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Scorsese/DiCaprio: 'The Aviator'
The duo's Howard Hughes biopic remains supremely entertaining.
Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest collaboration between cinematic deity Martin Scorsese and the mega-star Leonardo DiCaprio, will be released this Friday, October 20. In anticipation of this momentous event, I’m going to spend this week taking a look back at the duo’s previous partnerships. We began yesterday with 2002’s Gangs of New York; we continue today with the duo’s second team-up: 2004’s The Aviator.
Prior to the release of The Aviator, big-time Hollywood filmmakers had been trying, and failing, to get a Howard Hughes biopic produced for decades. In fact, when The Aviator started filming, it killed a competing project, which would have been written and directed by Christopher Nolan (not for nothing does Nolan’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne/Batman so closely resemble Hughes, especially in The Dark Knight Rises). In fact, The Aviator itself was in development for years before cameras finally started rolling.
Written by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall), the film was originally set to star Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes under the direction of the mighty Michael Mann (Heat, Thief). When Mann dropped out for whatever reason, DiCaprio was able to enlist Martin Scorsese, with whom he’d made Gangs of New York just two years prior (Mann retains a producer credit on the finished film).
Talk about a stroke of luck: Scorsese, an avid cineaste who romanced a number of famous actresses and suffered from both asthma and a cocaine addiction, is very much in his element telling a story about an obsessive, germaphobic filmmaker who slept with half of his era’s most famous leading ladies. Mann’s protagonists, though deeply flawed, are rarely crippled by their own inner psychological turmoil (I suspect the part of Hughes’ story that he found most appealing was the magnate’s unwillingness to compromise); Scorsese’s protagonists, on the other hand, are almost always crippled by their own inner psychological turmoil. And so The Aviator finds the great auteur firing on all cylinders (pardon the pun). I admire Mann almost as much as I admire Scorsese, but it’s hard to imagine that he, or any other director for that matter, could have made a superior picture.
One-minute and forty-seven seconds. That’s the length of The Aviator’s opening scene, and that’s how long it takes for The Aviator to establish its superiority to Gangs of New York: less than two full minutes.
The sequence begins with the lights slowly fading up, as they would in the theater, immediately announcing the movie’s heightened take on real-world events. Hughes, still just a child, stands nude in a hot bath, steam literally obscuring his vision as his mother (Amy Sloan) teaches young Howard to spell “quarantine” while gently - dare I say sensually? - bathing her son. “You know the cholera?” she asks him. “You know the typhus?” She puts her hands on his face, and the steam momentarily subsides. “You are not safe,” she tells him, and the steam magically reappears, once again forming clouds directly in our line of sight, obscuring Howard’s visage. And just like, we immediately know everything necessary to understand Hughes’ psychological make-up, a mindset so tortured and contradictory as to render him endlessly paranoid about disease even as he jumps into bed with whatever woman he pleases at the drop of a hat. Using dialogue, performance, and mise-en-scène to efficiently and effectively convey so much information about a character? Now this is the Martin Scorsese before whom we all bow.
The Aviator only gets better from there. Not only is Logan’s script exciting and tragic and insightful and often surprisingly very funny, and not only is the cast loaded to the brink with great performances, but it’s also a visual delight. Working once again with the cinematographer Robert Richardson, who also shot Scorsese’s Casino and Bringing Out the Dead prior to this and Hugo after, the director emulates bipack color films (for the first hour, which takes place before Technicolor was a thing) and three-strip Technicolor (for the remainder), two processes long dead by the time The Aviator was made (they used digital technology to recreate the effect). The result is that the movie’s first third looks paradoxically under and oversaturated, full of luscious reds and minty cyans, while the last two hours are almost overwhelmingly vivid. Both techniques serve to celebrate and transport us to the era when Hughes was in his prime. It’s breathtaking beautiful, wholly effective, and totally unique - this is not, generally, how period films look - and that’s without even getting into Scorsese’s genius for framing and camera movement. Little wonder that Richardson won his second Oscar for this movie.
As for that cast… wow. Scorsese is known for being a so-called “actor’s director,” and every thespian in the world wants to work with him, so it’s never exactly shocking when he lines up an all-star cast for one of his movies… but still, he may have outdone himself here. Even the smallest roles are played by heavy hitters; Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Gwen Stefani, and Brent Spiner, for example, all play what are effectively cameos; Frances Conroy, playing Katherine Hepburn’s mother, Jude Law, portraying Errol Flynn, and Kate Beckinsale, appearing as Ava Gardener, get only slightly more screen time. I completely forgot that Adam Scott, often recognized as a comedic actor (Parks and Recreation, Party Down, Step Brothers, etc.), was even in this movie (as Hughes’ PR rep), but he’s excellent here, as is Matt Ross (American Psycho, Silicon Valley), who plays Hughes’ lead engineer. Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda are very Alec Baldwin and Alan Alada-y as Pan Am founder Juan Trippe and Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, respectively. Danny Houston, as TWA president Jack Frye, is actually not a complete slimeball here, which is a nice change of pace for him. And John C. Reilly, playing Hughes’ appointed CEO, is dependably dependable.
DiCaprio, meanwhile, is almost every frame of the film, and he’s terrific. He’s certainly far more effective mimicking Hughes’ Texas drawl than he was playing a native Irishman in Gangs of New York, and even if he’s considerably more baby-faced than the real Hughes, his charisma and overwhelming star power fully convey what Hughes represented to the world in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s (Scorsese and Logan wisely avoid the biopic trap of trying to portray their subject’s entire life, thus spreading the story too thin, instead focusing solely on a span of about twenty years, not counting the aforementioned brief prologue). Hughes is brilliant, mentally ill, and an asshole all at once, an inveterate womanizer unafraid of to use his money, power, and influence for sex, and ultimately guilty of grooming an underage girl (Faith Domergue, portrayed here by Kelli Garner, was just fifteen when Hughes both signed her to RKO Pictures and seduced her into his bed). Not many of DiCaprio’s peers could have played this guy and made him anything less than detestable, which would have turned the film’s conclusion from a tragedy into a comeuppance.
Still, the movie is more or less stolen by Cate Blanchett, who also won an Oscar for her work here, portraying Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn is such a towering figure in pop culture, whose distinctive style of speech had already been parodied by comedians and cartoons for decades before Blanchett took on the role; indeed, in the wrong hands, the part definitely could have come off as caricature. It takes a few seconds to adjust to Blanchett’s interpretation of Hepburn’s Mid-Atlantic accent, but by the end of her first full scene, in which she and Hughes go golfing, you’re completely sold. She’s funny and charming and the scene where she has to break things off with Howard is an all-timer - you completely feel her inner conflict over ending the relationship, even as she denies feeling any remorse. Honestly, the mere fact that DiCaprio holds his own against her at all is kind of a feat.
There is, of course, an argument to be made that perhaps the movie is too sympathetic to Hughes: As I said, he wasn’t the world’s kindest, sanest, or most ethical man, but in The Aviator, he’s almost portrayed as a superhero, complete with his own epic theme, courtesy of The Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore.
Truthfully, I don’t have much a counter-argument to the assertion that perhaps Hughes, despite his myriad accomplishments, is not deserving of such mythic treatment… other than to say that the film is just so goddamn entertaining as to all but completely overpower any moral considerations. If there was any doubt that Scorsese is deserving of all the praise he has received and then some, it’s that The Aviator is STILL one his lesser achievements. I mean. HOLY SHIT. Y’know?