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The Aviator - Not Scorsese's best: Review

Martin Scorsese’s latest three-hour epic, “The Aviator”, arrives in India (February 2005) smug in the satisfaction that it has 11 Academy nominations. Come February 27 2005, and we would know whether Scorsese will finally get an Oscar for direction, an honour that has eluded him all this while. So what, one may ask. Alfred Hitchcock did not get one. Satyajit Ray did not, at least for helming. It is another thing that he got one for Lifetime Achievement, and that too in his deathbed. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can be irritatingly oblivious to great talent.

Certainly, Scorsese has some remarkable movies to his credit: the 1976 “Taxi Driver”, the 1986 “The Colour of Money”, the 1988 “The Last Temptation of Christ”, the 1991 “Cape Fear” and the 1993 “The Age of Innocence” to name some. In fact, “Sight and Sound” and the British Film Institute have listed a few of Scorsese’s works among their 360 all-time great movies.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio

I am not sure if I would place “The Aviator” among Scorsese’s best, but the work is engaging all right, and the three hours does not seem too long. “The Aviator” has a classic old-time Hollywood feel about it. In any case, the period helps; it has been mostly set in the 1940s during America’s difficult World War II years, when shortages provoked avarice and a code of conduct that often took a moralistic high ground. In one scene from the film, there is a debate on the length of a woman’s cleavage a movie can show! And all this, of course, to run down Howard Hughes, “The Aviator’s” protagonist.

Scorsese begins his drama with a shot of the child Howard being bathed by his mother, who is teaching him to spell ‘quarantine’. She tells him that he is never safe in this world, probably instilling into him a phobia that made him a recluse forever fearful of germs. In fact, when he died, the American authorities had to establish his identity with the help of his fingerprints. Hughes had changed so much, and so few people had seen him in the last years of his life that recognising him was difficult.

Scorsese builds the eccentric millionaire's life through a series of events that underline his obsession for perfection and hygiene. In the process, he created history in aviation speed and a whopping fortune, while being a cad of a playboy deceiving one actress after another. In “The Aviator”, there are two women, Ava Gardner played by Kate Beckinsale and Katharine Hepburn, doubled by Cate Blanchett. Leonardo DiCaprio is Hughes himself. The performances are uniformly good, and reflect the mood and times of the American stars and rich of the era. But, Blanchett is not quite like Hepburn, although she tries hard to be her.

Male chauvinism and female vanity have been portrayed with flair. In the last fight with Hepburn, Hughes ticks her off by saying, “Do not forget that you are just a movie star”.

The director presents the cream of the American elite society by not only mirroring Hughes’ personal life, but also his public affairs. That he was a great aviator has been emphasised (a little more conviction would have helped here), and the film’s core appeal lies in Hughes enormous will to succeed against frightening odds, including a public hearing of his so-called misdeeds by a Senate committee. The making of the 1930 “Hell’s Angel”, which took three years and cost millions of dollars, put the man behind it, Hughes, on the mat of public shame. But it also won him his first recognition, his first brush with popping flashbulbs and hysteric fans.

Nonetheless, there is nothing very novel about this or, for that matter, about rich playboys who while away their time and energy with toys and glamorous women. Hughes was also a rich man who aspired to be great, but it was not this that made him a legend, that inspired biographies and films. It was not the heights that he scaled, but the depths. If “The Aviator” fails, it is precisely here. Somewhere, Scorsese falters to lift his main character from the mundane. The auteur does not quite succeed in telling us enough about Hughes’ intrinsically peculiar qualities. Instead, much of the movie harps on the gloss of the man, rather than on what pulled him down from the skies. In the final analysis, we get around seeing only a fleeting glimpse of Scorsese’s genius, like, for instance, the shot which shows Hughes’ hand suspended in the air because he is afraid of touching the doorknob. Sadly, the man attached to that hand remains disappointingly blurred.

(This review was posted on this website on February 16 2005)

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