The Aviator

Martin Scorsese often complains about the limitations of genre, but as I look over his filmography, I’m struck at the number of his movies that could be classified as one genre or another. He has a number of gangster movies, all very different, two religious epics, two sports pictures (my local video store inexplicably puts The Color of Money in “Action”), a couple of costume dramas (I count Gangs of New York as a gangster costume drama, although it’s closer to a historical epic in structure), a thriller, a comedy, and now a Hollywood Biopic.

I mentioned watching The Aviator to a female friend of mine today and she said “Is that the one about the guy who, you know, follows his dream?” And it occurred to me that, well, all Hollywood Biopics are about a Guy who Follows His Dream. I mean, honestly, who would spend $100 million on a 3-hour movie about a guy who doesn’t follow his dreams? Usually, now that I think of it, the guy Follows His Dream but it brings him nothing but grief, and he often dies before his time.

Howard Hughes, of course, didn’t die before his time, but he did the next best thing in biopic terms, which was to have a Bizarre Medical Condition.

TE Lawrence was obsessed with the desert, Gandhi wanted to free India from imperialism, Schindler wanted to save them Jews, and Howard Hughes, according to The Aviator, was obsessed with building airplanes.

Scorsese’s Howard Hughes is obsessed with his airplanes, so we also become obsessed with his airplanes. He cares about the rivets, so we care about the rivets. He gets excited climbing into the cockpit to test a new plane, so we do too. And when he starts falling apart, we feel bad for him, we feel that something has been tragically lost. Scorsese has made the story of one of the 20th century’s most peculiar men into something oddly universal. How did he do that?

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that only Martin Scorsese could make a movie about a billionaire industrialist playboy and have him come off as a shy, awkward, hard-working, underappreciated outsider.

How did he do that? I would say that he did that by strongly identifying with his protagonist. But how does one identify with Howard Hughes?

Well, I have a little meaningless pocket guide that served as my way through the movie.

Howard Hughes loves planes. Martin Scorsese loves film. (This link is underscored in the first half-hour of the film, where Hughes is shown actually making a movie about planes, in fact actually making a movie in a plane.)
Scorsese presents Hughes as an outsider because that’s what he makes movies about. His movies about societies are always about the outsider who can’t quite make it inside that society, who’s always on the edge, looking in the window, not quite able to understand the way things are done. Even his gangster movies have outsider protagonists; Henry Hill in Goodfellas is Irish, Ace in Casino is Jewish. My dimestore-psychology theory is that Scorsese makes movies about outsiders because even though he was an Italian/American living in Little Italy, he was too small and too sickly to ever fit into that world; the outsider’s POV is the only way he understands things.

So Howard Hughes is presented not as a wealthy captain of industry, but as a misfit loner who bucks the system. He’s an outsider in Hollywood (even though his movies are hits and he’s dating every actress in town), an outsider in aviation (even though he owns a major airline and has expensive military contracts), and an outsider in the human condition (because of his mental problems).

Like Scorsese and his movies, Hughes sweats the details with his airplanes. He knows everything about the engineering of his planes and he knows everyone’s job better than they do. He wants the rivets flush because it will make a difference in the way the plane flies. He’s presented with ten different steering wheels and none of them are quite right.

Hughes Aircraft was a stunning success, but Scorsese only shows the failures. There are two scenes of Hughes actually crashing in his own planes. One is harmless and he walks away from it, the other is horrific and he is crippled for life. In real life, these crashes were mere hiccups in the production of those planes, but in the movie we never see either plane again, as if they never went into production.

I get the feeling that Scorsese is equating Hughes’s crashes with his own crashes. The H-1, for instance, is the plane that beat the air-speed record, but crashed in a beet field. That could be a metaphor for Raging Bull, a movie repeatedly voted as one of the 10 best of all time, yet unwatched in its first release. The XF-11, the crash that crippled Hughes, could be King of Comedy, the movie that put Scorsese in the directoral doghouse for a decade. The Spruce Goose, years in the making, the plane that Hughes finally flew to save his reputation (the flight serves as the climax of the movie) could be The Last Temptation of Christ, the movie Scorsese fought to make for years but finally got off the ground.

The OCD stuff, well, I was going to say that it’s analogous to Scorsese’s asthma, but that’s glib. I was also going to say that instead of OCD, Scorsese has his Catholic Guilt, but I don’t see Scorsese as being crippled by anything these days. Maybe it’s his work ethic, the way that his work kept him from having close relationships in the early part of his life (says the guy who just read a book of interviews with him).

Leonardo DiCaprio, who doesn’t seem to look much like Hughes, does a great job of getting across Hughes’s strengths, so when we see him be weak we feel it. Cate Blanchett utterly vanishes in her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn. Man, what a performance. You look at her and look at her, and you know it’s not Katherine Hepburn, in fact it doesn’t even look that much like Katherine Hepburn, but the fact is that, even in the most intimate scenes, you don’t see Cate Blanchette either. There is some kind of actress up there, playing the role of Katherine Hepburn.

I dare not think too much about what this means, but Scorsese’s Jesus shows up half-way through the movie as an oily, fish-faced scandal-monger.
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3 Responses to “The Aviator”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    For me, the most distracting thing about The Aviator was the Hepburn character. I think Blanchett an extraordinary job in the role, but my familiarity with Hepburn was a doubled edged sword — I could see what a good interpretation that was, but at the same time, she just didn’t look like the actress I’d seen so many times. Hughes on the other hand, I’d seen almost exclusively represented or mentioned in parodies. I didn’t know anything about his life pre-Kleenex days (despite having watched Melvin and Howard) so I had that tabula rasa on which his life could be portrayed.

    It did give me an added incentive to go see the real Spruce Goose, which is effectively just down the road. Growing up, I was always given the impression that the goose was built someone who was crazy enough to want to build the most giant plane ever, rather than as a potentially viable transport vehicle.

  2. Anonymous says:


    “In real life, these crashes were mere hiccups in the production of those planes, but in the movie we never see either plane again, as if they never went into production.”

    Whoa, the XF-11 had one more test flight after Hughes’ near death experience before the Air Force decided to go with Boeing.