Disclaimer: “The Aviator” is neither a world nor an independent film. This fact is indisputable, despite the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio once played a homosexual poet in the small, long forgotten “Total Eclipse” or that this lavish Martin Scorsese movie is produced by Miramax, distributor of early Hal Hartley films and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” A new film by Scorsese, however, especially one as captivating as this $100 million razzle-dazzle production, cannot be ignored.
“The Aviator,” a biopic about the early years of Howard Hughes, legendary film producer, playboy, and test pilot, is pure entertainment. It’s the kind of movie – this should warm Harvey Weinstein’s heart – that wins the Best Picture Oscar. John Logan’s screenplay focuses on the time between the 1920s and 1940’s during which: Hughes produced the most expensive movie ever made, invented the push-up bra, engaged in highly publicized love affairs with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), broke the record for the fastest flying plane, bought his own airline, and peed into numerous empty milk bottles during a period of complete mental collapse.
DiCaprio is terrific as Hughes. He has the I-am-so-rich-I-can-buy-anything-I-want swagger down just right, mixed with the perfect amount of flirtatious charm and lost boy vulnerability. His eventual fall into madness is convincingly done. The actor ages well, too. In one, heart stopping scene, Hughes’s plane crashes, ripping through several Los Angeles homes before bursting into flames. From that moment on, our hero is a drastically changed man. One-time baby-faced DiCaprio, who charmed young girls’ hearts in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Titanic”, has grown up, achieving the necessary gravitas to pull off a limp, a shaggy beard, and full body burns.
But golly, Cate Blanchett is perhaps even more marvelous as Katharine Hepburn. Blanchett, who stood out earlier this year portraying a caricature of her movie star self in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes,” knows how to steal a show. As Hepburn, a woman who does not know how to stop acting, Blanchett not only looks the part (red hair, the thin haughty carriage, and the infamous slacks), she sounds it. Kate Beckinsale has less time on screen as Ava Gardner, but she certainly wears her clothes well. All of the women in the “Aviator” are pure eye candy; this also includes Gwen Stefani with her one line role of Jean Harlow and Kelli Garner as Hughes’s fifteen year old protégé.
This certainly seems to be the year of the bio pic: “Ray,” “Kinsey,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Finding Neverland,” to name a few. The “Aviator” follows the pre-determined arc of the genre: beginning with the early hey days to the necessary fall, it takes the viewer to the film’s redemptive, life-affirming conclusion. “The Aviator” is no exception to this rule. But without a doubt, Hughes’s life lends itself to Scorcese’s Hollywood treatment. Not only are there beautiful women, but there are airplanes: flying high, speeding over the American heartland. Talented actors John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Danny Huston, Alan Alda, and Ian Holms are also prominently featured in supporting roles, making a solid film that much more so. Even Jude Law puts in a delicious cameo appearance as Errol Flynn. There are certainly some slow moments; when Hughes business prospects bog down, so does the film. But not to worry, “The Aviator” soars. Martin Scorsese has recreated a glorious, Technicolor time. Oscar, Oscar.