelphia Story’s Tracy Lord had suddenly shown up in Howard Hughes’s airspace. A force of nature, Cate’s Kate is depicted as the only one who can tell it to Hughes straight, cartoonishly enunciating “Aren’t we a fine pair of misfits?”—slowed down: “Ahhn’t we a fahn paya of meyus-feyuts?”—not long after they first meet. In encouraging him to accept his drawbacks, Hepburn is a nurturing presence for Howard, but with her manic delivery and near masculine swagger, she’s also a threat to him. (After their breakup, the film shows him immediately turning to demure fifteen-year-old starlet Faith Domergue, about as far from Hepburn as you can get, before embarking on a longer affair with brash but glamorous Ava Gardner, played by Kate Beckinsale.) Nevertheless, Hughes only looks better when paired with a sexually progressive, intensely individualized woman like Hepburn, and The Aviator—which could have chosen to focus on his affairs with Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Ginger Rogers, or Gene Tierney—knows it.

In an odd sequence that further presents Hughes as a fish out of water in his own basic pond, the boy wonder joins the bustling, brainy Hepburn clan in Connecticut for a family lunch, and they are painted as nothing less than liberal monsters, condescending intellectuals who distrust Hughes and treat him as a simple-minded fool for being an inventor and idea man, dismissing his interest in aviation as “guff.” Though everyone at the table was born into money, Hughes even gets a good dig in against the Hepburns when mother claims the family doesn’t care about money. “That’s because you have it,” Hughes angrily insists before getting up from the table mid-meal. Thus Hughes is positioned as the earthy everyman to the Hepburn family’s rarefied, country-club demeanor.

It’s this sort of typifying of Hughes that makes The Aviator such a fascinating, cagey, ultimately uneasy watch. That the man who harnessed, as he claims, “the largest private air force in the world” in order to make a movie; who broke transcontinental and world air speed records; who changed the face of public air transportation as we know it; who had the ability and paranoid suspiciousness to bug girlfriend Ava Gardner’s bed and personal telephone line, could be seen as anything resembling an average Joe seems on the face of it preposterous. In this way The Aviator is a confounding movie, asking us to identify with and understand a man who would never have been able to come down from the clouds and meet us eye to eye. But this is one thing that cinema can do, making the larger than life seem not only on the level but also, even, smaller than us. In the last scene, when the OCD-plagued Hughes, following the Hercules’s maiden voyage, repeats “the way of the future” ad nauseam into a mirror, he has finally become relatable, a mound of quivering flesh—a real live boy.