History has demonstrated that the old saying ‘there is a thin line between genius and madness’ often is true. Few men have made this saying true to the extent of Howard Hughes. While most successful men may exhibit a few eccentricities towards the end of his life decades quirks and odd behavior built up to complete isolating madness. While many men strive to be successful in a single field this was not enough for Hughes, he was drive to redefine each and every endeavor he took on. Hughes was a world class financier, a genuine movie mogul and a playboy but his heart belonged to the vastness of the sky. He spent his life seeking the technology to go faster and higher than any other man could ever dream of. Orphaned by the time he was twenty Hughes took control of the family business, Hughes Tool and Die, and built it up to an extremely successful and fiscally powerful company. This provided the finical means to pursue the endeavors that really held his interests, women and airplanes.
The film chronicles Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) from his rise to fame, or perhaps infamy, to his self isolating and compulsive end. We get to know a young man born to the best but never satisfied. He was a triple threat, handsome, intelligent and rich, factors that he knew how to use to his own advantage. He was also a risk taker, willing to bet it all, somehow certain that the world would yield to his unconquerable will and drive. This movie also shows that genius is not always enough; circumstances had to be just right for Hughes to exploit his gifts, among these events where World War One and the rise of the motion picture industry. The Great War demonstrated to the military that the next war would require air superiority to win. This sparked in Hughes the idea that the military had the funding and desire to foot the bill for his novel ideas of new and better planes. Designing military planes afforded Hughes a fertile ground for his ideas. He was able to make a name for himself not only with his designs but as a test pilot; he would seldom leave the maiden flights to anyone other than himself. In the forties Hughes became one of the leading forces in the new field of commercial air travel. As more and more people chose to travel in these grand ships of the sky Hughes wanted to control the industry. This brought him in direct conflict with Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) the owner of a rival air liner, PanAm. As is often found with rich men Trippe was politically connected and brought the Federal government to bear on Hughes. This force came in the guise of Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), who dragged Hughes in front of a senate investigatory committee. Hughe’s quick wit and beguiling manner won the day for his TWA and his plans for the air went on.
A man like Hughes could not have just any woman on his arm, he went for the best know and most beautiful actresses of the day. Shown at various events with the likes of Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) was not enough, he sought the women that where the most difficult to obtain. One of the loves of his life was Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), a kindred spirit, adventurous and talented. The woman that would haunt Hughes the most was Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). While she realized that Hughes was rapidly going mad she still regarded him with the deepest affections, although she was never able to commit to him. For Hughes meeting such women was no problem, he was a notable director and producer of films during the golden age of Hollywood. Like his aircraft his movies pushed the limits. His Hell’s Angles brought debate over censorship and the precursor to today’s rating system. He even designed a structurally sound bra for the amble bosom of actress Jane Russell.
As the film concludes we see the embodiment of another popular phrase, ‘Money can’t buy you happiness.’ Hughes, the man that was a giant in so many fields was alone in his Las Vegas hotel room, deadly afraid of any germ that may be lurking. What started as vapid repetition of words degraded into what could only be called complete madness. With his billions he could almost control the world but he could not stop his compulsions and fears, they simply took over his life.
At first you may think that Leonardo DiCaprio was a strange choice to play Hughes. After seeing the film I could see why he garnered such a role. DiCaprio has the swagger and attitude right and that more than makes up for the basic lack of physical resemblance to Hughes. From his humble beginnings in the television family comedy Growing Pains, DiCaprio was truly grown as an actor. More than just a pretty face he has talent and brings it to the screen in full measure here. While rarely in a lead role John C. Reilly also displays enormous talent here as Noah, Hughes one true friend and business partner, he plays his role as the conscience of Hughes. He was the man that helped Hughes hold on to reality as long as possible. The two leading ladies here do an incredible job of channeling their characters. Cate Blanchett nails the distinctive voice and mannerisms of Hepburn. She portrays a woman determined to make it in a man’s world on her own terms. Blanchett gives us a Hepburn that is the counterpoint to Hughes. I think that the real Hepburn would have had a little smile on her face if she could have seen this film. Kate Beckinsale finally has a role where she can show her talents, well at least the talents other than looking great in skin tight leather as she did in Underworld and Van Helsing. Her Ava Garner is a woman of deep empathy; she loves Hughes on an emotional level but knows that she needs a man more rooted in reality.
While many judge the success of a director by the number of Oscars that adorn his mantle, this is a mistake when considering the career of Martin Scorsese. Some of his films may have bombed but never because of a lack of talent or vision, it was because as a true son of New York City he as willing to take a risk. While ‘The Aviator’ is not his best film it is a masterpiece of grand scope. The most notable trademark of Scorsese is his incredible attention to details and it was used here in good measure. Every prop and set is right on the money. Within minutes of the film’s start the audience is drawn back in time to the heyday of Hollywood, amidst the glamour of those bygone days. Scorsese certainly knows how to pace a film. True, there are some scenes that tend to drag a bit but over all he gives us a film that like the man it portrays sweeps through life.
Warner Brothers did this film justice with the DVD release. Okay, they do have a pan and scan version but we can forgive that. The anamorphic 2.40:1 video is crisp, clear and free of any defect. The color palette is incredibly well balanced jumping off the screen. The Dolby 5.1 audio booms out of the speakers surrounding you with every little detail. You are literally transported into the film. The extras are also above the norm. There is a commentary track by Scorsese that is a mini course in direction. As a native New Yorker I enjoyed the quick, frantic pace of his voice but others may have a little difficulty in getting his points. There is a full forty five minute episode of the History Channel’s great series, Modern Marvels, detailing the reality behind the man. There is a panel discussion of Obsessive Compulsion Disorder featuring Scorsese, DiCaprio and Terry Moore, the widow of Hughes. Also provided is an Evening with DiCaprio and Alan Alda, a look at the aviation industry and some deleted scenes. Yes, this film did lose at the Oscars but it is a must have for any serious collection.