Another of Hughes passions was women and in Hollywood, there were no shortage of beautiful women. Jean Harlow (singer Gwen Stefani in a very brief, unspectacular turn), Ava Gardner (played by Kate Beckinsale, who I still consider a vacuum on the screen, sucking all of the life force from a film). Thankfully, Ava Gardner only makes a few appearances during the film. The bulk of his romantic interests lie in Kate Hepburn, played By Cate Blanchett. They are fellow adventurers and Hughes is no doubt drawn to Hepburn’s less glamorous, more masculine air.
Scorcese’s ‘Gangs of New York’, his last collaboration with DiCaprio was a huge disappointment. The film’s best performance, by Daniel Day Lewis, so overwhelmed the rest of the film, that it became a chore to sit through the long, overblown, confusing story. ‘The Aviator’ is a lot better, so much better that it restores my faith in Scorcese, a faith that waned a bit.
The look of ‘The Aviator’ is fantastic. Much of the film is made to look like a film shot in early two-strip Technicolor. Many people probably don’t realize that color was used in films a lot earlier than the late 40s. Two-strip Technicolor was used in the early 30s by people like King Vidor. It has a distinctive look. In ‘The Aviator’ it immediately adds a level to the film and helps it recreate Hollywood in the 30s. For instance, in one scene, Hughes and Hepburn are out playing golf. The green of the golf course is slightly blue, almost an aqua, which in turn is very close to the color of Blanchett’s and DiCaprio’s eyes. Throughout these scenes, the three primary colors are predominate and the shading comes in the dark tones throughout. As Hughes story progresses through the 40s, the colors become richer and more defined, as Technicolor became more advanced.
The performances, overall, are fine. DiCaprio brings a youthful enthusiasm that seems to fit with Hughes OCD and drive. What he isn’t great at is getting to the heart of Hughes’ character. We don’t ever really learn what lies beneath, beyond the drive and OCD. Yes, he is a man with a lot of lovers, but we don’t really learn why. During the last act of the film, Hughes basically goes crazy and locks himself away in a screening room, naked, peeing into milk bottles, unshaven. Scorcese treats us to many scenes of DiCaprio talking to himself, in an effort to prove that he is going mad. One shot of a man peeing into a milk bottle would pretty much do that for me. Unfortunately, this type of scene, with an actor talking to himself throughout, would be difficult for a great actor to pull off, say DeNiro, but DiCraprio isn’t a good enough actor to make this believable. These scenes reek of Acting 101 classes.
Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Kate Hepburn. She isn’t doing an imitation, per se, as she is using the familiar mannerisms and speech of Hepburn as she plays a character. It is a fine line to walk but Cate Blanchette walks it beautifully. Kate Beckinsale is on screen briefly, thankfully. I think the last film I remember seeing her in was ‘Pearl Harbor’. I feel the same way now that I did then. She is a vacuum that seems to suck the life out of every frame of the film. Yes, she’s pretty, but she can’t act her way out a paper bag. Gwen Stefani’s role is so brief and she doesn’t have much to do. This leads anyone who knows who she is to say ‘Oh, that’s Gwen’ when she pops up on screen. Not ‘Oh, that’s Jean Harlow.’
The standouts in the male supporting cast are Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda. Baldwin plays Juan Trippe, the owner of Pan Am. Hughes bought TWA. Naturally, Trippe wasn’t happy when TWA decided to start flying to Europe, so he did everything he could to shut TWA down. Alda plays Senator Brewster, the head of a Senate Committee that oversees aviation in this country. He is also in Trippe’s pocket. Together, the two of them prove to be worthy foes of Hughes. Each assays their role in all of it’s inherent slimy details.
Scorcese has created a long, well crafted, interesting film about a man few know little about. After watching ‘The Aviator’, my knowledge of the events in Hughes’ life was broader, but I still don’t know what made the man tick.