Published on January 31st, 2016 | by Clint Davis
The Aviator 
Summary: Scorsese's epic look at the life of Howard Hughes looks like a million bucks but feels more than a little hokey in parts. DiCaprio gives a flawless performance that should have won him an Oscar.
R | 170 min.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: John Logan (based on Charles Higham’s book Howard Hughes: The Secret Life)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett
Studios: Warner Bros., Miramax
U.S. Box Office: $102.6 million (#22 of 2004)
Oscars Won: 5 (Best actress in a leading role; Best cinematography; Best film editing; Best art direction; Best costume design)
Leonardo DiCaprio should have won an Oscar in 2005. His first nomination in the category of best actor in a leading role was for a nuanced portrayal of troubled billionaire Howard Hughes in The Aviator. His performance is understated in a movie that is most noted for its larger-than-life stature. He turns one of modern America’s most enigmatic figures into a man we can begin to understand.
DiCaprio would lose the Oscar to Jamie Foxx, whose performance in Ray boiled down to a 2.5-hour long impression of Ray Charles. Foxx looked and sounded like Charles; he wore sunglasses and bobbed his head around while playing the piano. His performance was fine, but DiCaprio’s was the work of an emerging master. I consider it one of the great robberies in Oscars history.
The Aviator marked director Martin Scorsese’s second collaboration with DiCaprio. The first was 2002’s Gangs of New York, overall an edgier and better film than this one, but one in which DiCaprio was totally overshadowed by Daniel Day-Lewis. The pair have made five movies together in the past 14 years — not a single one has grossed less than $190 million worldwide, and every one of them have been good, sometimes great, films.
This film follows Hughes after he’s amassed a fortune worth about $6.2 billion in today’s currency value. He’s ridiculously rich and when we meet him as an adult in 1935, Hughes is using millions of his own dollars to finance and direct the most expensive movie ever made at that point. The Aviator follows Hughes’ trials and triumphs through the next 12 years of his life, as he creates wild innovations in aviation technology.
Hughes’ engineering brilliance, combined with his reckless creative streak are well documented in this movie. But it’s the man’s crippling obsessive-compulsive behaviors and his incapability at making authentic human connections that make The Aviator an interesting character study. Talented screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator; Scorsese’s Hugo; Showtime’s Penny Dreadful) makes Hughes a dream role for any actor by painting him as a character that is as challenging as he is endearing. Logan’s script was nominated for an Oscar.
The film opens with a darkly lit scene that hangs over the rest of the nearly three-hour picture. A nine-year-old Hughes is being bathed by his mother; it’s a scene that should depict a sweet moment of comfort between mother and son, but instead serves as the ominous foundation for the character’s neuroses. “You are not safe,” his mother tells him as she scrubs his skin, warning him about cholera and typhus. We realize the woman is driving paranoia into the young boy.
When we later witness an adult Hughes obsessively scrubbing his hands inside a restaurant bathroom until they bleed, this opening scene immediately comes to mind. Sequences like these, where we get down into the marrow of Hughes’ bones, are fascinating to watch and directed with finesse but unfortunately, they don’t make up the majority of The Aviator.
Fans of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire — which was produced by Scorsese — will immediately be reminded of the look and feel of that show’s lavish 1920s party scenes when The Aviator takes us inside similar banquets in 1930s America. But whereas there was always a gritty darkness underlying the fun vibe of the parties in Boardwalk Empire, in this movie they just feel hokey.
Scorsese uses a cheesy, Walter Winchell-like radio announcer to narrate during scene breaks as well as a constant soundtrack of gin-room jazz numbers that make The Aviator feel safe and old-fashioned. This by-the-numbers approach to making a 1930s period picture seems out of place in a movie by one of the most ballsy filmmakers in history and I felt sometimes like I was looking at a moving wax museum of early-1900s culture, rather than a living, breathing portrait of the moment.
As is unfortunately the case in most movies that are set during this time period, some of the cast members of The Aviator act with the ridiculous old-timey accent you’d often hear in films of the 1920s and ’30s. DiCaprio is not guilty of this — he speaks with a subtle southern accent as Hughes — but a handful of bit players took me out of the film because it sounded like they were doing a comedy routine lampooning golden-age Hollywood, rather than actually acting.
The absolute worst offender in the cast is Adam Scott (NBC’s Parks and Recreation); every time he spoke I felt like I was watching an SNL sketch set in the 1920s. “It’ll be a regular boob buffet,” Scott’s character says in one scene, telling Hughes how he will swoon a group of rich investors during a night out. Scott may seem out of place in an epic period film made by America’s premiere director — he is — but he’s not the only oddball casting choice in The Aviator’s large ensemble. Gwen Stefani shows up as actress Jean Harlow and Jude Law does a fine job playing actor Errol Flynn. Other cast members include John C. Reilly, Danny Huston, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin, as Hughes’ chief rival.
DiCaprio tops the marquee but Cate Blanchett manages to steal a few scenes, playing acting legend Katharine Hepburn. Blanchett comes on very strong the first time we meet her. Her slightly over-the-top accent paired with a bopping clarinet-and-vibraphone jazz song make you wonder if the entire cast will break out into the Charleston all at once. The scene in which we first meet her character is just corny as all hell.
But Blanchett’s performance gets better with each scene and watching she and DiCaprio together is a lot of fun because it’s clear they both seem to be enjoying their roles immensely. One of my favorite scenes comes as Hughes and Hepburn fly over Los Angeles in one of his planes. The computer-generated shots of the airplane’s exterior and the scenery look gorgeous, while the soundtrack sets a cool vibe for the entire sequence. It’s a sweet date scene which unfolds in a playfully innocent way that makes it unclear whether the pair are lovers or simply close friends. There is real chemistry between them and the fact that these actors have truly become two of cinema’s best lead performers gives The Aviator even more value looking back.
As a character, Katharine Hepburn is well rounded and has her own clear motivations, virtues and flaws. She’s depicted as someone who, like Hughes, has been successful on her own terms. She seems to carry a harsh view of fame and her intense desire for privacy mirrors the isolation Hughes’ mother also desired. After Hughes is involved in a crash landing, Hepburn washes his feet, telling him, “We’re not like other people.” The scene is a direct callback to the opening scene involving Hughes’ mother scrubbing him down. We begin to understand why Hughes may have been drawn to Hepburn to begin with.
Blanchett says a lot with just her eyes in this performance; it won her an Oscar.
His co-star may have won the gold, but The Aviator is DiCaprio’s movie all the way. He gives us a bit of everything in this performance without ever going over the top. He portrays Hughes as a powerful, driven man who increasingly isolates himself from the world. The character is presented as a demanding perfectionist, but one that is very serious about his vision. DiCaprio is charming and natural in this role and easily proves his ability to carry a three-hour film.
Leo breaks your heart in a handful of scenes where Hughes is seen repeating a single phrase in a loop, as if he were a busted machine. Every time this happens, you just want to put your arm around the guy and tell him it’s alright. But DiCaprio maintains both his own and the character’s dignity at all times and succeeds in not making Hughes out to be a freak or a victim. It’s exciting to watch an actor of his age, barely 30 at the time, take on such an ambitious role and nail it.
The DiCaprio-Scorsese pairing has allowed both men to do outstanding work but I feel it’s a bit one-sided in this picture. Whereas DiCaprio does fantastic work here, The Aviator feels a little underwhelming as a piece of work from Scorsese. This is a great looking, well shot and well acted picture, but any good director could have pulled it off. When I watch a Scorsese film, I expect magnetic power to exude from the frames, sucking me in and exhausting me. The Aviator simply doesn’t floor its audience like the director’s best work.
I mentioned the outstanding production values above but no review of The Aviator would be complete without exhaustive praise of cinematographer Robert Richardson (Platoon; JFK; Kill Bill). What Scorsese is to directors, Richardson is to cinematographers and this film ranks among his career-best work. He would win his second of three career Oscars for his work in The Aviator.
The outstanding camera work especially hits you during the aforementioned scene inside a restaurant bathroom where Hughes makes himself bleed from scrubbing his hands clean. As Hughes grows more germaphobic, the shots get tighter on elements in the room that he’s petrified to touch. The editing is as violent as his scrubbing; we cut quickly between several angles of him lathering up. Then as he’s about to leave the bathroom, Hughes suddenly stops and stares at something, completely frozen. Our eye shifts to a closeup of the door knob. It’s flawless visual filmmaking that only a master could pull of so elegantly.
According to my research on Hughes’ life, the film skips a lot of major components, making it an ultimately flawed portrait of its subject. An incident where Hughes killed a person with his car in 1936 was completely left out, as well as the fact that he indirectly caused the deaths of several pilots during the filming of his movie Hell’s Angels. Actress Jean Peters — whom Hughes reportedly married in secret — does not even appear in the film.
As hard as it may be to believe, The Aviator represented Scorsese’s highest-grossing movie to date when it hit theaters in 2004. Domestically, it grossed $56 million more than Goodfellas, $25 million more than Gangs of New York and $23 million more than Cape Fear. Its American gross has since been passed by every subsequent movie the director has made with DiCaprio.