Bucket List Movie #430: The Aviator (2004)
For me, some actors improve with age. No, scratch that, it isn’t necessarily that they improve, per se (though that’s often the case), but that I finally learn to let go of an irrational animosity towards them and realize that not only are they only human, but talented humans at that. Leonardo DiCaprio fits this category to the proverbial tee. I was a high school freshman when Titanic ruled the box office and, indeed, the planet, and the thrall in which the young DiCaprio held over my fellow teenagers was lost on me. I thought he was too pretty, too fey, not ruggedly masculine enough. At the time I thought I was being a proud nonconformist, when in fact I was just an immature little contrarian who didn’t want to admit she hadn’t seenTitanic yet. But then, years after DiCaprio hit 30, a remarkable thing happened: Shutter Island. I saw this twisty, immensely entertaining thriller and realized, with no small surprise, that DiCaprio could really act. He played a detective caught up in a mind bending mystery, and the pretty boy from the 90’s was a dim memory. Here was a real man, with talent and presence, who has since become the great Martin Scorsese’s latest muse who's at the top of his game. Even as he turns 40 this year, there are traces of boyishness left on DiCaprio's mature visage, which made him an excellent choice to play the title character in 2013's The Great Gatsby, as a man who clings to youthful fantasies as protection against the disillusionments of adulthood.
In The Aviator, DiCaprio ferociously delved into the role as one of the most fascinating men of the 20th century, Howard Hughes. Nowadays, the name Howard Hughes conjures up images of a wealthy, eccentric, intensely germ-phobic recluse who, at his lowest point, grew a Biblical beard, washed his hands until they bled, and relieved himself in bottles.
It’s easy to forget that he was once the wealthiest, charismatic men in America, who dated the likes of Katherine Hepburn (played in The Aviator by Cate Blanchett, in a revelatory performance) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and made Hell’s Angels, one of the most expensive films of the 1920s, and then made a star out of the young Jane Russell in The Outlaw, one of the naughtiest films of the 1940s. The movie (at a surprisingly breezy 170 minutes), one of the better made biopics, covers the aforementioned bases of this sometimes charming, often maddening man.
We are introduced to Hughes as an innocent little boy who was taught to spell the word “quarantine” by his creepily serene mother. We then see him as a young jack of all trades, but whose greatest passion was aviation and engineering. It’s understandable why someone like Hughes favored flight; after all, the sky is clear and limitless, whereas the ground is littered with boundaries and obstacles. It doesn’t take us long to see how ill-equipped Hughes is to deal with obstacles. When designing aircrafts, including the infamous “Spruce Goose”, Hughes is bombarded with escalating costs, design flaws, lawyers and competing airlines breathing down his neck. It is a bitter pill for him to swallow, that being wealthy and renowned doesn’t protect him from pesky realities. Is it any wonder that Hughes tried to exercise control over other facets of life, such as germs, friends, and the women who dared to love him? In one infuriating scene, just after suspecting a man of spying on him, we discover Hughes bugged then-girlfriend Ava Gardner’s house and car.
With his dreams collapsing and his loved ones stepping out, that is when Howard Hughes the Disgusting Hermit emerges, and DiCaprio tosses aside all vanity and inhibitions to attack the scenes with Method-like barbarity. The scenes are brief, but leave a hell of an impact.
This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most aesthetically lovely films, right up there with The Age of Innocence. The scenes with Hughes in his prime in Hollywood and in the air, he seems to be basked in a glorious, autumnal light, while his scenes are nightmarishly murky. My one complaint is a scene where Hughes golfs with Hepburn, and it is a gaudy teal and orange filter. Teal and orange has been prevalent in films for several years now, but I’m disappointed that Scorsese went that route, for it is an ugly distraction in an otherwise fabulous-looking film. Even the CGI flying scenes hold up well and contribute rather than distract from the narrative.
While Blanchett won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, DiCaprio was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Jamie Foxx for Ray. It’s been ten years since The Aviator, and, as evidenced by this year’s Academy Awards, things have strangely come full circle (or maybe semicircle). Cate Blanchett won her second Oscar, only this time for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (highly deserved, though I was rooting for Amy Adams for American Hustle), and DiCaprio was nominated for Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, only to lose to Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. A shame, but we needn’t despair for DiCaprio. The Aviator was but a glorious preview of things to come in his career, and he continues to deliver a decade after the fact. If Howard Hughes taught us anything, is that, for better or worse, we leave some kind of legacy. DiCaprio is already creating his.