The Aviator is a 2004 biopic about the early success of aviation pioneer, Howard Hughes, to the beginning of the insanity which plagued his life. He comes across as a quick-thinking man, a man who came into his wealth young and was a very complex character.
I did not notice something until I saw the film again, but the director did a interesting thing in editing this film by making the blue look green, to give it the look of the typical technicolour movie of the 1930s.
It seems that it was through his mother’s influence that he began to worry about disease and germs, because in the film she warns him against dying in a ‘flu outbreak.
We are then introduced to the enigmatic, quick-thinking Hughes several years later. He owns his father’s company(‘they’re gone now, and its my money,’) and is very rich but also finding new ways to push the boundaries, such as using a great number of cameras for his latest movie. He even began sweet-talking other film directors to get them to lend him some more cameras. He wanted to do things that had never been done before.
He insists that they re-shoot Hell’s Angels with sound when The Jazz Singer becomes popular. As a result, he edited the movie precisely and it had a very long post-production period.
He gets involved with the actress, Katherine Hepburn, and she comes across as a forward-thinking woman who pushes the boundaries of what is normal. We find out later that she lives with her ex-husband, and even has a good relationship with him. However, to begin with, Howard and Katherine’s relationship is good and he teaches her to fly one of his planes. (Movie boffins or fans of Leo di Caprio could compare it with the ‘Jack I’m flying scene’ from the 1997 movie, Titanic, but this scene has aeroplane gears and cellophane)
However, Katherine is very jealous when Howard is linked with other starlets. There is a scene at a dinner when we are exposed to Howard’s precise eating habits. He orders a line of peas on a plate and is clearly distressed when one of his table companions (I think it was Errol Flynn) takes one of the peas. In later scenes we also see that he has a fear of undercooked meat.
One of Howard Hughes’s great passions (apart from other women) was aviation and he broke a speed record and landed in a beet field. He garnered himself the title of ‘fastest man on the planet’ much to his pride.
The irony about the Katherine+Howard relationship is that they were both as eccentric as each other and if they let every day people ‘get into’ their plane of existence then it would ruin the spell forever. Clearly the obsessive-compulsive pilot and his headstrong actress lover rubbed along fine…for now. When he confesses to her that he thinks he is losing his mind, he clearly trusts her enough to confess it to her in the first place.
He attracts a great deal of fame due to his round-the-world trip, but when he goes to visit Katherine’s family with her, he is shown to be very jealous and edgy especially as he sees that Katherine (as previously mentioned) had a good relationship with her ex-husband who seemed still to be accepted into her family fold, and he (Howard) is nervous around dogs, it seems, because they are germ factories. He is also continually frightened of being photographed just in case he is being ‘watched’. However, he also comes across as very clever and calculating because during a discussion about wealth, he observes to Katherine’s parents that ‘you don’t care about money because you’ve always had it,’
His OCD is shown through repetitive hand-washing, at one point he does it so much that he causes his hands to bleed. During this scene and many others, there are glimpses of mirrors in the scenes and this means that Howard had two personalities: one, the suave playboy that he showed to the public and the psychotic obsessive-compulsive man who battled his demons. Hughes’s OCD shows up constantly in the film, firstly with the obsessive hand-washing but also with his fear of touching door-knobs.
When Katherine Hepburn begins seeing actor, Spencer Tracy, Howard dumps her (‘Actresses are cheap in this town’) and begins dating an underage actress, Faith Doumergue, in a disturbing scene where she parades in front of him and is made to understand that she’ll be ‘under contract to him. Personally.’ And to a modern audience looking at a scene which must have been commonplace in showbiz during the 30s and 40s, it is quite revolting to see the image of a man talking to a girl who parades in front of him just so she can become famous and get a film contract. He later begins dating Ava Gardener, and Faith gets so jealous that she rams into Hughes’s car.
However, during their relationship in the film she seemed more like arm candy to Hughes, a pretty bauble when he was with his associates and friends. He treats her like a child, such as when he forbids her from finishing an ice-cream, etc. Throughout the film, we see the different sides of Howard Hughes; the many facets of his character. But then, surely everyone has two personalities that they present to the world? Howard also has to face the film censorship board due to some nudity a la Jean Harlow, and he even draws up a business plan about her breasts.
When Hughes and Ava Gardner were dating, Ava was married, but unlike Faith Doumergue, Ava wasn’t going to be brought (‘I am not for sale’) and in the movie, Hughes had the FBI tap the house with microphones and had the phone calls monitored. so he could listen in on her conversations, much to Ava’s horror and disgust. This culminates in a physical fight between the pair (“You don’t own me, Howard. I’m not one of your teenage whores and I’m not a damn airplane,”)
I personally believe that Howard’s behaviour (I believe this happened in real life too.) of bugging the phones and putting microphones everywhere was indeed very strange, but perhaps from a psychological viewpoint he probably did deep down care about Ava but the strange behaviour was bourne out of him having to keep an eye on what everyone else was doing around him and if Ava was seen to do anything then it would reflect badly on him.
During this scene, Ava Gardner (played by Kate Beckinsdale) wears red which is a strong colour and shows a variety of emotions: fury, passion and desire. She stands up to Howard and is no ‘shrinking violet’ when she accuses him. The prolific flowers in the scene represent a massive contrast between the hate and evil and ugliness in the room. During the argument it is also revealed that Ava was warned that Howard was a paranoid obsessive compulsive but she didn’t ‘listen to them’ out of what emotion is not explained. I think that she maybe loved him too much to listen to people who were warning her what she was getting herself into.
When his massive flying boat is being completed, Hughes’s fear of being watched culminates again, and he is unsettled by a cleaner who is looking at him. He has the man fired. Another side of his OCD was him repeating words. “Show me all the blue-prints…the way of the future,” etc. He is aware of it and finds it humiliating but is powerless to stop it. We also find out that despite his seemingly insurmountable power, Howard is still very minor compared to America and their war with Japan and Germany.
When Hughes flies his plane and ends up getting seriously injured, I think that it is one of the best scenes in the film. Not only is it slightly unsettling (touching the flaming hot glass, hmm?) but it also shows how far you can push an ambition to do something. There is a limit. However, for most people it doesn’t entail flying a plane. When he is badly injured, the press swarm and photograph him in his helpless state. Later in the film, he seems to suffer a form of PTSD when during a bout of insanity, the film from Hell’s Angels is projected across his body.
During his long recuperation, it seems that he begins to lock himself away in his screening room. This is how most people know of Hughes I think…as the unhinged former director sitting in his screening room naked with a tissue covering his crotch. His obsession with germs reached fever pitch (no pun intended) and he spoke to nobody, instead he gave orders to his employees via telephone. However, it seems that Katherine Hepburn (in this film) was the only one he would talk to. It is a somewhat tender scene (‘I can hear you, Katie. I can always hear you. Even in the cockpit with the engines on.’) but Howard has become childlike…curled up like a child in a locked room where nobody can reach him.
He lives in his own filth repeating ‘Come in with the milk’ and he is unshaven and is so animalistic that he has a line of empty milk bottles filled with urine and his food is crawling with ants. He is now powerless when before he seemed to be the master of the universe.
However, despite him being physically abusive to Ava Gardner, she turns up and cleans him up in preparation for his court appearence, despite seeing that the room is scattered with used tissues. At the hearing, he seems to regain use of his reputation by turning the blame on the senator who is questioning him (“Bet they eat a lot of lobster there, do they?”)
At the end, he flies the boat-plane but sinks back down into the low that he was in before while sitting naked in his screening-room. He repeats ‘the way of the future’ over and over and has to be locked in a room. His staff and lackeys were keen for everyone to remember Hughes ‘for what he was.’ instead of being remembered as the obsessive compulsive madman, they wanted him to be remembered by everyone as a great playboy, a great director. And king of the skies.