Scorsese’s The Aviator, directed in 2004, is a biographical film depicting Howard Hughes’ life. It shows roughly 1920-1947; the years that Hughes was a businessman in the aviation industry, film director, and his struggle with OCD plagued his personal life. Scorsese made sure to cover each aspect of Hughes’ life taking turns depicting each theme throughout the film. As the business endeavors grew in responsibility so did the pressure brought on by the impending germ crisis. Scorsese is known for his depiction of psychological disorders and love for violence. Even though the story of Hughes does not have as much violence as many of his other films, Scorsese was the right man to bring this movie to the big screen. He chose to highlight aspects of Hughes’ life, his many business successes and affairs along with his health decline into major psychological illness. These extremes in his personality drive the film, making light of his obsessive perfectionism, fear of germs and onsite of dementia.
The Aviator brings to the big screen Hughes’ many airplane innovations, debuting each new plane as it is created. Scorsese’s pictures of the airplanes throughout the movie are extravagant, to say the least. Long shots taken with crane camera provide aerial views that are breath taking high quality images. These airplane pictures are presented along with orchestra music. Stringed instruments, like violins and cellos, provide a royal feeling and paired with the image of the planes creates a grand feeling.
Howard Hughes was rich his whole life, adapting that lifestyle to the big screen was a huge under taking by Scorsese. The glamorous life lead by Hughes during the 30’s and 40’s lead him to court many famous women, some of which were portrayed within the film. Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardener, to name just the two main girlfriends, were brought back to life.
Even though he is rich, Hughes never stops working. He is constantly designing new aircrafts and making business deals. His drive to work hard leads him to success within business and the limelight. He did what ever he wanted without the intervention of anybody or anything. His endeavors not only included airplane engineering but also directing films.
Hells Angels, Hughes’ first film, brought together the two worlds, directing and aviation. While Hughes spent his time directing the film he also made changes to the airplanes, innovations that would affect the aviation industry. He worked tirelessly to see his movie be a success, this included many setbacks. Whenever he ran out of money he would mortgage another one of his assets, adding to the huge price tag for the movie. It took three years and four million dollars before the film hit the theatres; and regardless of being a success, Hughes still had some things in the film that he wanted changed. He had the money to cover any expense and could do what ever he wanted. His next two films, Scarface and The Outlaw created controversies on their own. Hepburn reviews his movie Scarface, calling it violent on their first date on the golf course. In the scene when Hughes meets with the MPAA, he also mentions the film quickly, stating that he hadn’t met with the board since the violence hearing from Scarface.
Scorsese uses the split screen technique several times throughout the film. It is used either at a time when people are talking on the phone or through a wall to Hughes. I think this shows the separation felt by the main character from the rest of the world. He was not willing to be in the same room as people at some points. This fear of integrating with the world shows how lonely life must have been for Hughes. At some times he was successful as a leader but when pressure grew and his anxiety was through the roof, he needed to get away.
In the opening scene, his mother bathes Hughes. She warns him of germs, spelling the word “quarantine” out loud together; a word that he uses to sooth himself when feeling overwhelmed. Throughout the film his symptoms grow and become more and more unbearable. He has a problem with his food when someone touches a pea on his plate and washes his hands repeatedly for long periods of time. Katherine Hepburn helps Hughes through some of his trouble when their relationship gets underway. She notices when he is hesitant to do something involving germs and asks him about his issues on their dates. She shares a bottle of milk with him on his airplane after learning about his problem with the germs covering the steering wheel. It is interesting to see Hughes hesitate before deciding that the germ infested milk is okay to drink. Hepburn’s help with his germ issue was relatively minor in context to the rest of the movie. The OCD grows as Hughes’ success grows, leading to a scene where he is stuck in a bathroom until someone can come along to open the door for him. Scorsese makes sure to take time for the fears felt internally by the airline tycoon and the illness becomes worse and worse as the film progresses.
At the climax of his career, Hughes also reached the climax of his OCD issues. Scorsese portrayed this in a chilling few scenes in which Hughes locks himself within his office and then at home. He is naked within his office, refusing to see anybody, sending away delivered milk if anything about the process was done incorrectly. He tapes off areas of the house that are condemned and his appearance becomes very disheveled and beard overgrown. Leo DiCaprio did a great job with acting psychotic within these scenes.
Howard Hughes led an interesting life driven by his immense riches and passion for the airline world. He never succumbed to the pressures of business, spending some time in court, but continued to do what ever he wanted, always having the funds to do so. The natural twist that affected his life most was his anxiety brought on by the germs all around him. As he became more successful in the airline business his health declined rapidly. Martin Scorsese brought this story to the big screen in a tasteful way, making sure to include not only Howard Hughes’ successes in innovating but also making screen time for the psychological issues that plagued him.
Written by: Alex Evert