The Aviator has all the essential ingredients of a good biopic. For starters, it’s very long – after all, no biopic worth its salt weighs in at less than two and a half hours. It’s peopled with glamorous characters we’ve actually heard of – Errol Flynn, Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner, Katherine Hepburn – and it tells of the meteoric rise and crashing fall of a charismatic, supremely ambitious yet mentally tormented genius.
We first meet Hughes in 1935, on the set of his epic movie Hell’s Angels. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we’ve learnt everything about him we need to know to understand his life.
Young, dynamic and brimming over with boyish enthusiasm, the fresh-faced Texas tycoon is directing a fighting force of bi-planes in a grand scale recreation of the First World War, and is bringing himself to the brink of bankruptcy in the process. A brilliant visionary, not only does he dream on an Olympian scale, he also understands that these dreams can only be realised when every tiny detail is perfectly in place, and, moreover, can envisage exactly what those tiny details are. (So we see him wait for nearly a year for the right kind of clouds to appear, in order to shoot the film’s climatic airborne battle). What’s more, he’ll throw every penny he has at the project in order to realise his vision and will never, ever give up on his dream. Oh, and he’s also slightly deaf, enjoys a love/hate relationship with the media and has an unhealthy obsession with germs and washing his hands. The stage is set, let the cameras roll.
However, it isn’t really Hughes the movie maker that Scorsese is interested in – as the film’s title suggests, it’s Hughes the aviator. His love affair with aeroplanes was the driving passion of his life, spurring him on to dream up ever more ambitious projects, from the fastest round-the-world flight ever to the biggest plane in the world, the mighty Hercules. Like his planes, Hughes is constantly firing on all cylinders, and, sadly, also like his planes, he’s just as liable to crash and burn at any moment.
Yet the tragedy of Hughes’ story is that his fall from fame and fortune is ultimately precipitated not by his own hubris, or even by a world that seems constantly set against him, but by his own inner demons. From childhood, we discover, he’s been inculcated with a pathological fear of germs and disease, a fear that manifests itself through obsessive compulsive hand washing, uncontrollable verbal tics and, eventually, complete mental disintegration. And so the suave playboy of the film’s first half is eventually reduced to an ugly, scarred shell, barricaded in a darkened room littered with Kleenex and bottles of piss.
Everyone’s favourite oddball Johnny Depp was originally considered for the role of Hughes, but in the end it’s Leonardo DiCaprio who landed the plum part. After the disappointment that was Gangs of New York, I was really hoping that Leonardo (and Martin Scorsese) would redeem themselves with this, their second collaboration. And how!
DiCaprio finally lives up to the promise he showed in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Basketball Diaries and has consistently blown ever since, giving a brave and bravura performance that has Oscar written all over it with indelible marker pen. Attacking the role with a verve and passion worthy of Hughes himself, he’s utterly convincing both as the boundlessly ambitious and infectiously enthusiastic movie magnate and aviation king, sweeping every around him along on the crest of his self-confidence, and as the broken, obsessive compulsive madman, desperately trying to resist his condition with every fibre of his being, yet ultimately unable to escape the descent into darkness. Alternatively magnetic and repulsive, he’s always compelling and believable.
Yet, believe it or not, he’s almost outshone by Cate Blanchett, an actress who, face it, has never set a foot wrong her entire career, and who also deserves an Oscar for her performance as fading movie star Katherine Hepburn. Angular and feisty, blunt and coolly glamorous, it’s a brilliant piece of character acting. As is Alan Alda’s sinisterly smooth portrayal of the corrupt and ruthless Senator Brewster. His courtroom confrontation with Hughes is definitely the highlight of the film – absolutely gripping. Oh, and a nice cameo from Jude Law as Errol Flynn, whilst Gwen Stefani looks great as Jean Harlow, even if her acting does leave something to be desired.
Like my favourite Scorsese film (and indeed one of my favourite films, full stop) Goodfellas, The Aviator offers a brilliant evocation of its age (even if the 1930s music is a bit intrusive at times), yet is totally relevant to today’s shiny, unstable age of the celebrity as well, Hughes and his glamorous cohorts living out their lives in the full glare of the media spotlight, with paparazzi flash bulbs popping in a blinding sheet of white lightening and reputations made and broken on the strength of a headline.
Enthralling, exhilarating, at times funny, at others utterly harrowing, this is a true tour de force. Sex, movies, madness and aeroplanes. Now that’s what I call a biopic.