I’m a big fan of biopic, particularly when they are done right, and The Aviator tells the story of one of the biggest oddballs in Hollywood history with honesty, tenderness, and, occasionally, humor.
I was thirteen when Titanic came out, so I will always have a soft spot for Leo. I admire him because he’s a guy who could have coasted on his looks alone, but he always chooses his roles carefully. He’s one of those actors whose films you can depend on to at least be interesting in some way. As Howard Hughes, you watch a man who has everything (looks, money, intelligence, creativity) but will lose it all to mental illness. I love how clear it is that Howard knows he is not normal, but is powerless to control himself. At one point, he must hold his hands over his mouth to stop himself from repeating the same sentence over and over again. You also watch his OCD progress with time, knowing eventually this man who flies around the world and dates movie stars will be a shut-in who is mocked on The Simpsons for wearing tissue boxes as shoes. I can’t think of another movie or television show that portrays OCD with as much respect.
While Leonardo DiCaprio is terrific as Howard, the person who really shines in this film is Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, who won an Oscar for her performance. The film portrays Hepburn as the only woman who could bring out the tender side of Howard and the only person who could get him to relax enough to have some fun. In a moment of screenwriting genius, Howard shares his milk with Kate, showing us how much this germaphobe must trust her. The two are intelligent and opinionated people with strong personalities, which is what draws them to each other and eventually tears them apart. Kate’s family is too intense, Howard romances other women in the press, Kate likes to be the center of attention, Howard is too obsessed with work, but it all ends when Kate meets the love of her life, Spencer Tracy. Although the relationship ends, it is clear the two always remained special to each other. Cate does a great job of channeling this icon, to the point where I think of this performance whenever I watch one of the real Hepburn’s films.
I would recommend this film to be seen with Scorsese’s other love letter to film, Hugo. It is clear when you watch The Aviator that Scorsese was highly influenced by early filmmaking. He recreated the looks of early color film processes Cinecolor & Technicolor to make everything look like a color film from the time periods represented. This is most notable in the scene where Errol Flynn takes the peas off Howard’s plate. The peas have a bluish tint to them. The colors become stronger as time progresses.
I think this film is a great biopic because it takes a figure that many have heard of, but few know intimate details and paints him not as a sinner or a saint, but a person who was capable of greatness but often sabotaged by his own weaknesses.