The Aviator
directed by Martin Scorcese
(Warner Brothers, 2004)

The Aviator sees Martin Scorsese returning to familiar ground: yet another epic tale that documents the rise, fall and perhaps ultimately the redemption of its central character. Such films appear to have become something of a trademark for him, with other notable examples including Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino and arguably even The Last Temptation of Christ. However, as with these films, The Aviator is an exceptional piece of modern cinema, and if Scorsese does apply a formula, he lets his results speak for themselves.

A biopic of the early life of director and aviation tycoon Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), The Aviator is essentially a character study of a remarkable individual and focuses on the separate, seemingly contradictory aspects of his personality. On one hand, he is an intelligent, talented and charming young man, courting such notable figures as Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). However, he is also a hypochondriac, whose increasingly reclusive nature and escalating eccentricity alienates him from the society he is helping to advance. He becomes so obsessed with cleanliness that he compulsively washes his hands and in one memorable scene refuses to talk to an investor until he wipes some dust from his clothes.

The film's timescale begins with an 18-year-old Hughes having just inherited much of his newly deceased father's estate and pursuing a career as a Hollywood director. The focus here is largely on his 1930 project Hell's Angels, as the notoriously arduous and dragged-out nature of this production reveals much about Hughes' nature. It cost an unprecedented $3.8 million, and he risked his reputation and put himself and his production company on the verge of bankruptcy to get the film made exactly as he wanted it. This was a pattern he would continue to follow in later years with the pioneering Hughes Aircraft Co., taking great risks to achieve unsurpassed goals, with the press and public frequently labeling him an oddball who squandered his wealth.

Perhaps the most notable occurrence of this is the fiasco surrounding the so-called Spruce Goose in the mid-1940s, which is documented at the film's closure; Hughes, against the odds and in the face of unanimous derision, created an aircraft that could take off and land on water.

It is difficult to imagine The Aviator working as a film without the fantastic individual performances brought by the cast, especially Blachett's outstanding portrayal of Katharine Hepburn; she captures all of the subtleties of Hepburn's character, coming across as flamboyant, shallow, complex and troubled all at once. Blanchett brings a multi-layered depth to the character, and we can't help but feel that Hepburn's melodramatic and sensationalist nature disguises her own insecurities. The deliberately over-the-top depiction is a deserved Oscar if ever there was one.

DiCaprio's performance is also great. No, really, it is -- and this is coming from the guy who cheered aloud in the cinema when his character in Titanic eventually bought the farm (after Kate Winslet finally decided to "let go"). Perhaps some hostility towards DiCaprio has arisen from his apparent replacement of DeNiro as Scorcese's No. 1 man; the director has traded in for a younger model perhaps, but one with a less efficient performance. Hankering back to the heyday of the Scorcese-DeNiro collaboration is pointless, though, and one may as well accept that DiCaprio will be prominent in the director's immediate future at least. Anyway, his performance here is very consistent and charismatic but frankly did not deserve the Oscar-nomination; he comes across as an actor acting rather well, as opposed to really embodying the extraordinary character of Hughes in a convincing manner. Still, a role that demonstrates that DiCaprio can indeed act is reason enough to see a film; the lad has done well, but a few more good performances are required to shake off the suspicion of it being a one-off.

Not all of the actors in the film give quite as impressive performances, however, and it seems that certain actors are just typecast into their parts because they were perceived as being safe bets for the box office. Examples include Alec Baldwin as a creepy corporate type (just for a change), as well as unnecessary cameos by Jude Law and Gwen Stefani (as Errol Flynn and Jean Harlow, respectively). It's not that there is anything wrong with their performances, but their roles are very forgettable and one cannot help but feel that they are there just because of the celebrity status they bring to the movie.

Amid the usual chaos of the Oscar build-up, people predictably began to resurrect the age-old question of whether or not Scorcese would finally achieve an Academy Award as best director. Predictably, he was denied again. Truth be told, The Aviator is not as good a film as Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, which went on to win in this category. The academy usually has a way of balancing things out, though (particularly in the case of actors, such as Sean Penn or Denzel Washington), so that talented individuals frequently seem to win an Oscar in effect for an accumulation of good performances rather than for the film actually in question. This rule does not seem to apply for Hollywood black sheep Scorcese, though, who will undoubtedly be awarded a crumby sympathy/lifetime achievement award as a pat on the back for his unconventional and innovative contribution to filmmaking. It is mind-boggling to think that someone who has director credentials for Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and Goodfellas in his portfolio has not yet won. It could be that the academy continues to dangle it in his sights like a juicy carrot because they fear he will lose his hunger for making great films if he attains such a distinction; such romantic visions, alas, seldom match the truth.

- Rambles
written by Ben Latimer
published 18 June 2005

Buy it from