It’s been nearly 25 years since director Martin Scorsese won his first Oscar for Raging Bull. Another decade went by before his second for Goodfellas and just two years ago, he picked up a third for Gangs of New York.
Of course, that never happened. What is and what should be aren’t always the same in the movie business. And for the preeminent American filmmaker, the want for a little gold man has developed into a pressing need.
Why else would Scorsese fly the friendly skies of The Aviator, a biopic about eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes?
Its narrative arc reads like Biographies for Dummies. An iconic, charismatic famous figure who: a) lived large in the 1920s-40s, allowing sumptuous period costumes and sets; b) hobnobbed with other famous people who can be name-dropped; c) suffered a crippling disease that he fought off just long enough to enjoy a triumphant David-vs.-Goliath victory. Check, check and check.
This is uncharacteristically safe territory for a filmmaker who relishes risk and grittiness, even when it’s an incoherent mess (Bringing Out the Dead). But cautious filmmaking can bring Oscar consideration, as evidenced by the building buzz that it’s now Scorsese’s turn at the podium.
That said, The Aviator is solidly entertaining. It’s a visually lush, dizzyingly paced recreation of the early days of both film and flight and one man’s overarching desire to own a piece of both.
It boasts dramatic intensity in situations that could be hackneyed, such as Hughes’ Congressional testimony before scuzzy senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda).
It’s funny when it needs to be — the battle over the “offensive” content of Hughes’ film The Outlaw is both an open-faced slam at the MPAA and a sly in-joke at Scorsese’s past films.
The director’s expertise also puts forth, with great conviction, the hellish nightmare of Hughes’ physical and mental maladies. A scene when Hughes crashes a plane into a neighborhood is a vibrant Technicolor destruction of terra-cotta buildings. It alternates astonishing sunniness with a nearly apocalyptic amount of blood and carnage from Hughes’ mangled body.
After that, he begins a descent into obsessive-compulsive madness, locking himself in a screening room where speech tics, urine-filled milk bottles and bug-infested food take over his life. Scorsese films this segment as a frightful purgatory without ever falling into overindulgence.
And as Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a performance that is cocksure, charming, forceful and convincing in capturing as much of Hughes’ essence as we get.
That’s one of the first nagging problems with The Aviator — we see neither how Hughes’ father rose to national prominence and multi-millionaire by creating a self-lubricating oil-drill bit nor the utter bizarreness of his later life, which included a painkiller addiction leading to his 1976 death.
After a very brief prologue with a young Hughes, the film jumps right into his making of Hell’s Angels, a gigantic-budget film about WWI air battles for which he used a large fleet of real airplanes, paid a meteorologist to seek out locations with clouds (to show the relative motions of the planes) and re-dubbed at considerable expense to capitalize on the era’s “talkie” film rage.
The liberal use of computer-generated effects to recreate the filming of Hell’s Angels creates an odd sense of disconnection. The artificial beauty is alluring, but it’s strange to see so much fakery used to recreate a movie whose spectacle was based on using the real thing.
The film is the touchstone for Hughes’ other two desires — the possibilities and precision of commercial air travel, embodied in his TWA company, and the thrill of a beautiful Hollywood starlet on his arm, whether it was Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn or Ava Gardner.
So goes the other annoyance of The Aviator, stunt-casting with big names in inconsequential roles. The ubiquitous Jude Law makes a forgettable Errol Flynn, Kate Beckinsale continues her nothing-special career as Gardner. Singers Gwen Stefani (as Harlow) and Rufus Wainwright (preening ridiculously as a nightclub singer) get unnecessarily featured moments.
Faring much better is Alec Baldwin, casting his patented calm menace as Juan Trippe, Hughes’ rival at Pan Am Airlines. And after ditching the rat-a-tat-tat parroting of the late legend’s voice, Cate Blanchett’s Hepburn connects as the only woman with whom Hughes felt a true connection. They were lonely souls in a world where loneliness killed careers. Blanchett’s work is fully developed and her influence on Hughes and his actions lingers after she leaves the picture.
It’s one of the rare bits of intriguing motivation in a film that is nevertheless interesting for the events that it shows. The Aviator might be the title embossed on Scorsese’s Best Director Oscar, but there’s no mistaking that the long-overdue award would be more for his soaring career.