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
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.
~~ Jules Brenner