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Scorsese, DiCaprio Take on the Legendary Howard Hughes

Jan. 5, 2005 – Is it possible to capture someone of the magnitude and madness of Howard Hughes on film? Director Martin Scorsese thinks so, and so do the critics.
Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) was an airplane visionary, a film-maker before his time, a daredevil who famously courted some of Hollywood's most glamorous stars – notably Kathryn Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) – but who wound up a recluse in a Las Vegas hotel room, crazy as a loon.
Movie critic Ty Burr of the Boston Globe quotes a line of poet William Carlos Williams: "The pure products of America go crazy." The film doesn't cover Hughes' decline into insanity. It rejoices in recording the early decades of an astonishing American, who Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune, says "inherited a family tool company at 18, bent Hollywood to his will in his 20s, broke the world speed record at 30, revolutionized the airline industry in his 40s and, famously, aged into a demented germaphobic in his late 60s."
Burr says, "Old movie freak that he is, Scorsese has fashioned a portrait of early Hollywood at its zenith, with cameos by Errol Flynn (Jude Law), Jean Harlow (singer Gwen Stefani: blink and you'll miss her), MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Stanley DeSantis), and Hughes' teen discovery/mistress Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner). You get the sense of a creative community working all day and playing all night until no one can tell the two apart."
If DiCaprio seemed an unusual choice, with his soft good looks, forget it. Burr hails his performance which he calls, "soft-spoken, yet intensely smart."
Hughes met his match in Kathryn Hepburn."Blanchett can't pass for the great Kate, obviously – no one can," Burr says, "since Hepburn was both unique and extreme – but she has fun with the accent and the brusque attitude, and it becomes the sort of showboating performance the late star herself might admire. You can feel Hughes stop and marvel at this glamorous oddity, and you don't blame him one bit."
Wilmington says, in conquering Hollywood, "We see Hughes win its greatest lady, the young, untamed Kate Hepburn. Blanchett stunningly captures both the caricature and the reality beneath it."
Though both Burr and Wilmington are totally taken with the film – Wilmington calls it "sumptiously exciting, glowing with expertise, seething with life, gorgeously designed and thrillingly articulated – they have differing opinions on when it takes a downhill slide.
And neither critic says the movie does just that; they say the tone of the movie changes after an episode which the two disagree on. The episodes herald the beginning signs of Hughes' future illness.
Burr cites an episode when Hepburn takes Hughes home to meet her family in Connecticut.
"The weekend's a disaster – the Hepburns are yappy, free-thinking elites who have no use for a tongue-tied California businessman – and it marks the point in "The Aviator" where Hughes starts receding from the world. But it's also where the director begins to lose control of his movie."
Wilmington sees it differently: "Hughes' vaulting business career is juxtaposed with his round-the-world plane trip, and these high-soaring scenes end with the film's searing first climax (and most extraordinary moment): the crash of his experimental plane in Beverly Hills, a symbolic smash-up that condemns Hughes to a life of pain and turns the movie permanently dark. Scorsese brings us close enough to feel the fire singe Hughes' mustache and eyebrows."
However you perceive it, the film takes a decided twist more than halfway through. In what Wilmington calls the "gathering shadows," the film next chronicles "Hughes' purchase of TWA and his battles with Pan American's bully tycoon Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, at his smuggest) and Trippe's toady, Maine Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda, at his smarmiest), in the famed Senate committee hearing showdown. "The Aviator" carries him only this far, with Trippe and Brewster or with dream factory denizens like and Errol Flynn (Jude Law), and suggests the madness that will come, then leaves him dangling. In midair."
Perhaps that was Scorsese's intent: an unfinished life.
Wilmington says, "to say that director Scorsese misses some of the richest possibilities of its subject or is disappointingly short despite its two and three-quarter-hour running time, isn't as contradictory as it may first seem. A movie, just like a man (like Hughes himself, in fact) can be unfulfilled but remarkable; flawed, but still a great surging force; a failure in some respects, yet so dazzling a success in others that it doesn't really matter."
Burr concludes: "In the end, Scorsese and DiCaprio make something truly remarkable out of this nightmarish unveiling and heart-stricken celebration. You can't mourn Hughes here, but you may still feel your heart leap as he crosses the skies or crashes into fire and madness. 'The Aviator,' one of Scorsese's finest, is the best movie we have right now, because it follows its anti-hero so brilliantly on his flight into dreams."
Airline buffs will be happy to know the infamous Spruce Goose is not overlooked. Hughes wooden aircraft, was by far the biggest airplane ever built, the H-4, also known as the Hercules, had a wingspan of 320 feet – 20 feet longer than a football field. It had enough cargo space to carry two railroad boxcars. It had eight massive engines with 17-foot propellers. It weighed 300,000 pounds. And it flew for one minute. Hughes flew it off Long Beach, Calif, for a distance of about one mile at an altitude of 70 feet, before the giant water bird was retired for life. Released in late December, "The Aviator" is receiving top billing in the states now. Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by John Logan, it was photographed by Robert Richardson. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and crash sequence. Running time, 2:46 minutes.
It starts Thursday at Market Square East.
Click here for schedule.

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