Martin Scorsese is a strong contender for my favourite director of all time. He has made some of the most amazing films in the last couple of decades, and it is a travesty that he has not yet been acknowledged at the Oscars. I don't even know how to begin with his work - standout classics have to include almost all of his collaborations with the great Robert DeNiro: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino - but some of his non-DeNiro films have also been superb, like the vastly underrated Last Temptation of Christ. Conversely, I have never really rated Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor and I have never really liked any of his films. Perhaps this is because he has always remained too youthful to play mature roles, or perhaps it is because he has simply never had the right part - or the right director. His first collaboration with Scorsese was a fantastic movie - The Gangs of New York - but the true star was undoubtedly Daniel Day Lewis, and DiCaprio was clearly overshadowed by such superior acting talent. Between that and all the talk of his being the new DeNiro, I was still far from impressed. So it was with reluctance that I first watched their new collaboration.
The Aviator charts the life of the great Howard Hughes, from his early years as a multi-millionaire industrialist, to his contributions to the film industry and his pioneering endeavours in aviation. We get to see Hughes gamble everything on the most expensive film production embarked upon - up until that time - Hell's Angels, and risk his life flying some of the fastest and biggest planes ever. He lives the playboy lifestyle - dating some of the most glamorous stars at the time, like Katherine Hepburn, Jean Harlow and Ava Gardner - and spends more money than even he has, fuelling his often incredible dreams, but deep inside he is a troubled genius. This is where the movie really excels, taking a detailed look at what made this guy tick. Initially just an eccentric, his behaviour eventually drifts into what can only be labelled as obsessive-compulsive disorder - and it can only be tempered by his contacts with reality, namely his lovers.But all this would be nothing without the right lead - a mistake that has been made by numerous historical blockbusters recently, not least Troy, Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven. There was a time when casting DiCaprio was akin to casting Orlando 'sad-piece-of-wood' Bloom in a lead role - absolutely ludicrous. I am pleased to say that DiCaprio gets it spot on here. He is simply perfectly cast as Hughes. At first, it seems like he is just playing himself - doing the rich playboy thing appears to come naturally - but gradually, as his nervous tics emerge and erratic behaviour takes over, he stops being DiCaprio and starts being Howard Hughes. It is a marvel that only some of the most talented actors can achieve -something which DeNiro himself is a master at - and is the very epitome of method acting. I was extremely impressed and, although perhaps I'm not going to go back over any of his past movies with new-found glee, I will certainly be keeping an eye on his upcoming Scorsese collaborations (even if remaking Infernal Affairs is just plain unnecessary).
The movie is carried by DiCaprio, but he is not the only acting talent present, even if all of the other characters are simply subsidiary to his. The most prominent is the role of Katherine Hepburn, played enigmatically by the underrated Cate Blanchett, who was absolutely superb in the brilliant alternative Western, The Missing. Blanchett embraces her character in much the same way DiCaprio does Hughes, and this is quite something to watch because Hepburn was renowned for being 'unusual', to say the least. It is a performance which perhaps alienates her from the audience at times, what with her striking accent, overpoweringly strong behaviour and eccentric mannerisms, but it is a testament to her acting talent that she managed to be so convincing.
Next up is Alec Baldwin. Whatever happened to him? Easily the most talented of the Baldwin brothers, his early successes with films like The Hunt for Red October eventually gave way to a series of increasingly average movie. Thankfully he is now making something of a comeback, even since his fantastic scene-stealing lead in The Cooler and his part here as the head of PanAm is also very dominating. It is certainly good to see him back in the limelight, even if this is not his movie. Amidst the other many loves in Hughes' life, Ava Gardner was also a sturdy companion - and a close friend as much as anything else - but I found Kate Beckinsale's performance to be occasionally lacking in conviction. Don't get me wrong, I think Beckinsale is lovely and her parts in smaller movies like Serendipity, alongside the fantastic John Cusack, are just as endearing as her action-heroine roles in the Underworld films. But here she is simply not quite as good as the others. That said, it is a solid performance, thankfully really since Gardner was an important part of Hughes' life. There are also noteworthy contributions from John C. Reilly, as Hughes' right hand man, Alan Alda, as a Senator desperate to ruin Hughes and even a brief glimpse of Gwen Stefani, slightly unconvincing as Jean Harlow.
So, what we have is a bunch of great performances making a rich true story into a memorable, classic film. Why, oh why was Scorsese not acknowledged for this movie? Ok, so his DeNiro films are just as under-awarded and arguably superior (c.f. Raging Bull), but this is such a moving, accessible movie that it should have been given greater acclaim. Beautifully directed - with grand plane scenes handled as adeptly as intimate character portrayals - and with some magnificent performances from a fabulous cast, I simply cannot recommend it enough. It may not be a wholly happy movie - after all, real life does have its ups and downs - but it is a definitively a must-see movie.
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