Skip to content

The Aviator Scene Analysis Essays

Howard Hughes in his last two decades sealed himself away from the world. At first he haunted a penthouse in Las Vegas, and then he moved to a bungalow behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was the world's richest man, and with his billions bought himself a room he never left.

In a sense, his life was a journey to that lonely room. But he took the long way around: As a rich young man from Texas, the heir to his father's fortune, he made movies, bought airlines, was a playboy who dated Hollywood's famous beauties. If he had died in one of the airplane crashes he survived, he would have been remembered as a golden boy. Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" wisely focuses on the glory years, although we can see the shadows falling, and so can Hughes. Some of the film's most harrowing moments show him fighting his demons; he knows what is normal and sometimes it seems almost within reach.

Advertisement

"The Aviator" celebrates Scorsese's zest for finding excitement in a period setting, re-creating the kind of glamor he heard about when he was growing up. It is possible to imagine him wanting to be Howard Hughes. Their lives, in fact, are even a little similar: Heedless ambition and talent when young, great early success, tempestuous romances and a dark period, although with Hughes it got darker and darker, while Scorsese has emerged into the full flower of his gifts.

The movie achieves the difficult feat of following two intersecting story arcs, one in which everything goes right for Hughes and the other in which everything goes wrong. Scorsese chronicled similar life patterns in "GoodFellas," "Raging Bull," "The King of Comedy," "Casino," actually even "The Last Temptation of Christ." Leonardo DiCaprio is convincing in his transitions between these emotional weathers; playing madness is a notorious invitation to overact, but he shows Hughes contained, even trapped, within his secrets, able to put on a public act even when his private moments are desperate.

His Howard Hughes arrives in Los Angeles as a good-looking young man with a lot of money, who plunges right in, directing a World War I aviation adventure named "Hell's Angels," which was then the most expensive movie ever made. The industry laughed at him, but he finished the movie and it made money, and so did most of his other films. As his attention drifted from movies to the airplanes in his films, he began designing and building aircraft and eventually bought his own airline.

Women were his for the asking, but he didn't go for the easy kill. Jean Harlow was no pushover, Ava Gardner wouldn't take gifts of jewelry ("I am not for sale!"), and during his relationship with Katharine Hepburn, they both wore the pants in the family. Hepburn liked his sense of adventure, she was thrilled when he let her pilot his planes, she worried about him, she noted the growing signs of his eccentricity, and then she met Spencer Tracy and that was that. Hughes found Jane Russell and invented a pneumatic bra to make her bosom heave in "The Outlaw," and by the end he had starlets on retainer in case he ever called them, but he never did.

DiCaprio is nobody's idea of what Hughes looked like (that would be a young Sam Shepard), but he vibrates with the reckless spirit of the man. John C. Reilly plays the hapless Noah Dietrich, his right-hand man and flunky, routinely ordered to mortgage everything for one of Hughes' sudden inspirations; Hughes apparently became the world's richest man by going bankrupt at higher and higher levels.

Scorsese shows a sure sense for the Hollywood of that time, as in a scene where Howard, new in town, approaches the mogul L.B. Mayer at the Coconut Grove and asks to borrow two cameras for a big "Hells' Angels" scene. He already had 24, but that was not enough. Mayer regards him as a child psychiatrist might have regarded the young Jim Carrey. Scorsese adds subtle continuity: Every time we see Mayer, he seems to be surrounded by the same flunkies.

Advertisement

The women in the film are wonderfully well cast. Cate Blanchett has the task of playing Katharine Hepburn, who was herself so close to caricature that to play her accurately involves some risk. Blanchett succeeds in a performance that is delightful and yet touching; mannered and tomboyish, delighting in saying exactly what she means, she shrewdly sizes up Hughes and is quick to be concerned about his eccentricities. Kate Beckinsale is Ava Gardner, aware of her power and self-protective; Gwen Stefani is Jean Harlow, whose stardom overshadows the unknown Texas rich boy, and Kelli Garner is Faith Domergue, "the next Jane Russell" at a time when Hughes became obsessed with bosoms. Jane Russell doesn't appear in the movie as a character, but her cleavage does, in a hilarious scene before the Breen office, which ran the Hollywood censorship system. Hughes brings his tame meteorology professor (Ian Holm) to the censorship hearing, introduces him as a systems analyst, and has him prove with calipers and mathematics that Russell displays no more cleavage than a control group of five other actresses.

Special effects can distract from a film or enhance it. Scorsese knows how to use them. There is a sensational sequence when Hughes crash-lands in Beverly Hills, his plane's wing tip slicing through living room walls seen from the inside. Much is made of the "Spruce Goose," the largest airplane ever built, which inspires Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) to charge in congressional hearings that Hughes was a war profiteer. Hughes, already in the spiral to madness, rises to the occasion, defeats Brewster on his own territory and vows that the plane will fly -- as indeed it does, in a CGI sequence that is convincing and kind of awesome.

By the end, darkness is gathering around Hughes. He gets stuck on words and keeps repeating them. He walks into a men's room and then is too phobic about germs to touch the doorknob in order to leave; with all his power and wealth, he has to lurk next to the door until someone else walks in, and he can sneak through without touching anything. His aides, especially the long-suffering Dietrich, try to protect him, but eventually he disappears into seclusion. What a sad man. What brief glory. What an enthralling film, 166 minutes, and it races past. There's a match here between Scorsese and his subject, perhaps because the director's own life journey allows him to see Howard Hughes with insight, sympathy -- and, up to a point, with admiration. This is one of the year's best films.

Advertisement

Reveal Commentscomments powered by

Interview by John Pavlus
Unit photography by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP
Photos courtesy of Miramax Films and TDI.


When Robert Richardson, ASC commits to a project, he does so with a vengeance — as anyone who’s worked with him knows. But one still has to wonder what went through Martin Scorsese’s mind two years ago, when he arrived at a Beverly Hills hotel to discuss his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator with the cinematographer. The hotel had served as Hughes’s de facto residence during the latter years of his life, and the hunched wraith who greeted Scorsese must have had him wondering if he’d somehow tripped back in time: Richardson had wrapped himself in a terrycloth bathrobe so that only a shock of stringy, shoulder-length, white hair was visible, and he shuffled barefoot from the shadows with toilet paper stuffed between his toes. “I wanted to suggest that I would audition for the role,” Richardson deadpans. “I promised Marty I would lose 30 pounds.”

Alas, ’twas not to be, for The Aviator focuses mainly on Hughes’s high-flying salad days in Hollywood, rather than his dementia-plagued twilight years. Richardson believes this tack is what makes the picture interesting: “This story is one the industry has been trying to tell for years. In some ways, I wish it were a longer tale; Marty’s version just hints at some of the early events in Hughes’s life that led to the collapse of his mind. You begin to recognize an obsession with his work, with his women. It wasn’t just one event that took him to that point, it was a series of events, an additive process.”

The Aviator is Richardson and Scorsese’s third collaboration, following Casino (see AC Nov. ’95) and Bringing Out the Dead (AC Nov. ’99). The film boasts an ambitious fusion of period lighting techniques, extensive effects sequences and a digital re-creation of two extinct cinema color processes: two-color and three-strip Technicolor. The patented processes utilized a combination of filtration and dyeing to create colored release prints from a matrix of two or three strips of black-and-white negative. Tech-nicolor’s handiwork graced many of the pictures Hollywood released during Hughes’s mercurial career, and Scorsese wanted these unique color signatures to be part of The Aviator’s design.

To create a period Technicolor palette that could be applied consistently and quickly to entire scenes or reels, Richardson worked with visual-effects supervisor (and second-unit director) Rob Legato and Technicolor Digital Intermediates (TDI) senior colorist Stephen Nakamura. Their goal was to take the digital intermediate (DI) to a new level of sophistication via 3-D look-up tables, or LUTs. Designed by Josh Pines, vice president of imaging research and development at TDI, the LUT — a dedicated, high-powered graphics processor that could be slipped into the projector during digital color-correction — acted like a digital filter, applying a two-color or three-color look in real time to Cineon scans of The Aviator’s camera negative.

Of course, the filmmakers’ visual ambition was hardly confined to postproduction. As usual, Richardson used an array of film emulsions to create and control visual texture on the day. Working in 3-perf Super 35mm (2.35:1) and using Panaflex Platinum cameras and Primo lenses, he shot The Aviator on six Kodak stocks: Vision 500T 5279, Vision 320T 5277, Vision 200T 5274, Vision2 500T 5218, EXR 100T 5248 and EXR 200T 5293.

Much like Hughes, Richardson had no compunctions about risking life and limb in pursuit of his passion. While filming a scene in which Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) crashes his experimental XF-11 plane in Beverly Hills and gets severely burned, Richardson felt stunt flames “completely engulf” his perch on a 30' camera crane. “Even though I had full fireproof attire on, it was hot enough to singe my eyebrows,” he recalls. “Sadly, the laces on my vintage Converse sneakers were burned completely.”

AC caught up with Richardson and Legato in New York, when they were in the midst of the DI, to get more details about the production and its unusual post phase.

American Cinematographer:The Aviator takes place during the golden years of classical Hollywood cinema. Did you seek to mimic any of the compositional conventions of that period?

Robert Richardson, ASC: We did tend a bit toward centered framing, but aside from that we used a very contemporary pattern of coverage. Many of the early three-strip Technicolor films were hindered by extraordinarily bulky cameras, particularly if one included the sound blimp. After viewing Becky Sharp, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Wizard of Oz, one can only marvel at the minds of men like [ASC members] Lee Garmes, Ernest Haller, Charles Lang, Sol Polito and Ray Rennahan. On The Aviator, we did not attempt to re-create the choreography of period-style camera moves.

For a short time, we seriously considered a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but as you know, many theaters today aren’t able to project in 1:33, so our choice would’ve been to shoot in 1:85 and then create a black matte atop the 1.85, and we felt that would be too intrusive. Also, Marty and I instinctively felt the visual movement of the film lent itself strongly to widescreen, a format we both love.

Did you filter or diffuse your lenses to affect a period look?

Richardson: Well, what exactly is a period look? Do you think faces looked softer back then? I’m wondering whether that’s true, or if Clark Gable actually looked relatively sharp in a first-generation print of Gone With the Wind. Certainly, cinematographers did use diffusion [on faces] at that time if appropriate, but they were also working with slower film stocks and, as a consequence, harder lights, which would have extended the apparent clarity of the image.We tend to think that when you go back in time, the ambience grows warmer and diffused, and that is certainly true for some pictures. But for The Aviator, I used very little diffusion on the lenses to affect a period look.