Martin Scorsese is a strong contender for my favourite director of all time (although he has strong competition from the likes of Michael Mann: Heat, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans and Chris Nolan: The Dark Knight, Memento, Inception). He edges out the others mainly because he has made some of the most amazing films in the last four of decades, and it is a travesty that he did not get acknowledged at the Oscars but for one of his few films which arguable did not deserve such a merit. I don't even know how to begin with his work – standout classics have to include almost all of his collaborations with the once-great Robert De Niro: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino – but some of his non-De Niro films have also been superb, like the vastly underrated The Last Temptation of Christ.
Conversely, I had never really rated Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor and I never really liked any of his early, frequently teen pin-up films. Perhaps this is because I felt that he was always too youthful to play mature roles: though his first collaboration with Scorsese was a fantastic movie – The Gangs of New York – the true star was undoubtedly Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood), and DiCaprio was clearly overshadowed by such superior acting talent. Between that and all the talk of his being the new De Niro, I was, at that point, still far from impressed. But, over the years, DiCaprio has proven me well and truly wrong. In order, we had The Departed (a great performance in an unfortunate rip-off of a film – the one Scorsese gleaned a ‘tribute’ Award for), Blood Diamond, Body of Lies, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island (a haunting return to form with Scorsese) and Inception – a litany of films which range from good to absolutely cracking masterpieces. In fact, where De Niro, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, has now become perhaps one of the less reliable actors out there, DiCaprio has, conversely, graduated not only to the place of being one of the most reliable, but also to become arguably the greatest actor of his generation: a truly skilled star who can mould himself to any part he wants and simply become the character he wishes to be.
And to think that this all started only about 7 years ago, during his second collaboration with Scorsese, The Aviator, a biopic about the eccentric visionary Howard Hughes: that was when I first noticed the actor DiCaprio disappear, only here to be replaced by none other than the enigmatic Mr. Hughes.
The Aviator charts the life of Hughes, from his early years as a born-rich 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 almost impossible, always incredible dreams; but deep inside he is a very troubled genius. And this is where the movie truly excels, taking a detailed look at what made this guy tick. Initially just an eccentric, who appears to have much more money than sense, 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. Without them he drifts, slowly but surely, into ever-destructive madness.
Several filmmakers had already attempted to make a biopic on Howard Hughes, from Brian De Palma (Blow Out, Carlito’s Way) to Warren Beatty (Bonnie & Clyde, Bugsy). Even the remaining Hughes family themselves tried to get a project financed, with Johnny Depp pipped for the lead. The mantle eventually passed to Edward Norton and then, somewhat unbelievably, Jim Carrey, who was due to star in a project that eventually went on to be cancelled due to the release of The Aviator. Martin Scorsese was selected to Direct, with Leonardo DiCaprio already in place to play Hughes, but The Aviator did not start off as a Scorsese project. Indeed it was acclaimed perfectionist Director Michael Mann (Heat, Manhunter, Miami Vice) who first got involved in the project, partnering with DiCaprio to produce piece; them both doing extensive research in preparation. It’s only when Mann decided to step down as Director – mainly because he felt that, after The Insider and Ali, he wanted a break from biopics – that he offered the position to Scorsese.
Now it’s impossible to tell just how much pre-production work was done by Mann, just how involved he was in the production before handing over the reins to Scorsese but, whilst Scorsese isn’t unfamiliar with extensively-researched productions of his own, I think that it is safe to assume that a number of residual ideas remained from when Mann stepped down; ideas which would become integral to how well this project worked.
For example, the movie was shot in a multi-stage colour-coded fashion: the first 50 minutes of the film processed to be presented in only shades of red and cyan blue (green tones, like the peas on Hughes’s plate during the early meeting with Errol Flynn, would thus appear blue) – this was intended to replicate emulate the look of early bi-pack colour movies, which were dominant prior to 1935; then, the colours within the movie evolve to be saturated in the fashion of three-strip Technicolor, to reflect the post-1935 switch to Technicolor. This kind of extensive colour-processing is something of a trademark of Mann, who has adopted a similar approach in a number of his features – most prominently Manhunter (although also in the likes of Heat).
The original plan was to shoot the movie in 1.33:1 academy aspect ratio, which was the common aspect ratio for all films made up until the mid-fifties, but due to the fact that cinemas did not easily cater for this format, this idea was dropped in favour of the varying colour processing, which worked remarkably well – so well, in fact, that the film won a Best Cinematography Oscar probably as a large result of this.
Mann also had a hand in writing the original screenplay, which was also extensively researched – DiCaprio having spent a considerable amount of time planning for the role, soaking up background information about Hughes as told by those still alive who carried memories of the pioneer, as well as the two of them having looked at the reality of extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, as explained by a real-life sufferer. Authenticity to this disorder was made paramount, and a number of key scenes, particularly where Hughes says the same phrase over and over again, are trademarks of extreme OCD sufferers – they become obsessed with saying the same phrase repeatedly, trying to perfect the intonation, as if it just doesn’t sound quite right in their heads.
“Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Showme all the blueprints.”
Of course this is still a Scorsese film through and through, he just happened to have a little help in the preparation. Scorsese himself made some excellent decisions through Pre-Production and filming, not least was the choice to use full-scale static and miniature-scale moving models for much of the aerial footage, a stance Scorsese took after the negative reaction to the CG aircraft scenes in films like Pearl Harbor. This was unquestionably the right choice, paying off in dividends, as it enabled the stunning flying – and crashing – sequences to look much more authentic. Many of the miniatures were still pretty big – even at 1:4 scale, models like the one done for the XF-11 Stealth plane had a 25ft wingspan – and yet still cost less to manufacture and film with than the equivalent CG shots would have done.
Indeed some of the aerial photography is stunning, capturing the breathtaking speed, or scope of the different flights – whether it be during the breakneck run of the initial H-1 Racer, which Hughes sought to break the world speed record in; or the impossibly daunting task of getting the huge H-4 Hercules (aka the ‘Spruce Goose’) flying boat into the air – a beast which, to this day, has the largest wingspan of any aircraft in aviation history. Scorsese uses spinning camera shots, front-of-plane point-of-view shots, and broader CG-enhanced setpieces to render some of the grandest, most grandstanding aerial cinematography with perfect, loving respect and veritable realism. You feel the speed, the weight, and the desperation of Hughes as he flies these cutting-edge crafts – undaunted, unstoppable, yet also eminently human when it comes to these flying machines, which were, more often than not, prone to catastrophic failure.
Back on dry land Scorsese also pulled out all the stops to capture the mind behind the method and the madness, painting a picture of the kind of pioneer who, at once, knows no limits, but, at the same time, often hits his limits with a painful thud. For all his aerial crash-and-burn escapades, his life was just as prone to disaster – if not even more so; and Scorsese puts you right into the thick of things, never leaving Hughes’s side for very long, cutting close in on his face, and even splitting the screen for reactionary shots from the increasingly paranoid eccentric as the world around – in his eyes – turns against him.
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 'wooden actor extraordinaire' Bloom in a lead role – i.e. absolutely ludicrous. I was pleased to find, however, that DiCaprio got it spot on here. He is simply perfectly cast as Hughes. At first, it seems like he is just playing himself – doing the rich and charming playboy thing appears to come naturally to him – but gradually, as his nervous tics emerge and his erratic, disturbed behaviour takes over, he stops being DiCaprio and starts becoming Howard Hughes. By the end of the film, you’ve forgotten it was DiCaprio at all, and just feel sorry for the grand tragedy that was Hughes’s life. It is a marvel that only some of the most talented actors can achieve – something which DeNiro himself used to be a master at – and is the very epitome of method acting. The performance here – and also the character itself – is not a million miles away from the relentlessly ambitious Oil prospector that the other great method-acting man, Daniel Day-Lewis, played in There Will Be Blood. Both films charted the somewhat tragic ups and downs of determined, successful, eccentric, and destructive pioneers, and both actors brought everything they had to the table to play the memorable lead characters so perfectly.
So, The Aviator was the first time that I was actually impressed with DiCaprio (so was the Oscar committee, who gave him the first of two successive Best Actor Nominations) and, although perhaps it didn’t make me want to go back over any of his past movies with new-found glee, it certainly made me keep an eye out for all his subsequent work; something which I have no regrets over, as he now stands as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Acting-wise, he has not put a step wrong in over 7 years (and just as many movies). In fact, later this year we will be getting the new Clint Eastwood biopic J. Edgar, where he takes on the titular roles as the founder of the FBI; I can’t wait.
The movie is clearly and indisputably carried by DiCaprio’s towering powerhouse performance, but he is not the only acting talent present, even if all of the other characters are simply subsidiary to his. The next most prominent is the role of Katherine Hepburn, played enigmatically by the underrated Cate Blanchett, who has provided consistently superb performances in such myriad work as the underrated alternative Western, The Missing; the historical Elizabeth movies; and, more recently, the genre-defying Hanna (not to mention her contributions to two massive franchises – LOTR, and Indy IV). 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. To embody the character, she prepared by studying no less than 15 of Hepburn’s movies, adopting the appropriate Upper Class New Englander accent as well as all the trademark mannerisms. It is a performance which perhaps alienates her from the audience at times, what with her striking accent, overpoweringly strong behaviour and eccentric tics – which both put her at odds with Hughes, and yet still made her the ideal companion – 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 movies. Thankfully he made something of a comeback (ever 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 – and Kate Beckinsale, whilst you might have her as your first choice, is remarkably good in the role. 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 required to commit more to the role, and, arguably, actually act. 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's faithful right hand man; Alan Alda, perfectly cast as a conniving Senator desperate to ruin Hughes; the ever-reliable Ian Holm, as a much put-upon scientist who also stands loyal by Hughes’s side; and even a brief glimpse of Gwen Stefani, only ostensibly convincing as starlet Jean Harlow.
So, what we have here is a bunch of almost universally great performances; a rich, extensively-researched biographical story which incorporates themes of mental illness, wanton extravagance, and pioneering excellence; some stunning cinematography and adventurous colour design, simultaneously replicating the era that the movie was set in, and making it visually opulent for a modern generation; an excellent score (from Howard ‘LOTR’ Shore) which is at once haunting yet thoroughly rousing; and tour-de-force directing to pool all these wonderful elements into a memorable, classic modern epic. Nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards, it won almost half of them (including Editing, Costume Design, Art Direction and – as aforementioned – Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress for Blanchett), but why, oh why was Scorsese not acknowledged for this movie? He wasn’t even Nominated for Best Director? Ok, so his De Niro 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.
At the end of the day this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. How many filmmakers could research a biopic so meticulously? How many directors could traverse decades so magically? How many actors could capture such a multi-faceted and eminently flawed individual so masterfully? The triple-combo of Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio marked an incredible confluence of forces. It’s a rare event – like when Brian De Palma directed Oliver Stone’s script with Al Pacino starring in Scarface. Three great men coming together to produce one great work of art. I simply cannot recommend The Aviator highly enough: it is a definitively a must-see movie.
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