A crazy billionaire’s inspiring life storyThere couldn’t have been many figures in 20th-century American history more strange and influential than billionaire lunatic Howard Hughes. His connections stretched from silent-era Hollywood to the Cold War CIA, from Ava Gardner to the Mafia to Richard Nixon.
He flew planes, bought and sold corporations, dated movie stars, purchased a big chunk of Las Vegas, did covert work for the U.S. government and saved his own urine in bottles. He was one of the richest men on the planet, and he wore Kleenex boxes on his feet because he thought they would protect him from germs. After he died, they found broken-off bits of hypodermic needles in his arms.
With “The Aviator,” director Martin Scorsese sentimentalizes the creepiness of this life, overlooks most of its darker political implications and makes a conventional, inspirational “biopic” out of it, with pretty boy Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead.
You’ve seen the sort of thing a dozen times. The hero is a visionary, a man with a radical new idea. Older men in his field laugh at him, tell him he’s crazy. But there is a woman who believes in him. Against all odds, he achieves great success. Then his rivals sabotage him.
By the third act, he’s on the verge of losing everything, but he defeats his enemies in a climactic public showdown ― preferably in a courtroom, or at least a congressional hearing. Someplace with a lot of reporters present, at any rate, so that there can be flashbulbs and crowd reaction. It might surprise people who’ve seen “The Aviator” to learn that Martin Scorsese has made some great movies.
By no means does the film ignore Hughes’s mental illnes, which is easily identified, these days, as a bad case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In fact, it’s the first thing alluded to, in an opening scene of boy Hughes being bathed by his mother, as she teaches him to spell “quarantine” and warns him to stay away from the “colored” neighborhood because it’s swarming with disease.
This prefigures the obsession with germs that would come to dominate Hughes’ mind. Before this three-hour epic is over, we will see DiCaprio as a scraggly-bearded, long-fingernailed Howard Hughes, holing up in his room and, indeed, saving his urine in bottles. But the bottles are lined up so symmetrically, and backlit so attractively, that you don’t flinch at the sight. That rather sums up how the movie treats Hughes’s insanity. Mental illness, here, doesn’t give off the horrific odor it does in the actual world; it’s just a generic obstacle for the hero to dramatically overcome. It could be poverty, or blindness, or a missing limb, and it probably wouldn’t change the film’s basic tone.
All that said, this isn’t a boring movie ―just a conventional one. There’s a lot of good material. The scenes set in 1930s Hollywood are the most absorbing; a strange, absurd world of power and hollow glamour. Cate Blanchett is subtle and complex as Katherine Hepburn, Hughes’s paramour for a while; you can see there’s something in her that responds to Hughes’s craziness. And Alan Alda is fun to watch as a corrupt old senator, the one Hughes trounces to flashbulbs and stirring music, as you knew he would.
Drama / English
by David Moll
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