The Aviator (4/10)

by Tony Medley

Ernest Hemingway developed a way of writing in which he would write a story and then omit several pages at the beginning, theorizing that something omitted can affect the reader as if it were there. He used this method in several short stories and in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Director Martin Scorsese, master of the interminable movie (Gangs of New York, 2002, 166 minutes, Casino, 1995, 178 minutes, The Age of Innocence, 1993, 139 minutes), should have used Hemingway’s style and lopped the first 105 minutes off of this plodder. If the film were to start at minute 105, just before Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) crashes his XF-11 reconnaissance plane in Beverly Hills, the audience would know that something came before. But they wouldn’t have to sit through the stuff Scorsese requires his audience to endure. And, if he cut the first 105 minutes, he’d still have a movie that would last a little over an hour, which would have been enough for me. Yes, you got that right; this movie comes in at just under three hours! Bring water.

While the script (John Logan) does the best it can, considering the woeful story line, the ambience is terrific, thanks to production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Robert Richardson. They recreate Los Angeles of the ‘20s-‘40s beautifully, including the Cocoanut Grove.

Not as well done are the model airplanes used in some of the scenes. They look as if they belonged in some of those old World War II movies.

There’s one scene with Hughes piloting Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) where they’re flying in one of Hughes’s twin engine planes and there is not a decibel of noise. They’re speaking with one another with less background noise than they’d get in a confessional. Surely Scorsese could have added just a skosh of noise to indicate they were flying a plane!  With all the fancy special effects available today, are we to believe that Scorsese couldn’t figure out how to insert a little airplane engine background noise?

Scorsese gives short shrift to the big story about Howard Hughes, that he came to Los Angeles when he was 25 years old, totally unknown, and created an incredible empire of real estate, movies, airplanes, and government contracting.  Hughes Aircraft, is not explained. Not mentioned is his acquisition of the property in Playa del Rey in the 1930s which is now being developed as almost a self-contained city called Playa Vista. I dealt with Hughes Aircraft and with many executives who worked there. Many people who subsequently became Captains of Industry had their start at Hughes Aircraft, like Simon Ramo and Dean Woolridge, founders of what became TRW, and Tex Thornton and Roy Ash, founders of Litton Industries. But this wasn’t important enough for Scorsese to include in this marathon film, even though they were all working for him during the period covered by the film.

A major decision was made immediately after World War II when Hughes changed from building airplanes and airplane parts to concentrating on electronics. Scorsese ignores this, even though it’s in the time frame of the film. He also ignores the move Howard made in 1952 to switch control of Hughes Aircraft from Hughes Tool to put it under the control of Hughes Medical, a non profit corporation which Howard formed specifically for that purpose. In fact, very little mention is made of Hughes’s business dealings. Apparently Scorsese and DiCaprio, who was the prime mover behind the film, didn’t think Hughes’s accomplishments in business worth mentioning, other than his competition with Juan Tripp (Alec Baldwin), the CEO of Pan American Airways.

It’s pretty amazing that Scorsese thinks that about the only things worth telling in the first hour and three quarters, which covers 1925-mid ‘40s, are Hughes’s affairs with Hepburn and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). Oh, he touches on the making of Hughes’ first film Hell’s Angels (1930) and the fact that he shot it twice because the first time it was silent, and Hughes knew that by the time it was released it had to be a talky. But this monumental decision is covered in such a cursory manner, as are all of the business decisions Hughes made, that one learns virtually nothing about how the hard decision was made. Instead of The Aviator, this movie would better be titled Two Affairs of Howard Hughes, One of Which We’ll only Deal With Peripherally, His Struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Some of His Flights. This is such a shame because Howard Hughes was one of the most brilliant entrepreneurs of the 20th Century, certainly rivaling Thomas Watson, Jr., Henry Ford, Tex Thornton, and Alfred P. Sloan. But you wouldn’t know it to watch Scorsese’s film. All we see is a mentally flawed, lovesick oddball.

Scorsese implies that all of Hughes’s successes were attributable to Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly, but don’t blink or you’ll miss him). In fact, it looks as if all he knows about Hughes’s business acumen came from Dietrich’s self-serving book written after Howard was too ill to set the record straight, in which Noah takes credit for almost everything Howard accomplished. In fact, Dietrich was but a soldier. Howard made all the decisions and Dietrich just followed Howard’s orders. But the film really doesn’t deal much with Hughes’s business affairs, concentrating instead on his relationship with Hepburn and his mental aberrations. It barely mentions how he designed a special bra for Jane Russell to make her cleavage more entrancing for The Outlaw (1943). Considering the almost interminable length of the film and the accomplishments of its subject, the superficiality of this film is appalling.

Scorsese should be thanking his lucky stars that Katharine Hepburn is no longer with us because his depiction of her family borders on defamation. Had either Scorsese, DiCaprio, or  Logan done any research on her at all, they would have discovered that Hepburn was not to the money born and her parents were not interested in money. In her autobiography, she says, “We weren’t rich.” Her father was a doctor but both her parents devoted an enormous amount of their time to political activism and doing good in their community. Contrary to these facts, Scorsese depicts them as rich snobs, unalterably rude to Howard. The scene they create at a dinner table is dubious, to give them the best of it. Hepburn says, “My family was not too sympathetic to Howard. In the first place, he was everlastingly on the telephone. And the telephone was in the dining room. And we were a big family and always had visitors. Long telephone conversations did not suit the atmosphere.” But Scorsese paints Hepburn’s parents as the villains, especially her mother. Shame on him.

Cate Blanchett’s representation of Hepburn is more a caricature than acting. It marred much of the first nine hours of this film for me (OK, it wasn’t really nine hours; it just seemed that long). She does a good imitation of how Hepburn talked, but she is made up to be just plain ugly and she comes across as unremittingly shrewish and unpleasant. I wonder what Scorsese had against Hepburn, who, when she was dating Hughes, was beautiful?

The scenes of Hughes and Hepburn playing golf are typical of Hollywood, where actors can pretend to be anything but athletic. Both Hepburn and Howard were good golfers. Hepburn started playing as a youngster and played all her life, as clearly seen in some of her movies. Fortunately, Scorsese limits the playing of golf to only one scene where each swings a golf club but once. DiCaprio and Blanchett look like they have spent more time playing with dolls than swinging golf clubs.

Where the movie picks up is when Hughes crashes his XF-11 reconnaissance plane in Beverly Hills. This might be the best plane crash ever filmed, showing it both from Hughes’s POV in the cockpit and then the POV of the families in the houses he hit, cutting back and forth. It captures the absolute terror of a plane crash.

From that point on, as Hughes is attacked by Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) and Hughes fights back, to the end the film is pretty entertaining. Kate Beckinsale’s portrayal of Ava Gardner is slightly better than what Blanchett does to Hepburn, but not much. Gardner was one of the more beautiful Hollywood stars of the ‘40s. In person, Beckinsale is far more beautiful than Scorsese paints her in this movie. And “paints” is the correct word. She’s so heavily made up she looks almost grotesque. Considering what Scorsese does with Beckinsale and Blanchett in this film, George Cukor’s reputation as the “women’s director” seems secure from Martin.

Give the devil his due; DiCaprio is exceptionally good as Hughes. Despite the exiguous story line, Leo’s depiction of someone suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder should justify an Oscar nomination. Even so, I thought the best performance in the movie was Alda as the allegedly corrupt Senator Brewster.

If you can get through the first hour and a half, the rest is fairly enjoyable.

December 1, 2004

The End