2004

Film #439: The Aviator (2004)

Two years after Gangs of New York, Scorsese found himself at the Oscars once again with his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator being nominated for Best Picture. In contrast to Gangs of New York, The Aviator didn’t start of as Scorsese’s baby and instead had been an idea floating around Hollywood since the 1970s.


The Hughes biopic finally gained legs in the late 1990s with DiCaprio signed on to star whilst Michael Mann was set to direct. However, Mann was later dropped by the studio and replaced by Scorsese; partially due to his prior working relationship with DiCaprio. It was certainly clear that in the two years since Gangs of New York DiCaprio had come on leaps and bounds as an actor. It was also evident that he’d done his research into Howard Hughes’ OCD; a condition that made him unable to deal with germs of any kind. If I had a particular issue with The Aviator then it was with John Logan’s screenplay which I felt was rather episodic. The first act dealt with Hughes’ creation of Hells’ Angels before going on to look at his relationship with Katherine Hepburn. It was the Hughes and Hepburn story that really captured my imagination, partially as I’d followed the latter’s career throughout the course of this blog. The film then follows Hughes’ continued problems with Pan-Am and his eventual trial by the Senate. I thought that this latter half of the film was a lot less interesting with the trial scenes feeling rather clichéd. Additionally, I believe that Ava Gardner wasn’t as compelling a female lead as Hepburn had been during the film’s earlier moments. However, at least Logan ended the film superbly with a small victory for Hughes being followed by the suggestion that his mental health may be at its worst.

If I remember correctly, The Aviator was the definite favourite to win the Best Picture prize going into the 2005 Oscars. Although it ultimately didn’t triumph in that category, it did go on to pick up an impressive five statuettes on the night. Winners included cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker both of whom made the aerial scenes absolutely stunning. Dante Farretti was also rewarded with an Oscar for his recreation of Hughes’ many aircrafts as well as recreating classic Hollywood landmarks. Most deserving of all was Cate Blanchett who, in my humble opinion, stole the show as the feisty Katherine Hepburn. As somebody who has watched a large amount of Katherine Hepburn films in the last few years, I can say without a doubt that Blanchett captured the actress’ key mannerisms to a tea. It’s a telling sign of Blanchett’s skill that after she leaves the film the quality dips with Kate Beckinsale’s Ava Gardner being incredibly inferior in comparison. Alan Alda was given a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role as the corrupt Senator Brewster, who attempted to bring down Hughes in order to help his friend at Pan-Am airways. However, the most impressive turn came from DiCaprio himself who I felt perfectly anchored the film as the troubled Hughes. One of Logan’s strengths was to gradually build up the theme of Hughes’ OCD which was aided by Schoonmaker’s editing of certain situations. DiCaprio was therefore able to hint at his character’s downfall before he descended briefly into madness. Although DiCaprio lost that year’s Best Actor award to Ray’s Jamie Foxx he still demonstrated for the first time that he was capable of leading an epic such as The Aviator. Whilst I wasn’t a fan of the film’s episodic structure, Scorsese once again put together a classic Hollywood epic that looked fantastic. Unfortunately it was yet another film that failed to net him that elusive Best Director prize.

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