Friday, January 07, 2005

Movie: The Aviator (2004)

When the film ended, I knew as much about Howard Hughes as I did going in: rich guy, aviation, lotsa girls, went crazy. And I didn’t care, because Martin Scorsese’s film is that entertaining. He directs it in a way that Hughes would have appreciated. It’s all about forward motion. The first hour in particular is a thrill. Hughes is a young man taking on the powers that be in Hollywood, gambling his fortune on HELL’S ANGELS.

The scenes depicting Hughes’ escalating madness have something of an obligatory feel, and no attempt is made to plumb the causes his condition. Initially, I thought that was a weakness. But the more time passes, the more I admire Scorsese’s approach. Any cut-and-dried explanation would seem like a gross Hollywood simplification; you’re only going to buy Rosebud once. Why not let Hughes remain an enigma? Scorsese also deserves credit for ending the film on a disquieting note. William Goldman wrote that he ended ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN at the moment of Woodward and Bernstein’s greatest blunder because the audience knew the rest of the story. Scorsese and writer John Logan have inverted his advice. They close THE AVIATOR with Hughes at the pinnacle of success, because what happens next is part of popular legend. We’ve all seen MELVIN & HOWARD, or at least that episode of THE SIMPSONS where Mr. Burns opens a casino. Leaving us with Hughes teetering on the brink of that sad, epic decline is a bold choice.

It’s a bad sign for a biopic when a supporting character dominates your interest, but Cate Blanchett is simply that enchanting. She doesn’t channel Katherine Hepburn, she embodies the version of Kate that lives on in moviegoers’ collective fantasies. It’s a staggering performance.

Oh, and Rosemarie would want me to mention Cate’s clothes.

My father spent over 30 years working as a ramp serviceman for TWA, so for some of that time he was a Hughes employee. I called him in Ireland the other day to tell him he should see the movie just for the scene featuring several brand new Constellations gleaming in TWA colors. (Even I got a thrill seeing that logo again.) He told me that TWA used to have the last flight of the day from New York to Los Angeles. Every day of the week, it seemed, he’d see a star boarding the plane. Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck. Sports legends, too. He got autographs from some of them. Hughes himself would often take the flight. Everyone would tense up until the natty man with the mustache finally got on the plane. The most famous recluse in American history, and yet my father had seen him in person over a dozen times.