- The Aviator (2004) movie review: Martin Scorsese takes the Steven Spielberg route in this costly, glitzy, superficial, and bloated biopic about all-American 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 fully convincing as a charismatic, obsessive, deeply disturbed individual.
- The Aviator won five Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett) and Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson).
The Aviator movie review: Martin Scorsese has way too much fun with glitzy + bloated 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, the fictionalized account of the life and times of the eccentric (i.e., mentally unbalanced), all-American billionaire entrepreneur, flyer, and ladies’ man Howard Hughes.
Strangely enough, the person who directed the superficial, phony, bloated The Aviator wasn’t Spielberg.
Was it then Barry Levinson, of the equally glitzy, superficial, and phony Bugsy, the fictionalized account of the life and times of mobster Bugsy Siegel?
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 only keep itself in the air for 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.
Miscast yet excellent Leonardo DiCaprio
Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan begin their tale by having us witness the post-bath boy Howard Hughes (Jacob Davich) being dried by his weird mom (Amy Sloan), who also wants to make sure he can spell the word “quarantine.”
That moment comes across as 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 happens to be one of the best actors around, but who looks like he would be more comfortable starring in “The Orson Welles Story.”
Although DiCaprio’s performance in and of itself is flawless – he’s altogether convincing as an obsessive, profoundly disturbed man – 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, look at all like 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.
‘Average billionaire’ hero
Later in the film, 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 eventual Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee 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 Scorsese and Logan’s The Aviator isn’t the (admittedly impressive) aerial battle at the beginning, 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 1/10th (inflation-adjusted) of The Aviator‘s budget.
The Aviator (2004)
Director: Martin Scorsese.
Screenplay: John Logan.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (as Howard Hughes). Cate Blanchett (as Katharine Hepburn). Kate Beckinsale (as Ava Gardner). Alan Alda (as Senator Ralph Owen Brewster). Alec Baldwin (as Pan Am honcho Juan Trippe). Kelli Garner (as Faith Domergue). Gwen Stefani (as Jean Harlow). Ian Holm. Adam Scott. Jude Law (as Errol Flynn). Frances Conroy. Willem Dafoe. Jacob Davich (as the boy Howard Hughes). Edward Herrmann (as censor Joseph Breen). Danny Huston. John C. Reilly (as Howard Hughes’ business empire CEO Noah Dietrich). Stanley DeSantis (as Louis B. Mayer). Amy Sloan (as Howard Hughes’ mother). Kenneth Welsh. Rufus Wainwright. Kevin O’Rourke (as Spencer Tracy). Heather Petrone (as Vivien Leigh). Michael-John Wolfe (as Cary Grant).
Cameo: Lawrence of Arabia and Murder on the Orient Express editor Anne V. Coates (as one of Howard Hughes’ film editors).
“The Aviator Movie” notes
The Aviator awards
 In addition to Best Supporting Actress and Best Cinematography, The Aviator topped the following Academy Award categories: Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), Art Direction (Dante Ferretti & set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo), and Costume Design (Sandy Powell).
The Aviator was also shortlisted in six other Oscar categories: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Alan Alda), Original Screenplay, and Sound Mixing.
Among The Aviator’s other awards season wins were four BAFTAs, including Best Film and Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett); the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actress (Blanchett); and the Producers Guild Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures.
Also: Three Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor – Drama, Best Score); the London Film Critics Circle’s Director of the Year Award; and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Production Design.
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.
Hollywood indie mogul Howard Hughes
 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 Academy Award. As the director of Two Arabian Knights, Lewis Milestone was the only individual to win an Academy Award in the short-lived Best Direction of a Comedy category.
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 other actresses 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 Fox star Jean Peters (Pickup on South Street, Three Coins in the Fountain) in 1957. They would 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” endnotes
Michael Mann was to have directed The Aviator. Instead, he ended up as one of the film’s producers.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn The Aviator movie images: Miramax | Warner Bros.
“The Aviator Movie: DiCaprio Excellent & Miscast in Bloated Hughes Biopic” last updated in September 2021.