The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)


Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes), Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn), Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner), Alec Baldwin (Juan Trippe), Gwen Stefani (Jean Harlow), Jude Law (Errol Flynn). Screenplay by John Logan. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rating: 12. Running time: 170 minutes.

Watching The Aviator, I realised that Scorsese has seldom made a film in his career that hasn’t revolved around a complete and utter nutcase. Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin and Max Cady were just four of De Niro’s crazy characterisations, and here new muse DiCaprio has his first dose of insanity with a portrayal of Howard Hughes.

How to describe this man? He was outrageously visionary, from his work in the aviation industry constantly breaking world record times and building bigger and greater planes, to his hugely ambitious film productions, of which Hell’s Angels in particular is focused upon here as a multi-million dollar project (in the 1920s) that took over five years to make due to Hughes’ drive for perfection. After over six months of waiting for clouds so footage of the flying would have a background upon which the speed could be appreciated, the final product of over six miles of tape was binned because of the rise of talkies, and the realisation that to make the film popular it needed to be reshot with dialogue. He bankrolled the entire thing himself, burning thousands daily as he hired meteorologists to find good weather and maintained the largest private airport in the world.

He was also, despite all of this, a madman. His OCD was at times overpowering. He had to have exactly 12 peas on his dinner plate, wash his hands with his own bar of soap, open doors with tissue paper and repeat lines of conversation until they were spoken perfectly. When he meets Katharine Hepburn, it soon becomes clear she’s crazy enough to be with him – similarly quirky and utterly bonkers. Hughes actually had fleeting romances with Ava Gardner, Bette Davis and just about every other fine -looking woman in Hollywood at the time, but it’s his time with Hepburn that’s focused on here. Perhaps because it was typical of all his relationships and thus speaks for them all, but more probably just because Cate Blanchett as Hepburn is so damn good. As is DiCaprio as Hughes.

Scorsese takes us through the high and lowlights of his life largely from Hughes’ own perspective. We see the absurdity of everything around him as he does, most remarkably in a dinner scene with Hepburn’s family. They’re socialists because they fear new money, to which he chides that they don’t value wealth because they’ve always had it. He’s uncomfortable around them, and that feeling of a million people talking to you at once without you able to take in a word of what any of them is saying is done perfectly in a mash-up of conversation being thrown all over the place to the sight of DiCaprio fidgeting away agitatedly.

The first third here is shot in tricolor, as a paean to a style of Hughes’ time-period but also for the sake of the strange beauty of seeing everything in shades of turquoise and red. It also means when full-colour does finally arrive, it’s blooming, and appreciated much more than it otherwise would be.

The Aviator is long, but it has to be in tribute to its legendary, epic main man. As a visual and musical experience, it’s a delight to the senses; as a biography and analysis of a genius, it’s compelling and seemingly awesome in its accuracy. Two out of two. Top, top stuff as always from the maestro of American cinema.

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