Emperor of the Air

We live in a time when lots of people will go to see Nicolas Cage run around doing a third-rate Indiana Jones impersonation in National Treasure, so who can predict whether folks will line up to see Leonardo DiCaprio fly around doing a first-rate Howard Hughes impersonation in The Aviator? I wouldn’t think gazillionaire Hughes, with his germ phobia, his massive Spruce Goose airplane, and his gaggle of actress-dates from the first half of the last century would have much resonance for the young adults who make or break opening-weekend box-office numbers. But if only for DiCaprio and his increasingly wayward director, the once-mighty, now-flighty Martin Scorsese, I hope moviegoers sated by SpongeBob SquarePants will move on to see KleenexHoward LongFingernails.

This is Scorsese’s jumpin’-est movie since 1990’s GoodFellas, and I know: That’s not saying much (Bringing Out the Dead, anyone?). But after he mounted the huge, lumbering spectacle of the 2002 Oscar-misser Gangs of New York, it’s impressive that he could work up the energy to mount a huge, limber spectacle about the young Hughes. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan split this nearly three-hour story into four main subplots: Hughes’s forays into moviemaking (his airplane fixation in Hell’s Angels; his thanks-for-the-mammaries Jane Russell fixation in The Outlaw); Hughes’s seductions of Jean Harlow (rocker Gwen Stefani looking scared stiff), Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett doing some long-striding, inspired mimicry), and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale in full va-va-voom blossom); Hughes’s run-ins with government regulators over expanding his TWA airline; and Hughes’s steady decline into a paralyzing version of what we’d now term obsessive-compulsive disorder. Scorsese’s protagonist, who can’t negotiate business deals if his opponent has a bit of shmutz on his lapel, who washes his hands so often his skin bleeds, is an OCD version of Travis Bickle—unable to help himself, slowly cutting himself off from the world.

There’s lots of bravura stuff about filmmaking—Scorsese sticks his camera into the wide end of a megaphone for a fantastic quick shot of Hughes’s entire face bellowing “Action!” The Aviator makes us love our hero’s brash naïveté. Hughes’s request for two more cameras (because 24 of ’em for one scene in Hell’s Angels just didn’t seem enough), made to a competitor, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Stanley DeSantis), is met with magnificent scorn—the cultural chasm between the Texan interloper and the Hollywood mogul is hilarious. As for Hughes’s wooing of women, it’s hard to tell where Scorsese’s usual love-’em/fear-’em/hit-’em ambivalence begins and Hughes’s loony-lech approach ends. There’s a peculiar moment early on when DiCaprio’s Hughes beckons to a cigarette girl in a nightclub, asks if she would “give me [the] job” of providing her with “pleasure,” and then reaches to touch her in a nether region the camera hides from us. For a guy who didn’t like to put his fingers in unknown places, it’s a kinky baffler. On the other hand, his ardent pursuit of Hepburn and Gardner provides the movie’s breeziest moments.

In general, the supporting cast is terrific. Alan Alda is a pink-faced prune of a politician, shriveled in corruption while accusing Hughes of “war profiteering.” (Hughes took some U.S. dough to build World War II planes he never got around to finishing.) Alec Baldwin is a solid block of comic gold as Juan Trippe, head of Pan Am Airways, using his raspy voice to badger and bully Hughes about his ambitions for TWA. (And don’t miss, in the Coconut Grove nightclub scenes, Loudon, Rufus, and Martha Wainwright singing their hearts out—sibs Rufus and Martha are totally upstaged by the supernal mugging of their dad.)

The Aviator provides DiCaprio with the opportunity to combine the youthful swagger he displayed so joyously in Catch Me If You Can with its opposite: a frowning fear of the world, a place in which his mother’s tells him, “you are not safe.” Scorsese echoes this in his direction. He refuses to make all these performances and moments cohere as a tidy explanation of Hughes’s profound scatteration and oddness. The result is an admirably bumpy ride of a biopic, a rare one that leaves you feeling not safe but bracingly unsettled.

BACKSTORY When Martin Scorsese signed on to direct The Aviator in January 2002, Jim Carrey, a longtime fan of the eccentric billionaire, had already announced plans for his own Hughes biopic, with Christopher Nolan (Memento) set to direct. But Scorsese (who had already worked with his star Leonardo DiCaprio on Gangs of New York) triumphed: With a script already completed, he started shooting in June 2003. Carrey, meanwhile, had moved ahead with two less competitive projects: the critical hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and this week’s would-be blockbuster Lemony Snicket.

The Aviator
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Miramax. PG-13.

Emperor of the Air