Dir. Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly
In the Lindsay Lohan Parent Trap, once Hal and Annie have both been sent to the “Isolation Cabin” to work out the problems the two of them have with one another, a storm breaks out and the window gets stuck. The wind swirls. The girls work together to get the window back in its place. Annie asks Hal if there’s been any damage to her belongings, and Hal ruefully notes that her picture of Leonardo DiCaprio has been blotched. “Who?” Annie asks. “You’ve never heard of Leonardo DiCaprio?” Hal asks sarcastically, like she doesn’t actually believe that’s possible. I remember watching that movie for the first time and never having heard of Leo DiCaprio myself, though I had an excuse; my parents wouldn’t take six-year-old me to see Titanic in theaters. Annie’s excuse, presumably, is that they don’t have Titanic in London. In any event, Hal is just plain shocked.
By 2004, the shine on DiCaprio had worn off a little. His Oscar nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was ten years past, Titanic was being lauded for visual effects and grandeur and Kate Winslet, and The Beach had tanked. Gangs of New York is a reasonably successful movie, and DiCaprio acquits himself reasonably well, but he’s not why that movie works. But then he was in The Aviator, and he got to do things like this:
DiCaprio at 29 had never been more handsome, and in my opinion this is his peak, too. For the role itself it’s almost unimportant; if women are going to be attracted to someone this weird, they’re going to care much more about his money or his intensity than his appearance. But it certainly doesn’t hurt that DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes gets the benefit of DiCaprio’s looks. He is so lithe, with those bright eyes and a haircut that finally suits him, someone who can benefit from the slim-cut suits that you imagine – and could eventually see, amusingly enough – Jay Gatsby in. That early scene in the film where he picks up a cigarette girl by explaining why her smile is so attractive (“It’s the short upper lip,” he tells Adam Scott, who got into John Waters drag for his role), scaring her a little bit before titillating her, is not about Howard Hughes. It’ all about DiCaprio’s star image, the man who can sit back and pluck any woman he chooses based entirely on how handsome he is. This is a movie full of handsome men, although they are carefully chosen not to outshine the hero; men like Alec Baldwin or Danny Huston are too old to be much competition, while folks like Jude Law and Adam Scott or Rufus Wainwright are given cameos. (The man who shares the most screentime with DiCaprio is John C. Reilly, whose face launched ten thousand synonyms for “unattractive.) This is important as well, I think, in emphasizing DiCaprio’s star image. It’s not just enough for him to be handsome, but he has to be incredibly young too. In his successful films between 1997 and 2004 – Titanic, Catch Me if You Can, and The Aviator – DiCaprio relies on shocking youthfulness, read as inexperience or immaturity or a carefree spirit, to convince his audience of his magic. Often as not, youthfulness transitions into earnestness. Each of those three movies (as well as Gilbert Grape) allows his character to be young, but more important to be unironic and totally invested in something. There’s a great vulnerability in a role like Frank Abagnale, little more than a teenager and hurtling through life as an increasingly hunted con man, or in Jack Dawson, who only knows that the wind and the sea will take him somewhere and the best thing he can do is hang on for the free ride. That vulnerability affects people; it’s what creates an unusual bond between Carl and Frank even as the former chases the latter, and it’s how Jack convinces Rose to fall in love with him.
Howard Hughes is the perfect storm of those elements and, amusingly enough, the movement to older DiCaprio’s star image of the grizzled but still mostly glamorous center of attention. As Hughes ages and gains something between notoriety and disdain from a growing number of powerful people, the response is to become more and more serious, to prove everyone else wrong by proving himself right. (See also: The Departed, Inception, Shutter Island, The Great Gatsby…) Within the arc of this film, which one could reasonably argue is the beginning of a new Scorsese as well, we see DiCaprio as the summation of the presence he’d been and would become in movies.
In other words, this is the signature film of DiCaprio’s career in the way that Rebel Without a Cause summed up James Dean, or It’s a Wonderful Life contained Jimmy Stewart.
Amusingly enough, as good as DiCaprio’s work is in The Aviator, the best acting performance in the film comes from Cate Blanchett playing Katharine Hepburn. Blanchett is perfect. Even though every impression of a Kate Hepburn voice is just that, Blanchett’s version goes along with a madcap, physical performance which is reminiscent of the Bringing Up Baby Hepburn, who is fetching enough to be worth the trouble for Cary Grant. In their first real scene together, DiCaprio and Blanchett play golf on an aquamarine course. (Scorsese had never used color this way before; compared to a movie like Taxi Driver or Goodfellas or even Gangs of New York, The Aviator and its insistence on some older technique is shockingly technicolor.) Hepburn kicks Hughes’ butt, and talks the entire time. DiCaprio’s face makes some contortions I didn’t think it was quite capable of; meanwhile, Blanchett is given a really golden opportunity to do some old-fashioned screwball dialogue, rattling off zinger after zinger, hitting perfect two-syllable laughs (“Huh-haw“), and concludes a dizzying round of golf with the immortal avowal: “There it is. Now we both know the sordid truth. I sweat, and you’re deaf. Aren’t we a fine pair of misfits.” Aside from it being a pretty fair assessment of the two characters, it’s a lovely introduction to one of my favorite film couples. And the end of their relationship – not the breakup, but the last scene they share – is every bit as affective. While Howard sits naked in the red light of his private screening room, Kate, now married to Spencer Tracy, comes along to try to coax him out. Blanchett’s dialogue doesn’t do her many favors (“You take me flying again, Howard…I can take the wheel” is not quite Robert Bolt) but she delivers it so well that the clunkiness fades. Crouched against that door in her furs in a fluorescent light which is practically natural next to Howard’s darkroom red, her voice hitting desperate in all the right places, you can hear the affection on both sides. Howard doesn’t want her to see the extent of his illness; Kate can’t bear to imagine him persisting that way.
Significant scenes in the movie are devoted to their relationship, which always seems a little troubled even in the good times. Howard, who aside from being deeply private, is someone who relishes the thought process that goes into speaking, can’t keep up with a household of motormouth Hepburns. Kate doesn’t defend him terribly well; Howard’s “You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it” is an elite dinner table mic drop, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that Kate falls in with her family to his detriment. She doesn’t like that Howard gets more press than her. But Howard, for whatever reason, can’t get it through his thick skull that going out with a bevy of starlets isn’t a great way to convince Kate he cares about her. It’s immensely frustrating to watch them fall out of love with each other, because when they fit, they fit. Kate recognizes how important aviation is to Howard; she understands that it validates him, and that being praised for his engineering and flying skill makes him feel appreciated and loved and safe.
For example, when Howard breaks the aviation speed record in one scene and celebrates by absolutely lacerating some poor guy’s beet farm (“There goes our meal ticket,” one man says before they all race off to Howard’s presumed crash site), he comes home to Kate and casually drops the plane’s top speed. She doesn’t have to be told it’s a record; she must have the old record tattooed in her brain somewhere. She says, with genuine feeling, “Good for you.” It’s a charming scene; Howard, soaked in a weird mixture of blood and beet juice below the waist, and Kate affirming that what he’s done is meaningful. It’s a sad fact of the movie (and, fittingly enough, a key aspect of DiCaprio’s star image) that he can’t affirm a woman, even the one he loves, in return.