Fleming directed his first feature in 1919, but was especially gifted with unusually vivid masculine fare he made for MGM during the 1930s. Unfortunately, he got sucked into the “prestige picture” machine following The Wizard of Oz in 1939. David O. Selznick, the independent producer who rode roughshod over his directors, hired him as one of the directors of Gone With the Wind immediately following Oz, and the experience seems to have crushed Fleming’s energy. Dreary and literal-minded efforts followed back at MGM (including a soulless Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) before Fleming died after directing a horrible Joan of Arc in 1948.
Scorsese’s most successful films, too, are primarily marked by their evocation of masculinity; though, reflecting his era, it’s a masculinity in crisis. The vaunted themes of Catholicism and martyrdom are window-dressing for the struggles of emotionally stunted men desperate to establish their maturity. But for the last few years, Scorsese has been entrapped by the lure of prestige, making “big” pictures with “big” ideas. His immature men are still present, but they’re up to their asses in, ahem, Themes.
The Aviator is only the latest and emptiest in the lengthening line of such features, one that stretches back to GoodFellas or, perhaps, even The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese’s fictionalized life of aviation and movie magnate Howard Hughes also falls victim to the fallacy of equating encroaching madness with dramatic development. When a likable, if preternaturally driven, young man’s struggle against schizophrenia assumes center stage, what we’re confronted with is clinical observation, not internal conflict.
The Aviator opens in media res, the res being Hughes’s struggle to finish Hell’s Angels, a World War I flying spectacular that was in production for three years before finally opening in 1930. Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) assembled what amounted to a private vintage air force in the Southern California desert and sent them into the sky again and again the duplicate the dog fights that, no doubt, many of the pilots had experienced in real life (this last fact is, significantly, unmentioned, never mind explored, by Scorsese).
This sequence is meant to establish two basic facts. One, that Hughes was an enthusiast, almost a naïf, whose determination to get things right, and even to ask rival studio chiefs for help, was a subject of bemusement within the Hollywood establishment. Second, it reminds us, insistently, that Scorsese is a virtuoso. Daredevil flying sequences, editing room tumult, and the legendary Cocoanut Grove nightclub are filmed with blizzards of bravura camera movements and slashing cuts. But the scorching technique burns every moment the same color, Dante Ferretti’s sumptuous sets and Robert Richardson’s color-mad cinematography notwithstanding.
In fact, Scorsese is a virtuoso, and the film’s structure, is deceptively simple. The story (the original screenplay is by John Logan) follows three main movements: The Hell’s Angels shoot and attendant Hollywood frippery; Hughes’s affairs with actresses Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) and his growing insanity; and his business battle with Pan American Airlines chieftain Juan Trippe ( Alec Baldwin), which spilled into U.S. Senate hearings chaired by a Trippe political stooge (Alan Alda).
The narrative backbone, though, is Hughes’s passion for flying and building airplanes. By far the most successful scenes involve the millionaire’s personal involvement in damn-the-expenses quests to build the world’s fastest or biggest aircraft and to pilot them himself. Whether he’s slamming a racer into a Beverly Hills neighborhood or coaxing The Hercules (or “Spruce Goose”) into the air, this version of Hughes cuts an at least quasi-tragic figure, his virtues and downfall inextricably linked.
Well, maybe linked isn’t the word. Maybe laid out next to each other in the sun like stranded fish. Part of the problem is DiCaprio’s performance, which lacks suggestion. With rare exceptions, every line-reading the actor makes can only be taken at face value. And when there does seem to be a contradictory or at least complementary feeling lurking under Hughes’s supposedly inscrutable exterior, DiCaprio settles for clumsy telegraphing (furrowed brows a specialty).
While on the subject of acting, it’s important to note The Aviator is chock full of bad performances, with Cate Blanchett especially giving DiCaprio a run for this money. The actress’s impersonation of Katherine Hepburn is an amalgam of roles the star was playing at the time, chiefly her Cukor (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story) parts. In what should be a notorious bit, Scorsese hands Blanchett an actual line of dialogue from The Philadelphia Story to mouth in “real life” (“What a fine bunch of bullies you are”). Maybe it’s an inadvertent admission that we’re only getting the familiar and tired Hepburn persona tossed at us, but it’s glaring nonetheless.
The ferocity of overenunciated lines is ubiquitous (it’s like watching an Oliver Stone movie at times). Alan Alda’s potentially good performance is undermined by his character’s repetitious and insistent declaration that he is in Trippe’s pocket, a fact we could hardly miss in the first place.
The bad acting could be have been overcome by integrating Hughes’s brash can-doism with his lack of foresight and understanding. This is where Scorsese’s detailed delineation of Hughes’s madness scuttles the ship. What begins as a personal fault suddenly transforms into a medical issue. Dramatically, there’s only a penny’s worth of difference between Hughes succumbing to schizophrenia and to a coma. In either case, the character doesn’t lose control of his world; he ceases to exist as a character. Thus, Hughes’s qualities (such as they may have been; for the purposes of this review, what the real Hughes was like is irrelevant) aren’t undermined by hubris. They simply get sucked down into a maelstrom of nothingness.
The sequence featuring Trippe’s political pursuit have a certain redemptive quality, in that Hughes manages to pull himself together to turn and fight. Even if this makes for a pro forma dramatic reversal though, it’s a weak and under-explored one.
Ultimately, the real Hughes is obscured by the scrim of Scorsese’s didactic needs. The effort to limn Hollywood, to portray Hughes as a tragic figure, to give us yet another hero devoted to his bit of “truth,” all diminish this fictional Hughes as a subject.
There’s one moment early in The Aviator where you might hope things will turn out differently. It’s of Hughes at the Cocoanut Grove trying to pick up a cigarette girl. He brushes his fingertips lightly against her thigh and coos a smooth come-on. Here’s a moment of masculinity trying to assert itself through unknowing immaturity that makes for a fine moment.
Victor Fleming might have come up with such a moment. Indeed, Fleming might have even made a good choice to direct a tale of Hughes. The millionaire gave Jean Harlow one of her first big breaks by giving her a featured part in Hell’s Angels, while Fleming guided her through a couple of her best performances, in Red Dust and Bombshell.
Of course, Fleming was a part of Hughes’s world; the millionaire was a producer of Bombshell. Maybe, in Fleming’s cinematic universe of hard-driving men, we can get a better look at the Hughes ethos than we glimpse in The Aviator.