Total Film - Januar 2005

 

 

Fly Boy

 

Howard Hughes was a movie mogul, a libidinous loverboy and - as the title of Martin Scorsese's new biopic 'The Aviator' suggests - a prodigious pilot: Leonardo DiCaprio hopes it'll be a soaring success....

by Tony Horkins

 

Easing himself into a chair at LA's Hotel BelAir, Leonardo DiCaprio is looking very little like Howard Hughes. With his backwards LA baseball cap, washed-out blue Polo sweatshirt, baggy Levi's and scruffy boy-beard, he bears scant resemblance to the stylish Hollywood playboy/producer/director/pilot he's captured so perfectly in 'The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's homage to the American legend.

As Scorsese himself recently told 'Vanity Fair', maybe it's to do with DiCaprio's uncanny ability to "shape change": today, he appears metamorphosised into the Young Hollywood, supermodel-dating Leo we're more used to seeing straing out from the pages of the pap-rags. Today is also just one day before his 30th birthday ("I've got another eight hours not to think about it"), and he seems far from excited about getting another step closer to being a Responsible Adult.

"I'd probably rather still be 20 to tell you the truth," he admits with a drawn-out sigh. "I don't want to be 30. I'm still a juvenile in some ways and kind of mature in other ways. I feel I've just accumulated more information and have learned more things." One thing it's clear the reluctant grown-up has learned is how to spot a good movie when he sees one. Having initially stalled on his post-'Titanic' career - after a two-year hiatus, 2000's 'The Beach' and 2001's 'Dons' Plum' didn't exactly find him capitalising on his elevated status - his recent teaming with Spielberg - 'Catch me If You Can' - and then Scorsese - 'Gangs of New York' - has garnerred him all-important credibility points.

Scorsese likens DiCaprio's process to that of another of his personal favourites, Robert De Niro, and Leo - already slated to film a third movie with Marty in 2006, 'Infernal Affairs' remake 'The Departed - feels he's struck director's gold. "The appeal is that I'm working with a master of his craft," he explains. "I trust nearly everything he says in terms of what to put up on the screen because he's a professor of cinema. You're working with someone who is at the top, utmost tier of their craft."

And Scorsese's craft has rarely seemed more fluid and energetic than in 'The Aviator', the story of a man whose life was initially guided by three naked ambitions: to become the richest man in the world; to become the biggest movie producer in the world; and to become a world-championing pioneer of aviation. Howard Hughes pretty much became all three, also managing to pick up the tag of 'World's Biggest Playboy' and, ultimatively, 'World's Strangest Recluse' along the way, too. It's something DiCaprio could certainly relate to.

"Sure - I feel like hiding all the time," he grins, suddenly looking like he's about to turn 20 after all. "But I never do because I don't let myself be a victim of this ridiculous thing that is 'being recognised': There are a lot worse things in the world that people have to deal with. It's not like being famous is a civil human-rights issue that people should be concerned with. Who cares about us? We're lucky bastards."

After charmed beginning to his own life, Hughes wasn't quite as lucky a bastard as DiCaprio's been. Born on Texas and into money in 1905 - his father invented a diamond thrill-bit that revolutionised the way oil prospectors operated - young Howard's triumvirate of ambitions began in earnest at 18 when he inherited the business after his father's dead.

Fossil fuel was never Hughes' thing, so he headed for Hollywood; while his company continued to pump oil, he began pumping the profits into movies. And not with a little success. He made a star of Jean Harlow, smashed box-office records with prototype blockbuster 'Hell's Angels' (1930), had two films nominated for Oscars ('The Racket' in 1928 and 'The Front Page' in 1931), and managed to get the censors all hot and bothered when he invented a cantilevered push-up bra for the already generously endowed Jean Russell in 'The Outlaw' (1941).

Ultimately, however, despite the profile and access to the period's hottest Hollywood totty - he famously dated Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Jane Russell - the land of make-believe was not enough for Hughes. He left movies behind to indulge his other passion: aviation.

As driven to fly as he was to make films, his flying successes were enormous. The munificent mogul set many world records, including, at seven hours, the fastest time travelled between Los Angeles and New York. He also built (out of wood!) what is still the world's largest aircraft, the 'Sproose Goose' - 50 percent longer than a Boein 747. And he flew his own H-1 airplane a record-breaking 352mph. Along the way, he nearly killed himself piloting a test flight - it took nine months in hospital to recover from the death-defying injuries - and bought and ran passenger airline TWA.

"I think he was someone who took things to extremes," understates Dicaprio, whose obsessive research into his character astonished both Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan. "I think he literally had no moral high-ground, no parental figures as a young man... And all the money in the world. He made a laundry list of things he wanted to do. He had nobody to tell him what he was doing wrong, and I think he sacrficed his own happiness ultimately in order to achieve these dreams."

Despite the realisation of many of his dreams, Hughes is now sadly remembered for the last 20 years of his life, when he lost his battle with hypochondria, germophobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder to become a urine-bottling, toenail-growing, fully-fledged weirdo hiding out in a hotel room in Las Vegas. By the time he died in 1976, aged 70, his appearance was so drastically changed -and he's been seen by so few people for so long - that the Treasury Department had to use fingerprints to identify his drug-addicted body.

Ultimately, his is a lifetime of stories that Scorsese could have chosen to dedicate a trilogy of films: 'The Hollywood Years', 'The Aviation Years' and 'The Recluse Years'. Instead, 'The Aviator' covers the period between 1928 and 1948, introducing the viewer to the young, energetic producer as he struggles with spiralling budgets and "not enough clouds" on the set of his World War One epic 'Hell's Angels'. It finishes with his very public battle with congress - Hughes spent a lifetime battling authority figures over everything from censorship to taxes - as he attempts to dismantle the government-mandated monopoly held by Pan Am over international travel routes.

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"He was a real pioneer and one of the biggest Casanova womanizers of the last century."

Leonardo on Howard Hughes

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"I think the fact it focused on Howard as a younger man is the reason the movie got made," DiCaprio suggests with a frown. "It follows all the successes that he had in his life. It's not very cinematic to see a guy locked in a hotel room sneezing and making business deals." Scripter John Logan agrees: "For me aviation was the spine. I believe it was the entity in Howard's crowded life he cared about the most."

It wasn't, however, DiCaprio's first understanding of who Howard Hughes was. Like many, he too thought of him as "this old man with Kleenex boxes on his feet and long hair". Until, that is, he read Peter Harry Brown's 1996 biography, 'Howard Hughes: The Untold Story'. "It was then I realised he was a real pioneer of American history as far as aviation is concerned; how he was the first independent producer to make a $4-million picture; and how he made one of the most sexually explicit movies in 'The Outlaw' and one of the most violent films ever with the original 'Scarface'. I learnd how he challenged the censor boards and how he had really hardcore obsessive-compulsive disorder; and how he was one of the biggst Casanova womanizers of the last century." He pauses to take stock, resting back in his seat. "That's when I knew he was a multi-dimensional, fascinating character that would be exciting to play."

Convinced of the validity and depth of the role, DiCaprio set about meticulously exploring it, relying enormously on TV footage covering the senate hearings of Hughes' battle with Pan Am. "I literally got to watch his movements and see how he really was in a public form," he says. "But my biggest worry was how the germophobe stuff would work. That took a lot of research and a lot of effort to really understand what it is that makes you afraid of, say, shaking hands. I didn't understand what the heck that was, so I worked with a doctor and a couple of people who had OCD to try and really give an accurate depiction."

DiCaprio wasn't the only actor that had to bury themselves deep into the nuances of a non-fictional character. Cate Blanchett did so as well when she took the role of Hollywood legend Katherine Hepburn. Trawling her way through many of the late actress' films and appearances, she struck gold when she stumbled upon a television interview she'd done in 1974 with US TV host Dick Cavett.

"She was a mouch older woman by then," Blanchett tells 'Total Film', "and hearing her speak rather than speak someone else's lines... I know very well the difference between one's performance persona and who one actually is. It's often miles apart, so I was trying to walk that line and work very closely on her vocal mannerisms."

Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner) had a tastier way of digging into her character. "I did it with chocolate," she confesses, flashing a wicked smile. "I'm not really the right shape for Ava Gardner in real life so I gained a stone-and-a-half. I was actually quite cheered about how much chocolate it took to gain it. Now, though, I couldn't look at a peanut M&M again if you paid me. Which is a miracle. But I managed to gain weight on my face and my boobs and my bum. On set it was fine, but I'd go home and feel like a fat bastard."

For all the film's stars, the making of 'The Aviator' was almost as exciting a journey as one of Hughes' record-breaking flights. "I found the drive of the film really fascinating," says Blanchett. "Marty's really captured that fast-talking witty energy that the films of the '30s and '40s had." Beckinsale, meanwhile, came at the movie from much the same angle as DiCaprio. "Before making the film, I didn't realise how much Howard Hughes had achieved," she says. "I knew him much more for being a nutter. Which is really sad because if someone's got that kind of brilliance, there's often a flip-side that goes with it. And it's a shame when people know a bit more about the flip-side than about what you actually did."

It's clear that 'The Aviator' could go some way to diminish the worldview of Hughes as "Loony Recluse Stabbed To Death By His Own Toenails" and help replace it with a more fitting epitaph. And both Beckinsale and Blanchett - along with No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, who features in her first ever movie role as Jean Harlowe - agree that it's in no small way due to the generosity and skills of their director.

"Scosese couldn't have made me feel more comfortable - like I was meant to be there." admits Stefani. "He was so passionate and I love seeing people like that; he knew everything about Howard Hughes and the time period." - "He's incredibly detailed and a perfectionist and very sensitive aurally and visually," adds Blanchett. "If something's offending him visually, it distracts him and he can't concentrate. And it's the same if there's a noise at the other end of the studio... It's like he's got the hearing of a dog. He's really sensitised to performance and can pick things up maybe a lot of others would miss. At the same time, he's a very energetic man and so interested in the performance energy. It was fascinating to work with him."

The man that perhaps knows him best, however, puts it more succinctly. "He's a movie nerd," laughs DiCaprio. "He related everything in his life to movies. But it's great to be around somebody who loves what they do that much. He obsesses about films. He doesn't go for walks in the park when he has a couple of hours off, he goes into his screening room and watches another movie he's seen 30 times already. The man's amazing."

"Amazing" is a recurring word bandied about by those closest to the director, but not, unfortunately, by those in the Academy. "Oscar" and "Scorsese" are two words still not seen in the same sentence, despite classics like 'Goodfellas', 'Raging Bull', 'Taxi Driver' and 'Mean Streets' making his CV the envy of every other working director. Which leads to the inevitable question: could 'The Aviator' change things? "I really would love for Mr Scorsese to get an Oscar, to tell you the truth," says DiCaprio. "Because I think his contributions to the cinema are unprecedented and the fact that he hasn't won yet is like a cruel practical joke."

Mind you, the nearly-30 actor wouldn't be averse to nabbing a golden baldie of his own. Told that Cate Blanchett has confided to 'Total Film' that he deserves the accolade ("There's a relentlessness to him - he's prepared to keep going and going and going until he feels he's got it right"), he shuffles in his chair. "Of course it would be nice," he admits. "Any actor that says they wouldn't want that is... Well, why should they be in the business if they wouldn't like to have somebody say, 'You did a worthy enough performance'? Of course they would like that."

Now that would be a birthday present worth celebrating....

 

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