Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda,
John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani
Director: Martin Scorsese
Theatrical release: 2004; available on DVD
The bright lights of Hollywood intersect with the high-stakes world of powered flight in The Aviator. Although it was nominated but didn't win 2004's Academy Award for Best Picture, Martin Scorsese's biographical film of the first part of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes' life is worth seeing. It did rate as the Golden Globe's Best Picture. Leonardo DiCaprio, who brought the story to Scorsese and serves as an Executive Producer, stars as Hughes. He nails the eccentricities of the man who was an aviation pioneer, filmmaking risk-taker, and business maverick.
It's hard to remember that Hughes and the people portrayed in this film were truly making it up as they went along — inventing the industries we now associate with them and often take for granted. The Wright Brothers had been tinkering with old bicycle parts in Ohio to make the first lighter-than-air craft and had taken the first flight at Kitty Hawk a scant ten years before Hughes had become a pilot of biplanes and began cooking up ways to improve the machinery.
Motion pictures were also an early 20th century invention, as was electricity, the light bulb, and other items we now use every day. The Aviator depicts the period between the late 1920s and the 1940s, when flying and films were in their infancy, subject to growing pains (and crashes and explosions), as well as high drama and spectacular achievements. Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Katherine Hepburn and Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner take us back to the period of imagination and excess that became Hollywood.
The interplay between business and government gets an airing here, too, when behind-the-scenes deals between Hughes' aviation competitor Pan Am and a powerful United States senator (portrayed by Best Supporting Actor nominee Alan Alda) result in congressional hearings. Listening to the exchanges in the film leaves one to wonder if anything has really changed in Washington or Hollywood or Wall Street in the intervening years.
The film doesn't take us into the long reclusive phase at the end of Hughes' life, although we're shown its beginnings and given hints about what may have triggered it. DiCaprio captures the conundrum believably.
As we expect from a Martin Scorsese film, the production values for the world he creates on screen immerse us in the period. Whether it's the highly polished aluminum of the aircraft fuselage, the ornate atmosphere of Hollywood nightclubs, the costumes and set decorations, or the fantastic recreation of The Spruce Goose and other test planes, the picture is a sight to behold, as well as an interesting story.
Yes, Hughes really did re-shoot his entire Hell's Angels film for sound after seeing Al Jolson on screen in the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer in 1927. The Roaring Twenties was just that kind of time — and Hughes made the most of it.