While Missing Many Facts, "Aviator" Gets Hughes' Essence
- Wednesday, December 15, 2004
John Logan’s (“Gladiator”) script is insightful and funny, such as when Gardner arrives to find Hughes at home, in his dressing gown, having strung tape across every room and blacked out all the windows and doors. “I love what you’ve done with the place,” she quips. At other times, the film bristles with modern-day issues, such as when Hughes yells, “You want me to bribe senators? No! I want it done legally – I want them bought!”
The acting is solid and at times, even outstanding, with the notable exception of the film’s star. Others may heap praise on DiCaprio for his performance, and he does a respectable job. However, his diminutive size and baby face stress the limits of credibility. DiCaprio looks like he’s still in high school – not a mogul whose empire rivals that of modern-day billionaires like Bill Gates. As a native Southerner, I also didn’t buy his Texas accent, which comes and goes throughout his performance – or the fake mustache. This may be the reason why Blanchett, as Hepburn, nearly steals the show. In a performance that is sure to garner her an Oscar nomination, she perfectly imitates the late stars’ tones and mannerisms.
The biggest problem with the film is its lack of faithfulness to the actual story of Hughes’ life. And it isn’t that Logan and Scorsese misrepresent the facts; they just leave many of them out. For example, they shows how Hughes was a ladies’ man, but don’t come close to mentioning the dozens (hundreds?) of other women, many of them famous, that he bedded. That roster includes Jean Harlow, Gloria Vanderbilt, Linda Darnell, Billie Dove, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Jane Russell and 17-year-old debutante-of-the-century Brenda Frazier. They don’t show that he was married (not once, but twice). Hughes was also a champion golfer who won many tournaments, something else the film neglects. And, after his dramatic plane crash, he became addicted to multiple prescription drugs and later, heroin – another considerable omission.
Even more significant is the fact that Hughes’ eccentricities are portrayed as a vague form of mental illness triggered by his mother’s behavior. Instead, the real Hughes contracted syphilis, no doubt from his philandering, which attacked his brain in the form of neuro-syphillis, causing him to go insane. Where the drugs ended and the disease began, however, is anyone’s guess. His autopsy revealed dozens of needle tips that had broken off and lodged in his arms and legs.
That Scorsese opts to focus on Hughes’ life for just 20 years, between 1927 and 1947, is certainly understandable. It’s a lot to focus on, and at close to three hours, this is already a long film. But I can’t help but wonder if, like those who abandoned Hughes, Scorsese simply couldn’t abide the real story behind the man’s life (for that, check out Richard Hack’s “Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters: The Definitive Biography of the First American Billionaire.”) Scorsese’s version, despite its more shocking moments, is still highly sanitized – and truth cannot be told in part. The reality is that the world’s richest man spent the last two decades of his life bedridden and alone, in a hotel room, covered in his own excrement. Having survived on a diet of candy and cake, he had no teeth left and his fingernails were so long they curved under his fingers. He took his last breath on a plane, heading back to the U.S. from Mexico. Afterwards, the few people who had been loyal to Hughes went to war for his estate, creating several fake wills to bolster their greed.
The film ends abruptly, on an upbeat but strangely dissatisfying note. Although it alludes to Hughes’ increasing mental illness, it carries no epilogue, no postscript – even though he would live another 29 years. The aviator? Yes, Hughes was indeed a great one. But he was so much more – and so much less. Thus, despite the film’s qualities, it fails to convey how truly repugnant Hughes truly was. As the Beatles said, money can’t buy you love. What is painfully obvious from Hughes’ life is that it can’t buy meaning, either.
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