Marty flying high

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator.

“Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is the unthinkable—a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that’s still hugely entertaining and shows impeccable craft […] easily [Scorsese’s] best film in over ten years.”  So I wrote after first seeing the film over Christmas of 2004, when it sky-rocketed to the top of everyone’s Oscar predictions (only to be upset a week later by Clint Eastwood’s late-breaking Million Dollar Baby).  At the time I responded most strongly to the energy and panache of Scorsese’s direction, which renders the golden age of Hollywood as both romantic dream and Gothic nightmare, and to the bravura performance of Cate Blanchett, who manages to capture Katharine Hepburn’s vigor and athleticism as well as her tenderness and cunning. 

Rewatching The Aviator twelve years later, it holds up well; Scorsese’s hand is so sure, and his instincts are so sharp, that from a technical standpoint the film feels watertight.  It’s kinetic and snappy when it needs to be, but it also remembers to breathe.  Some of the best scenes in the film are quiet ones.  Howard Hughes’s seduction of Hepburn is accomplished in a languorous tracking shot—the camera slowly snakes its way through the rooms of Hughes’ estate, wandering away from the lovers in one room and, as if by magic, discovering them locked in an embrace in the next—that is just as beautiful as I remember it being when I first saw it.  Scorsese also knows how to slow things down to build tension, as in the two scenes in which the Cocoanut Grove men’s room becomes a germ-ridden minefield for the obsessive-compulsive Hughes.  They’re shot like Hitchcockian set pieces, in almost total silence (with the muffled sound of the jazz band drifting in from the other side of the door).  Or maybe Kubrick is a better reference point than Hitchcock: there’s a whiff of Jack Nicholson’s sublimely creepy brush with the ghost of Delbert Grady in the men’s room of the Overlook Hotel ballroom from The Shining.     

Hughes in the bathroom.

That whiff of Nicholson hangs over much of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance throughout The Aviator: it’s there in the wheedling, twangy drawl of DiCaprio’s voice and the vaguely Satanic arch of his eyebrows.  My favorite of DiCaprio’s line readings—which he delivers with a degree of insinuation that itself verges on the Nicholsonian—occurs when he hijacks the spoon with which his date has been going to town at an ice cream sundae and says admonishingly, “You’re gonna get your gloves all sticky.”  The characterization of Hughes by John Logan’s screenplay is pretty thin stuff: the old Lost Mother bit.  But in moments like that one DiCaprio injects the role with a slightly bizarre levity that makes you laugh—nervously.  It could be argued that Nicholson achieved the same quality in his best performances.  Two years later DiCaprio and Nicholson would appear onscreen together in The Departed, directed by Scorsese.     

DiCaprio and Nicholson in The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2006).

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