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While Missing Many Facts, "Aviator" Gets Hughes' Essence

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • Updated Jul 28, 2007
While Missing Many Facts, "Aviator" Gets Hughes' Essence

Release Date:  December 17, 2004
Rating:  PG-13 (for language)
Genre:   Drama/Adventure/Romance
Run Time: 2 hrs. 49 min.
Director:   Martin Scorsese
Actors:   Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly,

Have you ever gone to an Impressionist exhibit and wondered what the artist was trying to say?  You recognize the subject, but it looks strangely … different.  Much like this year’s other iconic biopic, “Ray,” “The Aviator” is like that.  It’s not the most accurate representation of Howard Hughes’ life, and it certainly misses many defining facts, but it gets at the essence of who he was.

After a brief prologue during which an adolescent Hughes receives a sponge bath by a leering mother who warns him that he will never be safe, the film opens in 1927.  Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is 21 and has inherited the wealth of his millionaire Texan father, founder of Hughes Tools.  He is spending most of that money, it appears, on a movie about WWI called “Hell’s Angels” – much to the amusement of the Hollywood studio players, who have yet to grasp the concept of independent filmmaking.  Four years and several million dollars later, Hughes arrives at his premiere with his new star, Rita Hayworth (Gwen Stefani), and basks in the glory of box office profits.  During the next 20 years, Hughes makes several other films and beds countless women, including live-in love Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).  He also seduces teenage girls (including one 15-year-old, who reportedly received the full blessing of her parents.)

Not content to rest on the laurels of cinematic achievements, Hughes designs airplanes as well – another endeavor that is mocked before becoming a huge success.  Despite the fact that he has no formal education in engineering, he makes gigantic strides in the aviation industry, inventing prototype planes and breaking Charles Lindbergh’s record by flying around the world in less than four days.  To the immense frustration of Pan-Am Airlines owner Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, in an excellent performance), Hughes also buys rival Trans-World Airlines, turns the company around and plows ahead with plans for the world’s first transport plane.

But the tremendous success of Hughes’ professional life could not stop the encroachment of his personal demons, which leads him to fear germs of any kind and ultimately, to cloister himself, naked, for months on end.  Toward the end of the film, in his early 40s, he is hauled into public hearings by Senator Owen Brewster (a chillingly evil Alan Alda), Trippe’s puppet.  There, Hughes defends himself against felony charges and once again comes out on top.  Finally, having sworn to make his transport plane fly, Hughes takes the gargantuan “Spruce Goose,” as it was affectionately known, to the Los Angeles harbor, where all of America watches as it take to the skies.

In many ways, “The Aviator” is a large-scale biopic that deserves praise.  Director Martin Scorsese (“Gangs of New York”) has chosen to represent a slice of Hughes’ life, and he does it engagingly – despite some significant omissions.  The cinematography is exceptional, particularly in the way that it matches the different periods.  Grainy sepia tones are used for the early sequences from 1927 to 1930, while bright vivid colors highlight the Jazz Age of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  The costumes and the sets are all stunning, giving you the sense of being transported back in time.  And the scene where Hughes crashes into a Hollywood neighborhood, burning 78 percent of his body, is harrowing and masterfully done through a combination of real stunts and CGI.

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.   

The film and its cast and crew will garner numerous awards.  Some will definitely be merited.  Others will simply be consolation prizes, awarded because of the dearth of quality movies released in 2004.  It’s been a very bad year, indeed.  Still, “The Aviator” is worth seeing.  Particularly if you like Impressionism. 
AUDIENCE:  Adults only.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:   Heavy.   Drinking and smoking throughout film; many nightclub and cabaret scenes.
  • Language/Profanity:    Heavy.   At least 60 obscenities and 60 profanities (including at least 40 uses of “GD”).
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:    Heavy.   Mother washes nude adolescent boy in provocative way; numerous sexual references and overt innuendos; courtroom discussion about cleavage and a dozen enlarged photos of same; several shots of rear male nudity of main character, who walks around nude and urinates into bottles; main character has sexual relationship offscreen with 15 year-old as well as numerous other women, cohabitating with one.
  • Violence:  Heavy.   Archival film footage of wartime violence, particularly pilots under attack (bloody faces) and deadly crashes; several instances where main character is in danger during a flight – once crash-landing, another time hitting several homes containing people before landing on ground, where plane crashes and erupts into flames.