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The Aviator Takes Off

This week I had the opportunity to catch Martin Scorsese's soon-to-be-released film The Aviator at Mann's Grauman's Chinese Theatre with a billed Q&A with the director and its star Leonardo DiCaprio afterwards. The film, perfectly positioned for a Christmas release as a heavy Oscar contender, had its premiere only the night before, so I jumped at the opportunity to nab a viewing before any hype sets in (or any MORE hype, if you will). You never know how these invites come your way in this town, as this one came in the form of a friend driving by the star-studded premiere in his car and called me on his cell saying he had two passes for the following afternoon.

He laughed a bit as he invited me, since we had experienced the same serendipity of timing previously with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as we accidentally drove through that one's premiere while discussing seeing it on the phone with my brother. ("Accidentally" meaning you look out your car window after a wrong turn in Westwood and wonder if you mistakenly happened upon a parade. Realizing you had driven directly into the opening gala of the year's biggest movie event, you see cop after cop motioning you to turn off the street you are on. Of course, after much laughter, you make the same "wrong turn" again and again and then begin waving as if you were on a Macy's Day Parade float and begin formulating a million con games in your head on how far you can push this to the red carpet.) He didn't miss a beat while pointing out the relative comparison of throngs there for Jude Law (who portrays Errol Flynn in an inspired bit of casting) to those for Orlando Bloom but was hard pressed to peg a clear winner.

I had heard very little in terms of advance news concerning the The Aviator, except for the simple fact that DiCaprio would be portraying Howard Hughes, with Scorsese directing. Those two facts carry hype and expectation alone, and when one positions its release just before Oscar consideration ends in January you can't help but think that Miramax feels pretty confident with their product. (Incidentally, it was such a relief to see a film without commercials and previews running before it. When the Miramax logo silently illuminated the screen and the movie began, you felt the immediate thrill of getting right to what you came there to see. Often, after 20 minutes of distraction I can find myself forgetting what movie we were there to view that day.)

I must admit here, in advance, that I, like many others, was very skeptical in the casting of DiCaprio as Howard Hughes. While having no real specific knowledge of Hughes outside of his legend, I resisted the DiCaprio choice simply based on his boyishness. The problems with icons (Hughes, that is, not Leo) is that while you may not know anything of them personally you have somehow formed an idea or image of them mentally in your head. I'll admit it's not fair, but when I think of a 40s-era mogul who goes toe-to-toe with Katherine Hepburn, Leo doesn't jump to mind. "Trust Marty" is the mantra that guides your steerage, and I must say that he doesn't let you down.

The film begins quietly after a retro logo of The AVIATOR fades into a study where a mother is washing her son's body lovingly while he stands nude in a metal washtub. She is teaching him to spell the word "quarantine" letter by letter. Anyone familiar with the tales of Hughes's obsession with women (the mother is aglow with youthful beauty) and germ phobia will be wriggling in their seat in Freudian zeal at the dead-on set-up this scene creates for the rest of the film. The quiet, eloquent scene serves as the calm before the storm as we jump cut to years later to see Hughes in the form of DiCaprio (with striking flat black hair) manically trying to orchestrate the filming of his Hollywood juggernaut Hell's Angels on an airfield buzzing with noise and confusion. DiCaprio hits the ground running with a Howard that is clearly possessed with a drive and passion that has the rev and motion of one of his airplanes. One clearly gets the idea that to get in the way of his idealism is to be chopped up in his propeller as he will motor on past.

This is young Howard, the clear-headed multitasker, who only knows what he wants and will not stop until he gets it, no matter the cost (both mentally and financially). There is no avoiding the boyish quality that washes over any depiction that DiCaprio inhabits, and this is where the "Trust Marty" mantra screams the loudest. Fastening himself to a slight Texan accent, a small mustache, and searing confidence, DiCaprio doesn't attempt to ease into Howard but rather to blaze him forward with no apologies. This is the right move as any skepticism of his portrayal is put on the backburner: you are immediately caught up in his passion and goals and latch onto his very clear quest to get his movie made. While I must admit that as Howard ages in the film through its thoroughly diverting episodes and during his various seductions of women (or them seducing him), I could never shake the impression of DiCaprio as still the ambitious boy.

Yet, I found no distraction from that fact during my enjoyment of the film, but more as an afterthought. Immersed in purpose, DiCaprio is all ahead as the film never lags or misses the beat. Like any good storyteller, both actor and director keep the motor running throughout so you are focused on the various prizes and never mind what you thought something might be. Scorsese is nothing if not thorough, and his collaboration with DiCaprio cannot simply be viewed as a cloying grab for a seat-filling face. I am sure the director took into account the nature of his star's persona ("Trust Marty, trust Marty...") and used the overgrown boy notion to heart with his toy airplanes, mother complex, and insistence that he gets whatever he wants. (It must be noted here in a trace of irony that it was actually DiCaprio that brought this project to Scorsese after a ten-year period of his own obsession. During the Q&A DiCaprio revealed it was actually a project he was developing with director Michael Mann (Collateral, The Insider) before bringing Scorsese on board. This was also the case with Catch Me If You Can, where the actor hired Spielberg and Hanks after he had already been developing the material. Now remind me why I was skeptical of this "kid" portraying an epic mogul?)

As I learned during my recent viewing the documentary Broadway: The Golden Age on DVD, there are many accounts of the magic of seeing new productions on that historic strip. I must say that Hollywood has few locations that still generate a sense of awe based on its past, but Grauman's Chinese can still generate an inner buzz while seeing a film for its first time onscreen. Recently restored in the form of a mega-complex at Hollywood and Highland (upwards of 200 million, I believe, as the new home to the Oscar ceremony), this locale can turn many a new release into an event with lines curling down the block, because of its auditorium that seemingly can accommodate a small nation. This energy is only heightened when one views an old Hollywood perfectly captured in The Aviator idealized with multiple premieres of Hughes's films playing at that exact locale.

Scorsese has always had a gift for recreation and detail, from his legendary soundstages for Gangs of New York (which he lovingly destroyed in a decadent grand guignol end sequence) to his historic period detail in The Age of Innocence. Set free from the Big Apple, Marty luxuriates in recreating The Coconut Grove in all its idealistic splendor. I took particular delight in his using of the Wainwright family as big band crooners: father and son (Loudon and Rufus, respectively) rip up the stage in piece after piece as Hollywood icons such as Louis B. Mayer, Errol Flynn (Law), and Ava Gardner (a stunning Kate Beckinsale) make the rounds on the floor.

For me, the pièce de résistance came in the form of the Hell's Angels filming sequences. In an absurd bit of obsession and bravado, Hughes informs Mayer that he is seeking two additional Panavision cameras in order to catch the sequence in the fashion he deems appropriate. When asked condescendingly by Mayer how many cameras he has now Hughes replies bluntly, "Twenty-four." This joke perfectly demonstrates early on the grandiosity of Howard's vision and also the mindset of a man who's accustomed to getting what he wants when he wants it in order to get things "right." (And we all thought the Wachowski's were the first to pull this trick off.) The sequence when Hughes, after demanding that his crew find someone who can control the weather, takes to the air is simply awesome. Gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Robert Richardson (pen your Oscar ballot now, folks), this sequence with its classical score and whirling first-person view of hundreds of planes whirling about, as Hughes frantically attempts to capture every swoop and dive of his biplanes, will have your heart pounding. I have never been a fan of digital effects (I couldn't SIT through Van Helsing at home, no matter how many drinks), but one must marvel at the fusion of camera, actor, blue screen, and CGI in a whirling spectacle all around you. The Chinese's sound system had my seat rumbling as the screen bowed at its edges trying to keep the images from spiraling off into the house.

Along with the epic quality of the storytelling come performances that rise to the occasion. Most notable of these is Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Katherine Hepburn, which must be seen as an unenviable task at the outset. While Hughes's persona is more clouded in mystery, there isn't a person on the planet that doesn't have Hepburn's specific speech cadence imprinted in their memory. Blanchett attacks the role with a symbiotic approach by creating the actress with the same snap and verve of early film roles and then easing off at poignant moments to see the vulnerable outsider who feels she has a bond with Howard because of their idiosyncracies. The result is a performance that at first feels a bit broad and stylized (seemingly commenting on the character) but then settles in with the viewer and pays off more and more as the film goes on. One finds comfort in Kate's grandness, and you begin to see that her strident edge is simply a shield to keep her going. In a particularly hilarious moment, Hughes tells Hepburn to "stop acting" in the middle of an argument and Blanchett riffs back with the retort "I'm not acting!," all the while revealing that indeed, to her own shame, she has trouble telling the difference. In this very same sequence my favorite line in the film (with due honors to screenwriter Josh Logan and longtime Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks) came in the form of Howard diminishing his time with Hepburn by declaring, "You're a movie star. Nothing more." A sentiment not heard often this day and age where celebrity is held as an end in itself. The damage was extra harmful from a man who had ideas that changed the world and a woman whom he was banishing simply to an image that she didn't feel comfortable in.

While the film regales with many divergent episodes ranging from Howard's manic reclusiveness, where he lived in his own screening room ranting at the screen and meditating on how his lunch would be delivered (DiCaprio did much research on the nature of OCD), to his Senate hearings conducted by Owen Brewster (played deliciously by Alan Alda) it has the loose structure of going from one plane design to another. Each one either getting bigger or faster than the last. It's remarkable to note that the director has a notorious dread of flying, and yet the aerial sequences do not suffer a bit from his lack of experience. As DiCaprio noted when asking Scorsese if he was interested in a film framed around aviation the director responded, "Well, I didn't know anything about boxing when I did Raging Bull so I don't see it as a problem." (Another anecdote: when he was approached by Ellen Burstyn to direct Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore she asked if he knew anything about women; he then said, "No, but I'd like to learn.") To the contrary, each plane sequence is riveting and builds on the last to its breaking point, where a particularly gruesome crash sequence will have you bracing your seat in the same way Jaws had you pulling your feet up off the floor of the theater.

After the film's completion, the crowd was introduced to two of the actors, John C. Reilly and Alan Alda (as Howard's righthand man, Noah Dietrich, and Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, respectively). Scorsese, it seems, couldn't make the session and Leo was running late. So be it, as Reilly and Alda could have filled the entire day with great stories and perceptions from their widely ranging experiences from the set of this film and many others these two prolific actors have worked on. (Particularly amusing were both of their retelling of their Woody Allen stories. Alda stated that Woody hadn't even spoken to him on a film set until their third where after a particularly difficult take Allen came over and stated, "That really stunk," and Alda wished he would go back to being silent again. Reilly recalled that he met the director in a dark room for a casting meeting. He entered the room talking, and before he could set his hat down next to him he was being ushered out the door. He laughs as he tells the story because he got the job regardless.)

Soon enough, DiCaprio was ushered into the theater to much applause. With his long, blond hair slicked back and a slight beard he apologized for being late (interviews went late) and stated he was very glad to be there. Of all the questions that were asked and insights each actor gave from his particular experience with this director and others it was most remarkable to see three such diverse actors in age, look, and style, each answering questions with such a symbiotic relationship. One would think that veteran TV and movie star Alda, edging seventy, Reilly, a Chicago-trained theater and film actor almost forty, and DiCaprio, the "It Boy" of the last ten years now turning thirty would have vastly divergent approaches to the craft. Yet, whenever the actors were asked to discuss their process, all three managed, in their own language, to answer in the form of it being about the story. While all three make their specific choices based on what their character wants in that particular moment on that particular day, they all came back to the unifying theme of the story they want to tell.

Reilly stated that he isn't even aware of his craft anymore, that it is mostly intuitive, and that makes it difficult for him to discuss in practical terms. He stated that any potential conflict with a director is circumvented by going back to the basics of the story they are trying to tell so they are on the same page as it were. Alda said that he never trained and that his learning was all "on set" and that other actors simply were his guide. His approach is figuring out what that character wants in the story and then figuring out "why he deserves it." You could practically hear the actor licking his lips over this notion, and from his interpretation of Brewster in the film you can see his incredulousness wash over him beat after beat when he doesn't get Hughes to break. DiCaprio, it seems, is a bit of a hybrid. Like Alda, he has been on sets from a very young age and learned from the greats like Lasse Halstrom, Johnny Depp, and Robert DeNiro, to name a few early associations. Yet DiCaprio also revealed his extensive training (indeed he has been cited as being in Brando's eccentric acting classes among others) and that one of his favorite instructors had given him the advice to annotate his script with the letters NAN and AN. NAN for "no acting needed" and AN for "acting needed." The "no acting needed" meant that the actor's own life and experiences were enough to carry him in that moment and there would be no need to create anything outside of himself. Yet his main throughline was always the story he was telling and what the scene was giving about Howard that particular day that was different from any other.

Kate Beckinsale was recently quoted in the press for saying, "If you are bad in a film the blame is usually shared. If you are bad in a Scorsese film . . . well, that probably means you're just bad." The forward trajectory of the director, his story, and his willing actors have spared any and all of them of this fate. The Aviator blows right through its three-hour running time in no time flat . . . a feat Howard would surely be proud of.

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