- The Aviator (2004) review: Martin Scorsese takes the Steven Spielberg route in this costly, glitzy, and overblown biopic about billionaire entrepreneur and sociopath Howard Hughes.
- Texan drawl or no, Leonardo DiCaprio is miscast as the title character, for he doesn’t bring to mind the real-life Hughes. Paradoxically, DiCaprio is wholly convincing as a charismatic, obsessive, deeply disturbed individual.
- The Aviator synopsis: Hypochondriacal playboy, aviation entrepreneur, and independent Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) romances the likes of Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), launches the cumbersome Spruce Goose, and fights to retain control of TWA.
The Aviator (2004) review: Leonardo DiCaprio and lavish production values are just about the only reasons to check out Martin Scorsese’s overblown Howard Hughes biopic
Imagine Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the fictionalized account of the life and times of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, directed by the serious-minded Steven Spielberg of The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan. The final result would likely resemble Warner Bros./Miramax’s The Aviator, a fictionalized account of the life and times of the eccentric (i.e., mentally unbalanced), all-American billionaire flyer, entrepreneur, and ladies’ man Howard Hughes.
Strangely enough, the person who directed the great-looking but superficial, phony, and bloated The Aviator wasn’t Spielberg.
Was it then Barry Levinson, of the equally great-looking but superficial and phony Bugsy, the fictionalized account of the life and times of mobster Bugsy Siegel?
The man behind The Aviator is Martin Scorsese, whose credits mostly consist of – however flawed – gritty dramas like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Gangs of New York.
Now, when it comes to The Aviator, what made it go off the rails?
What’s not good for the Spruce Goose…
A fan of Old Hollywood, Martin Scorsese apparently wanted to have some fun with the reported $110 million budget made available to him. The director no doubt had a ball while making The Aviator, but whether he has been able to impart that joie de filmmaking to most moviegoers is debatable.
Clocking in at 169 minutes, The Aviator tries to stay aloft, but like Howard Hughes’ much-too-big and much-too-heavy Spruce Goose (a.k.a. The Hercules), this cinematic jumbo can keep itself in the air only a few minutes at a time.
Miscast performers, a yearning to turn the tortured protagonist into a (somewhat) conventional film hero, and an excess of glitz – so we won’t notice the narrative’s lack of substance – pull The Aviator down each time after take-off.
The Aviator plot: Sex, germophobia and the Hollywood mogul
Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan begin their tale by having us witness the boy Howard Hughes (Jacob Davich), all wet following a bath, being dried by his peculiar mom (Amy Sloan), who also wants to make sure he can spell the word “quarantine.”
That moment is clearly a simple-minded and, really, wholly unnecessary “explanation” for the adult Hughes’ obsession/issues with women and germs. Things don’t get any subtler from then on.
By the late 1920s, Jacob Davich has grown into aspiring Hollywood mogul Leonardo DiCaprio, who, though one of the best actors around, is patently miscast as Howard Hughes.
Let me clarify: DiCaprio’s performance in and of itself is flawless; he’s altogether convincing as an obsessive, profoundly disturbed man. The issue here is that the Titanic and Catch Me If You Can actor simply doesn’t look the part.
For instance, when paired with Cate Blanchett’s irritatingly mannered Katharine Hepburn, DiCaprio looks (and sounds) like her adenoidal offspring. He looks just as boyishly helpless next to Kate Beckinsale (as Ava Gardner) and Kelli Garner (as Faith Domergue) – neither of whom, by the way, in any way resemble the actresses they’re supposed to be portraying.
Hypochondriacal sex animal
Not helping matters, John Logan’s screenplay fails to delve into Howard Hughes’ labyrinthine psyche.
As a result, it’s mystifying to see how Hughes could be a hypochondriacal freak – e.g., even afraid of touching door handles lest he catch a bug – and be ever so willing to exchange bodily fluids with stars and starlets alike.
Besides, Hughes is hardly averse at risking his life in other ways, becoming a record-smashing flying ace and later getting TWA off the ground much to the dismay of rival Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), the head of Pan Am.
Just as mind-boggling is how Hughes’ lapse into depression following a horrific plane crash in the mid-1940s is miraculously cured after Ava Gardner shows up to give him a good shave.
Just your average billionaire hero
Later in The Aviator, issues such as Howard Hughes’ immeasurable power (and his hunger for more, more, more) and his unsavory ties to the U.S. government are surreptitiously brushed aside so Scorsese and Logan can focus instead on by-the-book movie battles pitting the go-getting hero against a couple of villains: Production Code censor Joseph Breen (Edward Herrmann), who wants to ban/shred Hughes’ voyeuristic Western The Outlaw, and crooked, Pan Am-supporting Republican senator Ralph Owen Brewster (gutsily played by Alan Alda).
Even The Outlaw, whose chief focus is Jane Russell’s cleavage, offers more depth and more complex delineations. (Really, what goes on between Walter Huston’s Doc Holliday and Jack Buetel’s Billy the Kid?)
Ironically, as far as this reviewer is concerned the most stirring, most memorable moment in Martin Scorsese and John Logan’s The Aviator isn’t the (admittedly impressive) aerial battle at the beginning of the film, or the plane crash later on, or any of the interpersonal goings-on.
Instead, it’s the brief footage from Howard Hughes’ own Hell’s Angels – made 75 years ago for about (an inflation-adjusted) 1/10th of The Aviator’s budget.
The Aviator (2004) cast & crew
Director: Martin Scorsese.
Screenplay: John Logan.
Leonardo DiCaprio … Howard Hughes
Cate Blanchett … Katharine Hepburn
Kate Beckinsale … Ava Gardner
John C. Reilly … Noah Dietrich
Alec Baldwin … Juan Trippe
Alan Alda … Senator Ralph Owen Brewster
Ian Holm … Professor Fitz
Danny Huston … Jack Frye
Gwen Stefani … Jean Harlow
Jude Law … Errol Flynn
Adam Scott … Johnny Meyer
Matt Ross … Glenn Odekirk
Kelli Garner … Faith Domergue
Frances Conroy … Mrs. Hepburn
Brent Spiner … Robert Gross
Stanley DeSantis … Louis B. Mayer
Edward Herrmann … Joseph Breen
Willem Dafoe … Roland Sweet
Kenneth Welsh … Dr. Hepburn
J.C. MacKenzie … Ludlow
Jacob Davich … Howard Hughes – 9 Years Old
Amy Sloan … Howard Hughes’ Mother
Sam Hennings … Frank
Rufus Wainwright … Cocoanut Grove Vocalist #1
James Bradford … Uncle Willy
David Purdham … Emcee
Kevin O’Rourke … Spencer Tracy
Keith Campbell … Marine
Lawrence of Arabia and Murder on the Orient Express editor Anne V. Coates … Howard Hughes’ film editor (uncredited)
Cinematography: Robert Richardson.
Film Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker.
Music: Howard Shore.
Producers: Michael Mann, Sandy Climan, Graham King, and Charles Evans Jr.
Production Design: Dante Ferretti.
Costume Design: Sandy Powell.
Production Companies: Miramax Film Corp. | Initial Entertainment Group | Forward Pass | Appian Way | IMF Internationale Medien und Film GMBH & Co. 3 Producktions KG | Warner Bros.
Distributor: Miramax Film Corp.
Running Time: 169 min.
Country: United States.
“The Aviator (2004): Bloated Howard Hughes Biopic” notes
The Caddo Company & RKO Pictures
 The Aviator movie hero Howard Hughes was credited for the direction of two features: Hell’s Angels (1930) and The Outlaw (filmed in 1941; briefly released in 1943; wide release in 1946). An uncredited Howard Hawks (Best Director Oscar nominee for Sergeant York, 1941) also had a hand on the latter.
As the head of the independent outlet The Caddo Company, Hughes produced 10 features between 1926 and 1932. Besides Hell’s Angels, notable titles include the gangster dramas The Racket (1928) and Scarface (1932), and the comedies Two Arabian Knights (1927) and The Front Page (1931).
Both The Racket and The Front Page were shortlisted for the Best Picture (or Best Production) Academy Award. As the director of Two Arabian Knights, Lewis Milestone became the only individual to win an Academy Award in the short-lived Best Direction of a Comedy category. (Milestone was also nominated for The Front Page.)
While heading – and wrecking – RKO Pictures from 1948 to 1955, Howard Hughes was personally involved in the making of a handful of films, including Vendetta (1950), which was supposed to have turned Faith Domergue into a star, and the ill-fated The Conqueror (1956), starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward.
Howard Hughes’ actresses
 Although not seen in The Aviator, among the actresses also associated with Howard Hughes – whether as romantic partners or as the focus of his attentions – were Billie Dove, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, Hedy Lamarr, Janet Leigh, Gina Lollobrigida, and sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
Hughes married 20th Century Fox star Jean Peters (Pickup on South Street, Three Coins in the Fountain) in 1957. Living apart for a number of years, they would officially divorce in 1971.
Terry Moore (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Come Back, Little Sheba, 1952) claimed she and Hughes were married at a 1949 ceremony performed by a ship captain in international waters. As there was no divorce, that would have made her the billionaire’s de facto widow upon his death in 1976.
Moore’s marriage claim was never legally recognized, but she and the Hughes estate would reach an undisclosed out-of-court settlement. She gets a Thank You credit in The Aviator.
The Aviator Academy Awards
The Aviator won five Academy Awards:
- Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett).
- Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson).
- Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker).
- Best Art Direction (production designer: Dante Ferretti; set decorator: Francesca Lo Schiavo).
- Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell).
The Aviator received six additional nominations:
- Best Picture.
- Best Director (Martin Scorsese).
- Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio).
- Best Supporting Actor (Alan Alda).
- Best Original Screenplay (John Logan).
- Best Sound Mixing (Tom Fleischman and Petur Hliddal).
Although one of the semifinalists for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, The Aviator failed to land a nomination in that category.
More awards & nominations
The Aviator won numerous other awards, including:
- 4 British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), and Best Make Up/Hair (Morag Ross, Kathryn Blondell, Sian Grigg).
- 3 Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Score (Howard Shore).
- Screen Actors Guild: Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett).
- Producers Guild of America: Outstanding Producer – Feature Film (Michael Mann and Graham King).
- American Cinema Editors: Best Edited Film – Dramatic (Thelma Schoonmaker).
- Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Production Design (Dante Ferretti).
- 2 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson; tied with Christopher Doyle for Hero) and Best Original Score (Howard Shore).
- Critics’ Choice Awards: Best Director (Martin Scorsese).
- Italian Film Journalists’ Special Nastri d’Argento for production designer Dante Ferretti.
The Aviator received numerous other nominations, including:
- 10 additional BAFTA nominations, including: Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Alan Alda), and Best Original Screenplay (John Logan).
- 3 additional Golden Globe nominations: Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), and Best Screenplay (John Logan).
- 2 additional Screen Actors Guild Award nominations: Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Best Cast.
- Directors Guild of America: Best Director – Feature Film (Martin Scorsese).
- Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay – Theatrical Film (John Logan).
- Art Directors Guild: Best Art Direction – Period or Fantasy (production designer: Dante Ferretti; and others).
- Costume Designers Guild: Best Costume Design – Fantasy or Period (Sandy Powell).
- National Society of Film Critics Awards runner-up: Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett; also for Coffee and Cigarettes).
- National Board of Review: Top Ten Films.
Of note, even though Robert Richardson won the Best Cinematography Oscar, the winner of the American Society of Cinematographers Award was Bruno Delbonnel for A Very Long Engagement.
Michael Mann & Public Enemies
Michael Mann was to have directed The Aviator. Instead, he ended up as one of the film’s producers.
The Aviator movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn The Aviator movie images: Miramax | Warner Bros.
“The Aviator (2004): Bloated Howard Hughes Biopic” last updated in December 2023.