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FLYING HIGH


Blurby applause like “tremendous” and “fabulous” are usually avoided because an outlandish scale is implicit in their meaning. But watching Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, those superlatives seem appropriate. With supreme efficiency, DiCaprio brings Howard Hughes to swaggering life as a splurging innovator on the brink. As would be expected, the psycho-idiosyncratic behaviors that plagued Hughes come on slowly at first: his compulsive hand-washing, his desire for milk in a Hollywood nightclub, his demands for his peas to be precisely laid out on a plate, his manic-charged broken-record repetition, his fears of contamination and spatial intrusion develop in a fashion permitting viewers to feel a steady rise of apprehension. And when we see all the urine-filled milk bottles spread out on the floor of his living quarters, and Alec Baldwin is sitting outside the doorway attempting to negotiate with this assumed nutcase, we may come to anticipate that in the next scene there’ll be a newspaper headlining his involuntary incarceration in a bonkers factory. What’s fabulous about DiCaprio is the ease with which he makes the transitions—we don’t feel any burdening weight of acting, the changes are virtually natural. When the bouts of dementia subside, he becomes as magnetic and huge as Hughes himself, and he bestows onto the old man high flying favorability, something in short supply for years. (Not without some justification: for starters, he was a racist—his fear of blacks was a catalyst to his isolation; a drug addict since his 1946 Beverly Hills plane crash, getting hooked on codeine and Blue bombers—a high milligram mix of Valium and Librium—to relieve his pain; a political wheeler-dealer who was deeply involved in the Nixon Watergate fiasco.) The Aviator may be Scorsese’s best movie to date; it’s doubtless his most energized effort outside his violent bloodbaths. Working with John Logan’s keenly condensed script, which dodges a long list of unpleasantries, Scorsese shows an abundant love for the project and the periods: even with so much packed in, the sets, costumes, music, camera and editing are fluid and enormous fun to absorb; there’s no downtime and few missteps. (And who would have ever expected in a Scorsese movie one of the most mind-blowing plane crashes in movie history?) He also shows a rare puppy love for the ladies: Cate Blanchett in an Oscar-winning portrayal of Katharine Hepburn and Kate Beckinsale, gaining 20 pounds, as a scrumptious, straight-shooting Ava Gardner. There’s no way for them to look like Kate and Ava, but he makes sure they have those stars’ distinct sounds, especially Hepburn’s actressey self-importance and Ava’s zero allowances for bullshit. (The movie is silent about how Ava almost killed him when he, forever the unrequited lover, slapped her after he barged into her bedroom hoping to discover her in bed with one of her exes.) Of the male actors in supporting roles, Alan Alda got most of the acclaim for his Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, though I found him bordering on the tiresome. It’s Alec Baldwin’s performance as PanAm’s Juan Trippe that earns praise as 2004’s best supporting act: still a fattie, he smothers his customary bluster to deliver as smoothie when trying to thwart Hughes’s plans to expand TWA as an international carrier. Cameos by Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Jude Law as Errol Flynn. and Frances Conroy as Mrs. Hepburn. Oscars for art direction, cinematography, costume design, film editing (the better-than-ever Thelma Schoonmaker). For a broader view, there’s the 215 minute TV movie The Amazing Howard Hughes, with Tommy Lee Jones projecting the ever-more-weird eccentricities quite palatably.  

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