If Howard Hughes hadn't existed, David Thomson would have to invent him. The daredevil entrepreneur who slashed into movies, girls and airplanes with the same obsessive gusto (and went to seed no less spectacularly) was a bona fide maverick, self-destructive vision and all -- Coppola, Herzog and Cimino are all descendents. His sporadic directing efforts are mostly forgotten today and, despite having produced for such distinguished artists as Howard Hawks, Josef Von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger and Preston Sturges, he remained a thoroughly minor player in Hollywood, all eyes less on his new project than on who landed the main role on his latest bit of starfucking. (Ginger Rogers? Rita Hayworth? Bette Davis?) Of course, nowadays the meteoric glory of his youth isn't nearly as remembered as the four-alarm lunacy of his later days as an unshaved recluse with unsanitarily long fingernails and paralyzing fears of contaminated air.
Either way, Hughes' story is a Charles Foster Kane narrative with a macabrely outré denouement, though The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's new biopic about the erratic titan, supplies its own Rosebud right off the bat: young Hughes, naked in a basin, is washed by his mother, who teaches him to spell "quarantine" and plants in him the notorious fear of germs and disease. Facile psychological shorthand, sure, but then again it is as straight biography that the picture is at its least interesting, since Hughes is less a realistic case study than the new chapter of Scorsese's great exploration of tormented men whose seething spiritual and emotional turmoil spills over onto the spaces of the screen. The wild-man bravado propelling Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) through the world and up into the skies is the same fueling Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta, to name two examples from an indelible gallery, on their ambivalent journeys of self-immolation and redemption.
The adult Hughes, twentysomething but looking younger, is introduced in 1927 amid the bustle of the production of Hell's Angels, the legendarily exorbitant WWI aeronautic epic into which he sunk most of his oil fortune and was supposed to be his ticket into Hollywood. Already packed to shoot the picture's climatic dogfight, he bumps into MGM padrone Louis B. Mayer at a Coconut Drove party and blithely asks the rival mogul for two extra cameras; shrugged off, he's off to the cockpit himself with camera in hand, although not before coming on to a cigarette girl with a magician's dexterity. Already, there's the recklessness, the driven eyes, the cocksure snakecharming, and the kind of impulses that would cause him to extend the already-stretched production by reshooting the picture as a talkie after the success of The Jazz Singer. Fanatical as he might have been when it came to movies, Hughes' most foolhardy obsession was aviation, which led him to buy TWA without a moment's thought and build the absurdly impractical "Hercules," the flying behemoth derisively nicknamed "Spruce Goose."
Hughes' smoothness extends to the ladies, though his relationships to fiercely patrician Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and glamorous Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) start to unearth the neurotic irrationality boiling right beneath his confident skin. When a party-crashing Errol Flynn (Jude Law, natch) steals a single pea from Hughes' fastidiously arranged plate, it's enough to make the meal disgusting in his eyes; washing his hands so hard until they bleed, he becomes horrified of the door knob and has to stand by the restroom door for somebody to come in so he can leave. He will stare down the MPAA to defend the two-hour advertisement for Jane Russell's funbags that was his The Outlaw, yet drinking from the milk bottle Hepburn just took a sip from gives him pause. Hughes' obsessive-compulsiveness explodes into full-blown paranoia after a flying test goes horrifically wrong and leaves him partially crippled, bugging his lover's phone, locking himself in his screening room, and collecting his own piss in empty bottles.
For Jonathan Demme, the aged Howard Hughes who appears in Melvin and Howard is an indispensable part of a cracked world whose ridiculousness is submerged by the director's accepting humanism. For Michael Mann (had he directed the movie rather than just producing it), the obsession would have emerged as a monstrous offshoot of the man's abstracting athleticism. For Scorsese, however, the character's darkness stems from a fascination with machines and the Icarus complex of somebody far more comfortable with the smooth perfection of metal than with the messy vitality of life. Inability to connect to the rest of the world, whether by way of misogyny, insecurity, or madness, is invariably a source of pain and violence to Scorsese's sinners. How often in his films the protagonists go through an earthly purgatory for the grace that may or may not await them at the other side, and how often their redemption feels more elusive than ever once it's achieved.
Hughes' isolation reaches its zenith with the screening-room jitters of a naked, unwashed body losing grasp of reality, equal parts sanctuary (the light from the projector forms a halo behind Hughes' head) and hell (a lightbulb glows sulfurously crimson). A stunning sequence, one of the many Scorsese, working with his longtime collaborators (Robert Richardson shooting, Thelma Schoonmaker editing), turns into pieces of impressionistic, visionary cinema. When Hughes attends the tumultuous premiere of Hell's Angels with slinky platinum discovery Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) on his arm, the invasive flashes and the mayhem of an ocean of grabbing hands suggest not only The Day of the Locust (of which the real-life event served as inspiration), but also the lurid apartment corridor of Polanski's Repulsion. The dogfight-filming sequence stands as an example (practically extinct these days) of CGI made viscerally engrossing rather than phony, while DiCaprio's performance gathers concentrated intensity as Hughes increasingly spins out of control (his mustache as the older Hughes even makes him resemble Orson Welles in some of the middle sequences of Citizen Kane).
Like the superb Gangs of New York, given scandalously short drift by oafish critics a couple of years ago, The Aviator is a deeply personal statement crafted in epic form by the greatest living American director. If it ultimately fails to achieve the greatness of Raging Bull or Goodfellas, it is because there isn't enough of Hughes' darkness here to match the magnificently dissolute protagonists of those masterpieces. Which is not to say that Scorsese succumbs to the trap-doors of the biopic -- the man responsible for the lacerating furies of Mean Streets, New York, New York and The Last Temptation of Christ is utterly incapable of the banalities of A Beautiful Mind. The film may follow the uplifting arc of John Logan's screenplay and bid adieu to Hughes with his 1947 triumph over nefarious Pan Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and corrupt Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), but the director paints his victory in tones as ambiguous as Travis' "heroism" following Taxi Driver's culminating bloodbath. The perfect closer for the work of an artist who, even at his most sheerly enjoyable, cannot help but disturb.