Cinema Signal:

The Amazing Howard Hughes
The 1977 production
With Tommie Lee Jones
on DVD

Howard Hughes:
His Women and His Movies (2000)

Howard Hughes:
The Real Aviator
DVD release 11/16/2004

Amazing Mr. Hughes
by Noah Dietrich, Hughes' own financial advisor/2004

Citizen Hughes
The Life, Legend, and Madness
by Michael Drosnin

. "The Aviator"

A never-ending source of fascination and study, Howard Hughes will have to go down as one of the more legendary figures in 20th century aviation, movie making and womanizing. He's certainly (perhaps arguably) the most colorful. When you add in the compulsive aspects of his personality, you get a genuine magnet for attention and dissection. What's new and different about this version of the aviation pioneer is that, compared to its predecessors, it's the biggest, best funded, dressiest and most laden with talent on both sides of the camera. They even managed to replicate the flying of Hughes' grand opus, the "Spruce Goose."

One very interesting aspect of rendering the quirky nature of the subject in film biographies that are at all serious, is that the guidelines are set by book biographies, trade paper accounts, interviews, hand-written memos, news reports and myriad sources, both contemporary and contemporaneous with the events. You can't much stray into a commercially motivated glamorization when you want to get anywhere close to the logic behind the mystery and originality.

This is what guided the writers of what I think is the earliest bio on film, the 1977 MOW, "The Amazing Howard Hughes," with Tommie Lee Jones, and that's what was there to provide guidance for John Logan in writing this screenplay. For anyone who will try to capture the subject, his life was so full of dimensions, both glamorous and visionary, a high level of drama and excitement is inherited from reality.

Director Martin Scorsese begins the tale with a peculiar scene with all the aura of a tack-on. In it, a young woman slowly washes the skin of a boy standing up in a tub. The sensual nature of the act is inescapable though the dialogue informs us that she is the mother and the boy is young Hughes. Standing there in his boyishly fair skin, he might be a grecian statue. As she gently rubs, she is giving him a spelling quiz on the word "quarantine" in an effort to teach him a lesson about the ravages of a prevailing flu epidemic. The strange scene is poetic, pathetic and prophetic all in one. It not only seems to foretell the boy's strange future behavior but some of Scorsese's editorial choices, as well.

The action cuts to 1927 Hollywood. Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has by this time ensured his wealth from the family business in oil well drill bits, a bit of ingenuity with huge commercial rewards. While the engineering and corporate side of his life is unabated, Hughes wants to apply his genius to moviemaking, apparently liking the idea of establishing himself as a successful mogul. What he proves in his silent then sound productions of "Hell's Angels" is that unrestrained riches can lead to profligate spending. He's the mogul of waste on a titanic scale and the man most displeased about it is his appointed financial advisor, Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly). A scene of Hughes being scorned by Louis B. Mayer (one of the "M's" of MGM) is symbolic of the general disrespect for him by the studios.

Any biography of Hughes raises the question of how much his interest in movies was influenced by his quest for the most beautiful women in the known world. Wealth and power are strong pheromones, but investing so much into the fantasy world of Hollywood put him inside the candy store. Once he has a star or starlet in his romantic gunsight, he could place the most famous and glamorous of them under contract, in his movies and, often, in bed. One exception to this seems to be Jane Russell, who starred in his Hayes Code-breaking "The Outlaw."

Two of his liasons shown here are with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), always the stuff of gossip lore. (It should be stated for those unfamiliar with his romantic episodes, that these choices are a representation of his many conquests for the sake of story condensation and structure). But, even as he was making tidal waves in film financing and production, he was marking out new territory in aviation.

Working with the chief engineer of his manufacturing empire, Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), he constantly pushed the envelope of what airplanes could do. Very notable was his insistence on going from the existing round headed rivets that kept the airplane fuselage together to those that are flush with the aluminum sheets. The resultant reduction in drag gave his planes advanced aerodynamic potentials.

The movie integrates Hughes' forward thinking in avionics along with an extraordinary hands-on spirit of adventure. He may never have actually said, "That's the future," as he does here, but one could hardly find anyone to say it with more visionary authority. We see him testing his own aerial creations and setting world speed records, a 'round-the-world flight in 1936, the crashing of his cutting-edge XF-11 in 1946 and, most famously, test flying the largest plane ever conceived, the mammoth Spruce Goose whose wing span was greater than a football field. The movie provides a document of these extraordinary achievements with all the excitement and detail that comprise a portrait of undeniable genius.

Perhaps the enduring memory of Hughes, since it manifested itself so powerfully in his later years, was his hermit-like reclusiveness, symptoms of mental loss, drugs, and demand for secrecy. He emerged from his hermetic seal in order to confront a congressional committee led by Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). Brewster's aim was to shoot Hughes' TWA airline out of the skies in favor of Pan Am, led by CEO Juan Trippe, Brewster's chief contributor. This appearance before an army of news cameras was the world's last public glimpse of the temporarily lucid aviator- entrepreneur.

What impresses me greatly in Scorsese's template for so complex a figure is his balance in developing the manifestations of the mental disorder simmering inside the man, demonstrating that it wasn't something that just suddenly came on with force and fury. In its early stages, only his most intimately involved circle knew of his compulsive behavior, such as his tendency to wipe things he thought carried germs, to avoid shaking hands, to go off on an unending repetition of phrases and, finally, to shut himself away.

No commercially successful story of Howard Hughes can lack glamour and talent and this one is abundant in those attributes, most of all from DiCaprio's versatile and incisive presentation. He handily creates a portrait that is both larger than life and tormented. It is also a surface rendering with entertainment buttons consistently pressed.

In taking on Katharine Hepburn's toney mannerisms and vocal characteristics, Cate Blanchett has to overcome a first impression of unintended satire. Her first words produce a laugh. But, it doesn't take us long to appreciate her difficult, well-observed portrayal of a singular woman who occupied Hughes interests, for a brief time, fiercely.

Alec Baldwin, too, floats close to stereotype until his later scenes, when he negotiates business with his ingenious competitor through a closed door, a moment that brings out his character's qualities of avarice behind a facade of good cheer and easy humor. Alan Alda is closer to stereotype but all the more enjoyable for playing the mighty man brought low by his feisty and not so vulnerable target of congressional abuse.

In more modest roles are those who appear like storytelling shrapnel to pepper up details of Hughes' extraordinary life. Reilly and Ian Holmes underplay while Jude Law as Errol flynn, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow and Edward Herrmann as censorship czar Joseph Breen throw containment to the winds. Alan Alda well demonstrates the slime of greed that clings to many a politician with his hands in various pockets. Willem Dafoe shows up with all appropriate slime as an opportunist from the fifth estate.

There is so much material here to encompass and ponder but, finally, Scorsese maintains a steady stick on the journey through a fogbank of alluring distractions,including historical accuracy. He pilots his story of such a singular character with dexterity and balance and brings us home with something that could land a few awards.

As for the real Hughes, the depth and complexity of his full story defy containment in a movie version. He inherited a fortune and used it to have anything he wanted. He bought a movie studio in order to control a movie star (Greer Garson at RKO); he bought presidents and their closest advisors (Nixon, Bebe Reboso); he bought influence and power. But, he was much more than a superficial playboy. What started as a hobby (aviation) became an industry. He built TWA and Hughes Aircraft, furthering America's preeminence in the skies and the immensity of his wealth. He lived his American dream and it became a nightmare. He courted all the glamour in Hollywood and controlled his wives like they were chattel. Other women in his life "got paid but not laid," according to a famous quote.

He was mischievous and secretive, ingeneious, inventive, sad, reclusive and vulnerable. His feeling of vulnerability, in fact, is probably what motivated his quest for control and power. This movie hints at who he was, but if it makes you want to seek more, "Citizen Hughes" by Michael Drosnin would by my first recommendation for a deeper understanding of the genius and tragedy of the man. The life of Howard Hughes, in any form, is always compelling stuff.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
                                        Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack Album


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Genius, madman

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