The Aviator (2004)

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TCM: Thursday 5 November, 10.45pm

Gangs of New York began with a bang. The Aviator begins with a whimper – a boy being bathed by his mother. Fear of disease is instilled in the child at this tender age. And Howard Hughes grew up to be some kind of weirdo when it came to fear of contamination. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, the experts say now with the certainty of hindsight.

At the time, Hughes was allowed to be as weird as he liked – he was a multi-millionare, a young man who inherited his father’s company Hughes Tool and proceeded to plough millions into his twin obsessions – aviation and the movies.

With no formal education in engineering, Hughes was the man who jump-started commercial aviation with innovative ideas about retractable landing gear, pressurised cabins and satellite technology. Despite his fame, Hughes was one of America’s most secretive tycoons, never photographed in public after 1952. A shadowy enigma addicted to valium, codeine and milk – always to be served in a capped bottle.

The Aviator is Leonardo DiCaprio’s baby. He brought the script to Martin Scorsese. And it’s easy to see why Scorsese would be interested in telling the story of a man who made some kind of mark on the movies. Hughes’ Great War epic Hell’s Angels was the first multi-million dollar movie.

Two years in the making, Hughes scrapped it and began again when sound pictures arrived with The Jazz Singer. Jane Russell’s cleavage on display in The Outlaw prompted head-scratching and coughing fits among film censors.

Hughes had girls stashed all over Hollywood, though the loves of his life – according to this movie– were Katharine Hepburn (winningly depicted by Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett as an outsider, like Hughes) who left him for Spencer Tracy, and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale, almost unrecognisable under bobbed hair-dos) who left him to his own devices. Ever the fastidious craftsman, Scorsese films the 1920s and 1930s scenes in an approximaton of early two-strip Technicolor (everything’s predominantly red and green), the palette becoming richer as time and technology advances.

The matching of footage from a 1947 Technicolor newsreel is flawless. For Scorsese, then, a fascination with the film-stock of the period. For DiCaprio, an admiration for Howard Hughes’ record-setting exploits in the face of undiagnosed difficulties. Hughes’ dubious practices (business, political and sexual) are barely hinted at.

DiCaprio plays him as a pioneering genius juggling demons. Jude Law pops up a couple of times almost irrelevantly as Errol Flynn, but his fleeting presence suggests that’s how DiCaprio sees Hughes: as a real-life Sky Captain with his own vision of the World Tomorrow. Not just some nutter who could always buy himself out of trouble.

Certificate: 12
Duration: 163min

IMDB – The Aviator

TMDB – The Aviator

Rotten Tomatoes – The Aviator

Other Showings Date & Time
TCM Friday, 6 November at 9:00PM