****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly
screenplay by John Logan
directed by Martin Scorsese
by Walter Chaw About a third of the way into Martin Scorsese's fabulous The Aviator, a young Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), with ingénue Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) on his arm, attends the premiere of his lavish WWI epic Hell's Angels (1930)--a picture that burned a significant portion of Hughes's millions before becoming a smash, and one that still contains some of the most daring, astonishing aerial sequences ever shot for a motion picture. As paparazzi throng, smothering Hughes with flashbulbs and red carpet questions, he looks dazzled, confused: a consequence of his deafness in some part, sure, but also, I'd suggest, a clue into this idea of Scorsese's--which he's had since at least Taxi Driver--that film is a waking dream, a kind of bad yet thrilling hallucinogenic dope trip; this Howard Hughes is a sleepwalker who is, at this moment, struggling to stay asleep. Later, Hughes takes his lover Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) up in his airplane where they cruise the sky above the Hollywood hills and share a (gulp) bottle of milk. (No small step for the pathologically germophobic Hughes.) The source for Hughes's mental illness is traced to a haunted opening scene where as a child he is bathed by his mother (comparable in repressed eroticism to the notorious bathtub sequence in Jonathan Glazer's Birth) and warned that the world outside can only hold for him the promise of abandonment and mortal contamination.
Lost in the clamour to excoriate Scorsese as a sell-out for finally helming a broadly appealing piece is the idea that The Aviator is actually extraordinarily subversive in its success, made as it was in the middle of enemy territory and essaying as it does another of Scorsese's hopeful loners striving against his own insanity for a place in the madness of the public eye. This Hughes is Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle, Henry Hill and Paul Hackett, and, by the end, more than a little Jake LaMotta in his isolation and steadily bottoming self-delusion. Scorsese's take on the legend is the culmination of a career of holy misfits, infiltrating the promised land of Tinsel Town with an outsider's mentality and ultimately being swallowed whole like a Billy Wilder antihero--left a shell for all his success in molding himself into the image of his gilded gods. The Aviator is a success story that peaks with the hero sitting on a pyrrhic throne, naked in a screening room watching an endless loop of The Outlaw and Hell's Angels and collecting his urine in jars. Scorsese the Hollywood outsider wins with The Aviator, and he comments on the cost of that victory in the same breath.
DiCaprio is perfect as Hughes. There's a carefully disguised desperation to his performance that mirrors Hughes's own struggle against the demons that would eventually consume him. DiCaprio does the impossible: he makes the image of a mad recluse shuffling around in his sealed hotel room with a pair of tissue boxes on his feet one that's tragic instead of comfortably derided. He plays mental illness well (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Basketball Diaries), well enough that when he looks at the lip of the milk bottle Hepburn has just touched, pauses, then takes a drink himself, you develop a sense of hopeless melancholy for wanting Hepburn to be his salvation, even though you know that it was not to be. As his illness progresses--despite the firm hand of business manager Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) and the ministrations of one-time lover Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale, no Ava Gardner)--and pressure from rival airline Pan Am's ruthless boss Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) as well as corrupt Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) mounts to a well-publicized congressional hearing concerning Pan Am's attempt to monopolize international air travel, DiCaprio performs a breathless tightrope between competence and incoherence. Although I couldn't see how he would live up to the challenge before, he impressed the hell out of me here. Step for step is Blanchett: saddled with the thankless task of impersonating the imitable Hepburn, she starts out rough but ends like a dream.
The Aviator is about ambition as it manifests itself in the pursuit of immortality through the phallic pastimes of pointing cameras and producing fast machines. It's a story of the American Dream of being fast and having someone capture it on film; like the American Dream, the courting of it ends, and often, in the wreckage of surreal expectations. It's that sense of artificial inflation that lends the picture a strained, burnished lustre: The Aviator is itself as interested in image creation as Hughes, conflating the billionaire with Scorsese (as all of this year's biopics have done with their auteurs: Oliver Stone and Alexander; Kevin Spacey and Beyond the Sea; Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ), and in so doing crafts a film that feels like a millionaire's Xanadu.
The Aviator is Scorsese's love and knowledge of the mystique of Old Hollywood presented through the prism of an obsessive eccentric haunted by the dream of being loved by phantoms of his own desire. William Blake's idea of gods created in the breast of man is transmuted in the picture into the cult of personality and the patina of nostalgia for the titans of the silver screen's golden age. This is a shrine to individualism and a critique of the dreadful cost of individuality, an ambiguous and ambitious picture that, for its epic scope and towering craft, never for a moment feels anything but intensely personal. A great film and great filmmaking, The Aviator plays like an ode to needing to make movies--and to needing to watch them. Originally published: December 25, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Warner releases The Aviator on DVD in an absolutely sublime 2.32:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Transferred with grace and, moreover, fidelity, the film's gimmicky palette looks even sexier on the small screen than it did in theatres, but be warned that saturation grows a little intense following the shift to "three-strip Technicolor." If the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is not nearly as brilliant as the image, there might in fact have been an attempt to evoke different periods in the cinematic evolution aurally as well as visually. (And at least it's loud.) Separately-recorded, non-screen specific comments from director Martin Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and producer Michael Mann are interspersed on another track, one that's not terribly involving as compared to, say, the piecemeal yakker found on last year's reissue of Goodfellas, although this is the only source of information on The Aviator's progressive colour scheme in the entire package. Mann and Schoonmaker don't actually say much, and while Marty is typically effusive, he often becomes ensnarled, in the fashion of a true cinephile, in elaborate accounts of his history with certain films.
A second platter kicks off with a 2-minute scene extension in which Ava Gardner, freshly-gifted with a sapphire necklace, tries to tell Howard you can't put a price on a human being--a notion he rejects on the basis of having once settled a fatal car accident for $20,000. Though no rationale is offered for its removal, it seems likely that this was omitted to maintain a line of sympathy with Hughes. "A Life without Limits: The Making of The Aviator" (12 mins.) is your basic promotional tool cobbled together from clips, B-roll, and junket interviews with Scorsese, the stars, and screenwriter John Logan, who says that DiCaprio was the only person besides him to have read every draft of the script. (At its heart, this is a mini-hagiography for DiCaprio.) "The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History" (15 mins.) condenses and consolidates many of the points raised by such crossover interview subjects as James B. Steele and Donald L. Barlett--co-authors of Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness--in the subsequent History Channel documentary "Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes" (44 mins.). While neither has the psychological depth of a reputable biography, between them you will get a better or more technical understanding of Hughes's innovations and follies alike than The Aviator can hope to provide.
"The Affliction of Howard Hughes: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder" (14 mins.) is the first of two featurettes to focus on Hughes's crippling illness. Here, DiCaprio's research consultant, UCLA's Dr. Jeffrey Schwarz, facilitates a rudimentary understanding of the vicious fear-remedy cycle that gives birth to the ritualistic behaviour associated with OCD, and we meet a group of patients--including "Edward," after whom DiCaprio patterned Hughes's tics--currently undergoing treatment after years of suffering in silence. In a bizarrely retro-hysterical touch, an MRI scan of a "normal brain" (monochromatic) is juxtaposed with one of an "OCD brain" (rainbow-like), something taken to sci-fi extremes in an "OCD Panel Discussion with Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese and Terry Moore (Hughes's widow)" (15 mins.) whereby Schwarz, a touch of the mad scientist in his voice, breathlessly claims that an MRI of the actor portraying a victim of disease will be indistinguishable from an MRI of the authentically diseased individual. Coming from anyone else, Scorsese's remark that those moments where Hughes is in the grip of OCD were the most fun to shoot might sound insensitive, but for Marty figuring out the best way to do something constitutes fun, and what resonates from this discussion is his stated desire to respect the disorder through subjective angles rather than use the camera to pass judgment on Hughes. (This passage is excerpted within Disc 1's feature-length commentary during chapter 13.) It helps that Moore, seated next to Marty, gives The Aviator her seal of approval at the end of the piece.
DiCaprio resurfaces in the Miramax-produced "An Evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda" (28 mins.), a post-screening Q&A moderated by David Schwartz within days of both actors receiving Academy Award nominations for their work in The Aviator. Despite DiCaprio's Hughes-like overuse of a qualifying "literally" and Alda's continued metamorphosis into The Amazing Kreskin, this is an appealing dialogue that manages to invoke Aristotle and trumpet the genius of Scorsese without sounding too rehearsed. Especially amusing is Alda's plea for solidarity by way of a confession that he fanatically counts telephone poles. (DiCaprio more or less hangs him out to dry.) Changing gears, "The Visual Effects of The Aviator" (12 mins.) has a surprisingly high ooh-aah factor considering how jaded CGI has made us in the presence of movie magic. Maybe it's F/X supervisor Robert Legato's dedication to honouring the Scorsese aesthetic, which forces his team to think less like craftsmen than like artists. Incredible but true revelations: the centerpiece crash of the XF-11 was accomplished without the aid of CG; the homecoming parade for Hughes is real newsreel footage with DiCaprio's head Forrest Gump'd onto the frame; and detail-oriented production designer Dante Ferretti based his Beverly Hills sets on Legato's miniatures--usually it's the other way around. Speak of the Devil, "Constructing The Aviator: The Work of Dante Ferretti" (6 mins.) finds the veteran of five Scorsese pictures and countless other films dissing Harvey Weinstein in an anecdote that's alas the most memorable thing he says.
"Costuming The Aviator: The Work of Sandy Powell" (4 mins.) shows how significantly DiCaprio's performance was aided by Powell's astute wardrobe choices, while in "The Age of Glamour: The Hair & Makeup of The Aviator" (8 mins.), hair stylist Kathryn Blondell and makeup artist Morag Ross exclude Hughes/DiCaprio from their discussion of the film's Max Factor-inspired cosmetic styles. Touching on the musical end of the spectrum, "Scoring The Aviator: The Work of Howard Shore" sees DVD staple Howard Shore editorializing a recording session with the Flemish Radio Orchestra, and the misleadingly-titled "The Wainwright Family: Loudon, Rufus and Martha" (5 mins.) hands the floor over to eccentric Wainwright patriarch Loudon (late of "Undeclared"), who takes pride in two generations of a pop dynasty having portrayed three generations of "Cocoanut Grove" headliners in The Aviator. (Surprisingly, Loudon didn't do his own singing--though he did perform his own stunts.) A soundtrack spot plus an extensive stills gallery round out a stacked set that never quite soars. Incidentally, optional French subtitles are available for all of Disc 2's extras. Originally published: May 23, 2005.