Scorcese's 'Aviator' celebrates a man who conquered the world and then rejected it
Those who had to survive the 1960s without a private jet or personal chef looked to Howard Hughes as reassuring proof that money does not purchase happiness. A prisoner of his own psychosis, the multibillionaire dared not cut his hair and nails or venture out of the ninth floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. He was a corporate suit who refused to wear shoes and ordered his duds from Sears. By the time he died, in 1976, Hughes had become the richest recluse in history.
Though it offers intimations of insanity, The Aviator focuses on the 20 years of Hughes' life in which he was still a functioning, flamboyant tycoon. It begins in 1927, when Hughes assembles the largest private air force in the world in order to produce the cinematic extravaganza Hell's Angels, and it concludes in 1947 with the political victory that enables Hughes' airline, TWA, to expand its routes to Europe. "I'm Howard Hughes the aviator," he tells the firefighter who rescues him from the burning wreck of the XF-11 he crashes during a test flight. In The Aviator, he is also Howard Hughes the movie mogul, the industrialist, the aeronautical engineer, the philanderer, and the incipient lunatic. This aviator, like Icarus, flies too high and falls very low.
More than Jean Harlow (Stefani), Ava Gardner (Beckinsale), or a 15-year-old starlet named Faith Domergue (Garner), Hepburn is, next to Hughes himself, the love of his life, and when she walks out on him he burns all his clothes and accelerates his descent into madness without a parachute. "Sometimes I truly fear like I'm losing my mind," he tells her earlier, when his mind is still clear. Cate Blanchett's Hepburn captures not only the famous, imperious lockjaw delivery but the woman's tenderness and vulnerability as well. Alec Baldwin's Juan Trippe, head of rival American Airlines, is a worthy adversary, and his attempt to negotiate with Hughes, already suffering from anthropophobia, through a locked door is one of the film's many memorable images. Others include a full sky of simulated World War I fighters, a full room of sybarites at the vibrant Cocoanut Grove, and a fulsome senator (Alda) who, attempting to destroy Hughes at a Congressional hearing, is hoisted on his own pettifoggery.
"People should remember him as he was," insists Trippe as paranoia and obsessive compulsive disorder turn unkempt, sequestered Hughes into the "pathetic freak" that Ava Gardner calls him. People who want to remember Hughes as he was should probably look elsewhere than The Aviator, which combines characters, alters events, modifies chronology, and expunges the dead spots that fill any life. But people will remember Scorsese's Hughes, a pilot who conquered the world and then rejected it. •