Friday, December 6, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.21: Martin Scorsese's The Aviator

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 93/A

It’s strange that Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator hasn’t gotten its full critical due. Oh, sure, it received tons of Oscar nominations and had its fair share of praise at the time, but in the years since, there’s been a backlash against it as a blind Oscar grab from Marty, an anonymous bit of Oscar-bait. This reading, to use a technical term, is coo-coo for cocoa puffs.

Sure, I’d love to peek into the world where any number of other Howard Hughes biopics were made: the version starring and directed by Warren Beatty at the height of his power (he’s still trying to make one); the Milos Forman version starring Edward Norton and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the same screenwriting team behind Ed Wood and Man on the Moon); the Christopher Nolan version starring Jim Carrey; and especially the Brian De Palma version written by David Koepp and starring Nicolas Cage as both Hughes and Clifford Irving, the man who famously claimed to have written an authorized biography about Hughes before it was revealed to be a hoax. But I’m happy to have The Aviator, which, prestige-trappings aside, is one of Martin Scorsese’s most formally adventurous movies, not to mention one of his most personal.

Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a boy genius, an ambitious heir to a drill bits fortune who’s not content to coast on his family’s success. Howard goes into the movie business, where he helms the costly but successful Hell’s Angels and makes controversial films like Scarface and The Outlaw. His success brings him to Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), whom he begins a passionate affair with. His truest passion, however, is aviation, and he purchases TWA with intent to revolutionize the industry. But Howard has powerful enemies in Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), the head of Pan Am Airways, and Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), who wants to pass a bill that would give Pan Am a monopoly on international air travel. And there’s a bigger problem: Howard’s obsessive-compulsive disorder and germaphobia, which makes him increasingly unhinged over the years as he faces setbacks and traumas among his great successes.

The Aviator is Scorsese’s fourth collaboration with cinematographer Robert Richardson, and their greatest achievement together. One might notice in the first half of the film that the colors, while gorgeous, look a bit removed from reality. That’s because Scorsese and Richardson color-corrected the film to mimic 1930s Technicolor, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The green of golf fields and the peas on Hughes’ plate show up as turquoise, for example. And the way Richardson and Scorsese shoot the Hell’s Angels premiere, with the flash on the flash bulbs cranked up so that they turn Howard’s face all bright white, it’s an early sign on how any media interest is like a horror movie bearing down on Howard.

As the film goes through time and the colors become more realistic, they’re almost oppressive, as if Howard were living in an optimistic dream world and he can’t real with reality – something like a rare steak or a doorknob becomes insidious in close-up. Then there’s the fluid tracking and crane shots through Old Hollywood glitz and glamour. The film might be just shy of three hours, but it moves with the energy of an Orson Welles film, and it frequently feels like it’s trying to compete with them, particularly in a great rotating tracking shot around an editing room as Howard’s aides try to assemble all of the footage of Hell’s Angels.

The tribute to Welles and Old Hollywood extends to Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing as well, as the opening scene with a young Howard being bathed by his mother uses dissolves to make everything seem more sinister and uncomfortable, as Welles did in the opening of Citizen Kane. Schoonmaker does also get the chance to play up the beauty of Old Hollywood, though, in a gorgeous transition that goes from Howard making love to Katharine Hepburn, his hand going down her back as the film cuts to Howard rubbing his hand over the smooth rivets on his dream airplane, finally in the perfect form.

As he often does, Scorsese assembles one hell of a cast here for parts great and small: Jude Law as the dashing but arrogant Errol Flynn; Matt Ross, Ian Holm, John C. Reilly Danny Huston and Adam Scott as a handful of people who have to put up with Howard’s perfectionism and mental instability; Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, one of Howard’s many romantic conquests who deals with his mounting paranoia; and Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda as the people who really are after him, the arrogant old guard who see this young upstart as a threat to their control over an industry.

Still, the big supporting performance that stands out for everyone is Cate Blanchett’s work as Hepburn. It’s hard to pick someone who could have better captured Hepburn’s manner and distinct vocal patterns as precisely as Blanchett does here, but that’s not why it’s a great performance (that would just make her a talented mimic like Meryl Str– *is murdered by the Screen Actors Guild*). What’s remarkable is how Blanchett captures not only Hepburn’s vanity and arrogance, but her vulnerability. Hepburn was one of the strongest, most independent women in Hollywood history, so it’s moving to see her as the light in someone’s life, and to see her life brightened by Spencer Tracy after her relationship with Howard sours. Blanchett’s final scene, in which she thanks Howard for buying and destroying photos of her and Tracy (who was still married at the time) might be the best scene Blanchett has ever played, sincere gratitude mixed with fear and sadness at what Howard has become.

DiCaprio’s previous collaboration with Scorsese, Gangs of New York, yielded one of his weakest performances, but The Aviator shows his true coming-of-age as an actor. He had given great youthful performances before in Titanic and Catch Me if You Can, and for the first half of The Aviator, we see that in his twitchy boy genius. Howard is all youthful energy and boyish enthusiasm, uninterested in what the world tells him he can’t do and eager to prove that he can do just about anything. He’s got a mad perfectionist streak that vexes his workers, but the look of satisfaction on his face when he’s got it right makes it worth it (right before he takes on another mad project). He’s also one hell of a charmer when he wants to be, and DiCaprio never had too much trouble with that.
But the seeds of Howard’s destruction are planted in him early on, starting with the insistence that he’s not safe in the world, that germs could kill him at any moment. That leads to a manic control-freak nature that spirals out of control, from his insistence that his chocolate chip cookies or milk be delivered in exactly this way to his inability to eat when someone takes one of the twelve peas from his plate (the look of sickness on DiCaprio’s face is perfect). This alone is problematic, and when combined with his hubris it makes for something truly frightening. Scorsese shoots a number of these escalating scenes like something out of a horror movie, with Howard having to scrub his hands with soap until they bleed and Howard losing control and feeling to compelled to repeat “Show me all the blueprints” some twenty-something times.
I mentioned earlier that Scorsese pays tribute to Orson Welles, and to some degree that feels as much a part of the story as it is part of the style. Like Hughes, Welles was a boy genius who conquered the world at a young age, and whose absolute control over his first production made him both the talk of the town and a figure of major jealousy. Like Hughes, Welles had powerful members of the old guard who tried to bring him down (although they were more successful that Hughes’s enemies), and in the same era, even.
It’s an appropriate parallel: before Welles gained so much weight and Hughes receded from the spotlight and grew his hair and fingernails long, they both had similarly boyish faces and even grew similar moustaches (Hughes’s was to hide a scar from a plane crash). And then there’s the fact that Welles originally considered basing Charles Foster Kane on Hughes instead of William Randolph Hearst, and that his final film F for Fake contains a long segment on Hughes and his fake biographer Clifford Irving.
But Welles isn’t the only director who has a lot in common with Hughes. There’s so much of Scorsese in Hughes’ obsession, in his ambition, in his hubris, in his OCD, and indeed in his breakdown. Scorsese came back from the edge of his cocaine days, but for a while he disappeared, and so much of his life has been him trying to achieve great things while worrying about whether he could do it. Scorsese has a good enough creative team around him to assure him that he’ll be OK, but he admits that he frequently feels nervous on set and in the editing room that his films aren’t working (he only just got a final edit of The Wolf of Wall Street in under the wire). Hughes’s worries are all too familiar to him.
That fear of downfall becomes more palpable in the the last act of the film, where we see just how far Hughes’s madness has progressed. Fueled by both external and internal fears, by constant pain after his plane crash and increasing mental instability, we see as Howard isolates himself and loses himself to process. He does finally emerge from what was a four-month isolation period, he does triumph over those who try to bring him down, and the gigantic Hercules aircraft does fly, but it’s a pyrrhic victory. Howard can be reassured for some time, but not for too long. The Aviator wisely only goes through the first half of Hughes’s life and avoids plastering DiCaprio in unconvincing old-age makeup (cough, J. Edgar, cough), but it doesn’t really need to go further than it does. We’ve seen Hughes at the height of his power. That final close-up on DiCaprio’s face, twisted and bleary-eyed, repeating “The way of the future” over and over again, shows us how even then, he’s a doomed man, a tragic figure. In other words, he’s a Scorsese character.

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