© 2004 Ray Wong
2004 sees a slew of biopics, from NEVERLAND to KINSEY to BEYOND THE SEA. The AVIATOR, about the early life of Howard Hughes, is the newest addition, and arguably the best of the crop.
DiCaprio plays Hughes, a rich, young, ambitious egomaniac who knows what he wants. His family business and inheritance give him the opportunities to go after the things he loves: movies, airplanes, and women. And when he goes after them, he goes after them with everything he’s got. After dumping a staggering $2 million in the film HELL’S ANGELS – a moderate success that propels Hughes into the Hollywood limelight – he turns his attention to his first love, aviation.
That’s also when he meets Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett), the mesmerizing screen actress with a gravelly voice and strong, eccentric personality. Hughes and Hepburn carry on a torrid love affair, while he continues to split his time between Hollywood and the airfields. His obsessions and perfectionism slowly drive a wedge between him and the soaring film star, and soon they part ways. Hughes gets involved with numerous starlets until he finds himself falling for Ava Gardner (Beckinsale), who maintains a distance.
Hughes also battles a private illness. He suffers obsessive-compulsive disorder and he is terrified of germs and diseases. His illness slowly eats at him and eventually turns him to insanity, while his archrival Juan Trippe of PamAm tries to squeeze and swallow his companies: Hughes Aircraft and TWA.
DiCaprio (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN) returns to the silver screen with vigor. While his youth and public persona somehow prevent him from completely immersing himself as the larger-than-life, much-too-well-known Hughes, DiCaprio emerges as true and strong in his performance. One can argue another actor can portray Hughes better. Yet the steely blue eyes, the boyish charm, and the fierce, arrogant demeanors make DiCaprio a worthy Hughes, if only a bit slight. Despite an obvious age difference, Blanchett (THE MISSING) shares immense chemistry with DiCaprio. In her own way, she captures the essence of Ms. Hepburn beautifully and convincingly. Beckinsale (VAN HELSING) fares not as well as the luminous Gardner. Her screen time is limited and you don’t really understand what’s between her and Hughes, making the pivotal scene toward the end less convincing. In a way, her role seems like an afterthought.
The supporting cast is stupendous. Reilly (CRIMINAL), Huston (BIRTH) and Ross (DOWN WITH LOVE) are excellent as Hughes right- and left-hand men. Baldwin (ALONG CAME POLLY), as Juan Trippe, has the oily businessman down pat. Alda (WHAT WOMEN WANT) is also affecting as the corrupt Senator Brewster. Law (CLOSER) has an interesting cameo as Errol Flynn and Holm (GARDEN STATE) is amusing as the befuddled Professor Fitz.
Writer Logan has the thankless job of compressing Hughes’ fascinating life into a comprehensive three hours. I think he does a wonderful job in drawing the complexity of the characters. I can’t say how historically true his story is, but it sure is entertaining and well written. The dialogue is intense and the relationships riveting. The script shows an incredible restraint in showing Hughes’ brilliant as well as shady sides, without passing judgment. Given the complexity of Hughes’ life and the amount of information, events, and characters, Logan does a marvelous job in putting them all in perspectives. However, whether it’s the fault of the script or the editing, there seem to be many gaps between scenes. One has to, at times, strain to connect the dots.
There is no doubt that Scorsese is a master craftsman. The film has the lush look and feel of the Hollywood golden years. His pacing is excellent, and many sequences are simply breathtaking (including one hollowing crash scene). Like Logan, he has the thankless job of composing a complex life like Hughes’ in a cohesive way, even though the film runs a whopping 169 minutes. With great skills and artistic benevolence, he handles Hughes’ ingenious drives, and his slow descent toward insanity with taste and sympathy. And that’s what a good biopic is all about.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Matt Ross, Jude Law, Adam Scott
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan
Distributor: Warner Bros, Miramax
Rating: PG-13 for language, themes, brief nudity
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 7
Production – 10
Total – 8.4 out of 10