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The Aviator

October 8, 2009
Disclaimer: This post has already been published at PassionforCinema.

Making a biopic is even at the best of times a tight rope walk. An author has the full liberty to delve into every aspect of the character, explore the historical background, or go into the minute details of his quirks. A movie maker on the other hand has to narrate the character’s story, ensure it does not end up as a documentary, at the same time needs to take care that vital aspects of the character’s life are not missed out, and for the 3 hours, he needs to have the audience’s attention. End of day, for all his best efforts, he has to deal with criticism from historians/ activists/ people related to the character, and more often than not he runs into a controversy with groups who are opposed to the character’s ideology and motivations, protesting against the movie, phew !!!. And when the subject in question is Howard Hughes, the task is even more daunting.

I intend to be the greatest golfer in the world, the finest film producer in Hollywood, the greatest pilot in the world, and the richest man in the world.

Howard Hughes was not just another celebrity, he was a legend and an icon. He was not a person who was extravagant in his dreams, he actually made them come true. While he may not have become the greatest person to tee on the greens, he sure realized his other dreams of being one of the best movie producers and an icon in the aviation world, which added up to his riches. He spent around 3.8 Million $ for his war drama Hells Angels, just to get the realistic look, and then later converting it into a talkie. He faced troubles with the censor board over Jane Russel’s costumes in the Outlaw, as well as the violence in the 1932 version of Scarface. As an aviator, he set records in flying, making non stop flights from New York to Los Angeles, and then later travelling around the world for 3 days, putting him right up there with the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart. He bought over TWA, and built the famous “Hercules” aircraft. His personal life was on less ordinary, be it his affairs with Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner or his nervous breakdowns, or his Obsessive Compulsion Disorders. Or the fact that for all his riches, he spent the last years of his life like a recluse, hidden away from the world, locked in a hotel room, addicted to drugs. Trying to condense such a colorful, fascinating, larger than life personality into a 3 hour movie, is as the cliche goes “holding the waters of sea in one’s hand”.

So why the difference between Raging Bull’s stark B& W style and the Aviator’s more flamboyant Hollywood style? Some critics have put it down to Scorsese’s bid for an Oscar, making it more Academy pleasing, could have been an effect of the criticism Scorsese had faced for the violence in Raging Bull, as also the rather unsympathetic nature of it’s protagonist, something the Academy was not too comfortable with. While there is merit in that argument, i believe the reason why Scorsese choose to project a more Hollywood style grandeur, was the very subject in question itself. Hughes inhabited the glamor world of Hollywood, and the woman he romanced Katherine Hepburn( Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner( Kate Beckinsale) were not some anonymous desperate starlets, they were legends by their own standards. I think when you are dealing with a “larger than life” subject like Howard Hughes, it does warrant a kind of stylistic, grand, epic treatment.

Hollywood’s larger than life, extravagant lifestyle is seen at the party scene, where Hughes is looking around for assistance to make his movie. It also gives us an insight into Hollywood’s power politics, Hughes for all his riches, fame was the proverbial outsider, not a part of the studio system. Something which Scorsese always had been in his career, and add to it Scorsese’s own reputation of being a perfectionist, it was as if the director was seeing himself in Hughes. And he shows it in that wonderful moment, when Hughes approaches MGM’s Louis B Mayer for assistance, wondering if he could lend him some cameras. Mayer curtly refuses him, saying “We are not actually in the process of helping out the competition”. Add to it Mayer is later shocked to know that inspite of already having around 24 cameras, Hughes still needs more, to shoot the aerial fight scene for Hells Angels. He warns him that if he continues this way, he would go “bankrupt” and not even be left with his “drilling bits money”, referring to Hughes background, and then signs it off with an ironical “Welcome to Hollywood”. Ironical, because till then Mayer has been cynical about Hughes project, dismisses his ideas, and then welcomes him. Great scene, but did strike me as odd, even granted Mayer was the cut throat producer, why would he mock at Hughes grandiose efforts, given that Mayer was the one who introduced the star system into Hollywood, and he was responsible for some of MGM’s grandest movies in it’s glory days?

The movie continues with it’s red an cyan blue color scheme, as we get to watch Hells Angels being shot. This to me is one of the best moments in the movie, Hughes waiting for the clouds to appear, so that he can get the shot as realistic as possible. Yes Hughes won’t shoot the dog fight scene without the clouds. One of his crew members tells him that those “clouds that look like giant breasts full of milk, can’t be guaranteed for any particular occasion. So you might have to wait”. Hughes replies back “then we will wait”. Much as i am used to listen to the eccentricities of the American billionaires, their crazy antics, their equally crazy personal lives, this was some thing else, i mean even taking into account, that you are an obsessive perfectionist, who would want to wait for months together, just so that you can get clouds, and film your dog fight realistically, this was maddening. You feel that madness as you see Hughes arguing, insisting that he is not going to shoot without any clouds, and then he hears that the clouds are in Oakland, he actually shifts the entire movie crew there, Gosh this was fucking insane. And a fantastic scene, where we see Hughes shootingthe aerial fight, from a flight, and the camera following along, giving us the feel of being there.

But then thats still not enough for Hughes, he attends the premiere of The Jazz Singer, and knows that talkies would be the next trend, and he decides to re shoot the entire movie just to have sound effects. Freaking crazy, but that is what really makes The Aviator, a delight, what you are seeing on screen is not just the story of Howard Hughes, it is the story of Hollywood, how the talkies reshaped it, the movie moguls. Hughes obsession is not shared by his financiers, his distributors and even the media keeps taking jibes at his movie. Honestly though this entire sequence, bought me back some memories, Raj Kapoor and Mera Naam Joker, Kamal Amrohi and Pakezaah, movies that became history not just on the screen, but also for the story behind their making. But again Hughes was able to afford the luxury of shooting the movie as he wished, he could follow his own dreams, because it was his own money after all. He could afford the losses, the cost over runs because he was spending his own fortune on it. What if Hughes was a struggler, completely dependent on the studios for financing, would he have been able to have his way, even if he wanted to?

All the hard work and money spent on Hells Angels pays off, the movie is applauded, and becomes a success. Hughes the outsider, the person who shot Hells Angels on an independent basis with no backing from any studio, is now Hollywood’s own. Another fabulous sequence, the people watching the preview of Hells Angels, and we see the movie in a darkish blue shade, movie over, every one applauding, Hughes walking into a sea of flash lights, crowds, smiling, ahh that is Hollywood where “nothing succeeds like success”. Not just Hughes, Hells Angels also transformed Jean Harlow, the platinum blonde bombshell from a starlet, into an overnight star. But more than that the scenes tracing Hughes making of Hells Angels, his problems and it’s success, pay a tribute to Hughes entrepreneurial spirit. Even granted that he was able to take those huge risks, because it was his money, not many would have conceived such grandiose ideas. Hughes is not just a mere rich kid whiling away his Dad’s money, he is some one seeing ahead, some one passionate about what he is doing, some one who is in love with his work.

And that is when his relationship with Katherine Hepburn starts. Cate Blanchett looks eerily similiar to Hepburn, right down to the reddish hair do, her aristocratic manner. And we see the difference between their outlook, Hepburn coming from a wealthy, New England WASP family, is more literally inclined, she prefers the stage. As she tells him in their first encounter

Movies are movies, Howard. Not Life.

The stage is real. Real flesh and blood human beings right out there in front of you.

I must say that though Jude Law does not make for a particularly convincing Errol Flynn. The relationship between Hughes and Hepburn is treated well, one particularly romantic scene, where Hughes takes her out over the city in his aircraft , does recall Titanic. Intercutting with the romance between Hughes and Hepburn are the scenes showcasing Hughes obsession with aviation. One scene showing Hughes testing his H1 racer, shot in a great fashion, the aircraft taking off , the panoramic views of the desert landscape, the aerial shots and then crashlanding into the fiel, brilliant shot taking, field in cyan blue, the aircraft rushing along, the leaves cutting away. The Aviator has some of the best aerial shots you ever get to witness, one reason why this movie needs to be seen either on the big screen or maybe in a home theater kinda set up.

Also the encounter between Hughes and Hepburn’s WASPish parents in her Connecticut home, at once establishing the difference between the New England elite and the noveaue riche. Again we see the color scheme changing, when we see Hughes arriving at Hepburn’s mansion, the cyan blue gives way to the lush green of the New England countryside. The disconnect is evident in the dinner scene, Hughes happens to be Texan, some one from the interiors, not really fitting in there. Again here Scorsese, referring back to the phase in early 20th century, when the traditional New England aristocracy, was challenged by the entrepreneurs from the West Coast and South West. Again some what similiar to the way how Dhirubhai Ambani was perceived by the traditional Parsi business elite of Mumbai, a nouveau riche upstart. One interesting moment is when Katherine Hepburn’s mother says “We don’t care about money here Mr. Hughes”. And he replies back

You don’t care about money because you have it. And you’ve always had it. My father was dirt poor when I was born…. I care about money, because I know what it takes out of a man to make it.

Though Scorsese does not overtly delve into politics here, references to Republicans and Roosevelt apart, its been seen that the New England elite, usually support the more socialist leaning Democrats, while Texas has been solidly Republican. What Scorsese does here though is to build up a kind of hero image for Hughes, casting him as an underdog, taking on various forces: The Establishment, Hollywood, New England elite. For the major part The Aviator does run as an underdog story, a lonely, obsessed, Howard Roark like figure taking on every one around him.

While relation between Hughes and Hepburn has been finely captured, his relationships with Ava Gardner, and the 15 year old Faith Domergue, are dealt off with rather hastily. The scene where Gardner takes him to task over bugging her phones is well handled though, honestly not an admirer of Kate Beckinsale, but this was one movie where she did a decent job. One of the best moments is though, his rivalry with the PANAM chief, Juan Trippe( Alec Baldwin) and senator Owen Brewster( Alan Alda). Again here the attempt to make him an outsider fighting the establishment, Trippe is one of the most powerful men, who has the Senate, the CAB( Civil Aeronautics Board) all in his grip. He is seeking to buy out TWA, which ironically Hughes himself bought over, and now does not want to sell it. The interplay between Trippe, Brewster and Hughes, again showing the relationship between big business and Government. Again if one has been observing the happenings in the aviation industry in India of late, with the mergers, and clashes, it does seem to echo what is shown in the movie. History repeats itself i guess. Or maybe as they say “The more things change, the same they remain”.

In sharp contrast to Raging Bull’s starkly realistic and dark look at Jake Le Motta’s downfall, Scorsese downplays the more darker side of Hughes character. Again while many critics have raised issue about trying to gloss over Hughes darker moments, and making him a hero, again i think, it would have been difficult to pull off a balance portrayal of both Hughes glory moments and his last miserable days. Having already explored the darker side of his protagonists earlier, here i believe Scorsese deliberately went for a more positive portrayal. He does give insights into Hughes depression, his downfall in the later scenes, but again the emphasis is more on Hughes triumphs in the movie industry and in the aviation sector. That said, i honestly felt the treatment of Hughes OCD was some what half hearted. I mean why exactly is Hughes so obsessed with perfection, even in matter relating to his lunch, is it just because his Mama asking him to spell out QUARANTINE, and then warning him against disease and all, did not sound too convincing there.

The Aviator is certainly no Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or Godfellas, in fact barring a couple of scenes in the later half, the movie certainly does not bear much resemblance to the earlier Scorsese movies we had seen. That said it’s still worth a watch, not just for it’s aerial scenes, and being the perfectionist, you do get to hear a lot of technical discussion on aircraft, but for showing the interplay between the different worlds- Hollywood, Capitol Hill and the Aviation industry. As also some excellent dramatic scenes. Comming to Leonardo Di Caprio, again many critics had an issue with casting him in the main role. I guess Leo’s Titanic “teen hearthrob” image has unfortunately overshadowed his more serious work in movies like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Basketball Diaries. For me though Leo’s performance was excellent, he hits the right notes and expressions, conveying the transition wonderfully from a cocky obsessed entrepreneur to a person battling depression and his own demons. And like many other Scorsese movies, the Aviator too is backed up with some excellent performances, Cate Blanchett literally slipping into the role of Katherine Hepburn, Alec Baldwin as solid as ever in role of Juan Trippe, Alan Alda playing the role of the corrupt senator Brewster with equal conviction, and finally John Reilly as Hughes confidant , Man friday, the person who manages his dealing, in a fantastic performance.

One Comment
  1. Awesome review. I like the start of the movie and as the review describes the whole plot I am getting more and more interested in watching it. Leonardo is looking great in the picture above. I am desperate to watch this movies

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