Martin Scorsese Explored the Madness of Innovation with “The Aviator”

The Aviator Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator."

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.

The trials and tribulations of Martin Scorsese began during the production of Gangs of New York, a movie he had dreamt of making since his childhood. He read the book Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury in 1970 which reinvigorated his youthful interest in the pre-industrial New York, acquired the rites in 1979, and then twenty years later started filming the mega-production in Rome, where he recreated blocks and blocks of old New York. By that time the project had undergone dozens of rewrites, scholars had been kept on retainer to ensure historical accuracy, the cast had changed completely, and producer Harvey Weinstein terrorized Scorsese all throughout production, demanding he make cuts. 

After such an enormous undertaking, it was only natural that Scorsese, who had finally become a legend after decades as a fixture in American cinema, would feel something pretty profound after his dream project finally escaped into the world. So he decided to poke fun at himself by making what looked like an autobiographical projection: A biopic based on the life of hypochondriac shut-in producer wunderkind Howard Hughes. 

The Aviator was as much of an epic as anything else Scorsese had done. But it felt like a jazzy diversion, a weightless trifle in micro. The film builds a towering and tragic portrait of a man undone by what he can’t control about himself, even as Scorsese proved himself capable of building anything he wanted with his hands. 

Shot by Robert Richardson in his best approximation of two-strip Technicolor, the film is like a pre-code provocation, all flaunted mores, double entendres, snarling villains, gamine gals, and thrilling action sequences. Every few minutes a new movie seems to start in the story of Hughes’s quest for world domination. Scorsese begins his flirtation with the uncanny valley here with his stunt casting of celebrities as celebrities (Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner) as a way of bringing us in contact with history through the untouchable luster of fame. 

The film becomes enormous in depicting Hughes’ own runaway productions and the mountains of production and personal troubles that kept him from ever approaching ordinary. A scene of him flying a plane with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, doing Bugs Bunny) and landing it on a golf course shows off the allure of being a rich maniac as good as anything. His life was a thousand feet above the ground, so naturally, everything (his affairs, his hobbies, his social awkwardness, his Napoleon complex) else in his life soared above the heads of everyone who needed or wanted to be close to him. 

Living and working in the shadow of a petulant colossus became too much for most of America, including Hughes himself, who increasingly shut himself off from the world. He could have had anything but his complexes and instability made him want increasingly little. After all, he belonged in the air, and no one could give him that. Not forever. 

Leonardo DiCaprio is terrific as Hughes, all taut boyish arrogance. This was the first clue he was going to become who he is now (bizarre persona and all). The way he handles himself in the film’s many flight scenes finds him at his most vulnerable, swearing aloud though he knows no one can hear him. He thrives on speed and knows as he’s going down that he’s got no one to blame but himself. It’s the closest he comes to self-awareness. In board rooms and screening rooms, he’s just another millionaire. 

The Aviator was as much of an epic as anything else Scorsese had done. But it felt like a jazzy diversion, a weightless trifle in micro.

The scenes of flight still dazzle, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing erasing the seams and making Hughes look like a lost god. Young Hughes filming the dogfights that make up the spine of his movie Hell’s Angels set to Bach is even more breath-taking today than it was in 2004. It’s also the register most of the movie is in, whether Hughes is discussing his emotions intimacy with Hepburn or losing his cool on red carpets or bickering with other executives. 

Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda are both great value as Hughes’s nemeses; ditto Edward Herrmann, who shows up for one scene as Edward Breen, the father of the production code. But for all their menacing power, the most shocking and awful moments are when Hughes enters public bathrooms. Suddenly years of mania spill out, and each scene with him and his bar of mother’s soap (the film’s version of Chekhov’s gun) is worse and more grippingly intense than the last. Suddenly the giant is a little boy. 

Scorsese, who’d had his share of crippling blows dealt by grotesque producers, who still after making the world sing whatever tune he calls in his movies, to this day has to defend what he does to the public, must surely know the feeling. 

The Aviator Trailer:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!