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For our weekly cultural article, we will be examining Martin Scorsese’s 2004 masterpiece, the Aviator: a biopic of the legendary businessman, aviator, filmmaker, and eccentric, Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. (1905 – 1976).
The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn (1907 – 2003), and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990). It focuses on Hughes’ glory years and is set between the late 1920s and the late 1940s.
The film essentially follows two competing storylines. The first storyline depicts Hughes’ struggle with his mental health, his battle with his worsening OCD and paranoia which, by the end of his life, would culminate in utter madness. In this guise, Hughes is depicted as a man whose intense germophobia renders him unable to touch the doorknob of a public toilet (he has to wait for someone else to open the door so he can leave), who washes his hands so ferociously he actually draws blood, who gets stuck repeating the same phrase over and over again (“the way of the future, the way of the future, the way of the future”), and who locks himself in his projection room for months on end.
The second storyline focuses on Hughes’ life as an entrepreneur: his success as a filmmaker, his successful career as an aviation pioneer, and his fight with the Senate War Investigating Committee. In this guise, Hughes is depicted as a man of unbridled ambition spurned on by his incredible early successes and comforted by legions of romantic conquests (which would include Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, among others). The film opens with Hughes directing the Hell’s Angels (1930). An early theme is quickly established, with Hughes’ peers ridiculing him for his boldness and ambition. By the end of the film, Hughes defies prediction by successfully test flying the H-4 Hercules.
HOWARD HUGHES: THE MAN
The Aviator ends after Hughes’ after the successful test flight of the Hercules. In real life, Hughes lived another twenty-nine years and died a lunatic and a recluse. If you happened upon the man during the final years of his life you would describe him as an impoverished and gaudy man of six-foot-four. When he died of kidney failure in 1976, he weighed only 40kg, had grotesquely long fingernails, toenails, hair, and beard, and had hypodermic needles embedded in his arms. So unrecognisable was Hughes that the FBI was forced to rely on his fingerprints to identify him.
Howard Hughes ought to be remembered, and admired, as a brilliant businessman and pioneer. He was an eccentric perfectionist who, between the ages of eighteen and seventy, managed to amass a personal wealth of one-and-a-half billion dollars. He was a man who made remarkable, and often groundbreaking, successes in film, aviation, and real estate. Between 1926 and 1957, Hughes produced twenty-six movies, including Scarface (1932) and the Outlaw (1943), and directed the classic World War One air warfare film Hell’s Angels (1930).
As an aviator, Hughes’ not only helped to revolutionise air travel, he also set many aviation records personally. In 1935, Hughes set the overland flying record by travelling nearly 352mph over Santa Ana, California. In 1937, Hughes set the record for transcontinental flight by flying from Burbank California to Newark, New Jersey in seven hours, twenty-eight minutes, and twenty-five seconds. Then in 1938, Hughes, along with a four man team, circumnavigated the globe in a record three days, nineteen hours, and seventeen minutes.
In a re-release trailer for Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes is introduced as:
“Howard Hughes: millionaire genius, was a pioneer in aviation and motion pictures. He defied convention, set new patterns for others to follow, made stars of unknowns, and left the world a legacy of film classics.”
Howard Hughes represents a type of man that doesn’t really exist anymore: the bold, dashing, larger-than-life individual. A man who achieved incredible things against what was often overwhelming odds. It is characters like Hughes that build countries and improve the world we all live in. And it is films like the Aviator which presents their stories to us.