Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Plan Aviator From Scorcese Space

“In this family, we don’t concern ourselves with money.”

“That’s because you’ve always had it.”

Martin Scorcese’s “The Aviator” is mostly a series of set pieces, a number of little narratives and genres strung together to create a sense of a life, or at least twenty years of a life. This saga of billionaire Howard Hughes is never more lively than during his visit to the family home of his long-time companion, Katherine Hepburn.

We’ve seen Hepburn movies where the family is a collection of eccentrics who talk fast and lively about culture, politics, dogs, and old times. That’s what we get here. But, suddenly, Hepburn’s mother says what she says about money, and Hughes jumps to the defense of the downtrodden. And, I realize that in some strange way, “The Aviator” takes the point of view that Hughes is an everyman.

Leonardo DiCaprio has a grand old time playing Hughes, and as far as I’m concerned, he completely wipes away any memories I’ve ever had of him as a baby-faced innocent. Instead, he’s a collection of insecurities hidden by bravado, brilliance, and big bucks. The source of his money is only occasionally mentioned – he apparently built on an inheritance, and, if the movie is to be believed, he flirted with bankruptcy half a dozen times and always came up with more.

Hughes is put upon by the media, and he takes it like a man, even when he doesn’t like it. Eventually, he’s the victim of an unscrupulous senator who calls him to the stage for a committee meeting, where Hughes pulls himself together for his own version of “Have you no mercy, sir?” To believe the movie, Hughes spent the 20 years between 1927 and 1947 making very expensive motion pictures, fighting for their release, building airplanes and testing them, and sleeping with virtually every famous movie actress and a harem of teenage wannabes.

And, yet, he has our sympathy, not because of his disability, which eventually (mostly after the movie, though partly during it) turns him into a crazed recluse so frightened of germs that he can’t touch anyone or anything. Nope, the sympathy comes because he embodies such a can-do attitude, such a refusal to let any adversity stop him. In “The Aviator,” the world’s richest man is an all-American achiever. While Stuart Klawans (my favorite movie critic) in the Nation says Scorcese is chasing the ghost of “Citizen Kane,” I think he’s also inheriting the spirit of the “Ed Wood” of the Johnny Depp role a few years back.

Obviously, Scorcese has talent to burn. There are images you’ll never forget in this movie, and a larger-than-life quality all too rare in today’s flicks. So, I’m not trying to say he’s amateurish like Wood at all. But, he’s portraying Hughes as the Wood of Wood’s dreams, the guy who never lets anything defeat him, literally. Maybe Hughes ended up locked in a Las Vegas hotel instead of trying to write porn films, but Hughes created his own reality while Wood was victimized by his. In the movies, however, what we see is not these unfortunate endings so much as the constant forward motion of each of their lives.

There is much more to absorb in this movie, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Cate Blanchett as Hepburn, but I’m neither ready to think of it all right now, nor convinced I could say anything else half as interesting as what Klawans says. I will leave today with the otherwise unremarked upon point that Scorcese hired Rufus Wainwright, his father Loudon Wainwright III, and his sister Martha Wainwright to appear as successive big band vocalists during nightclub scenes in the first hour or so of the movie. All three are magnificent hams, and worth seeking out when you see “The Aviator.”

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