New York Magazine (Vulture) - 2004
Emperor of the Air
Martin Scorsese regains his form with the Howard Hughes biopic–Leo DiCaprio vehicle The Aviator.
by Ken Tucker
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.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.