Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator overlays three legends, all of them made of celluloid. Only one is explicit, though: the fable of the immensely rich wacko Howard Hughes, who spent his last years self-imprisoned in a Las Vegas hotel he’d bought for that purpose, watching movies around the clock, growing his hair and beard to Nazarene length and shuffling about with Kleenex boxes for shoes.
Actually, Scorsese never gets around to this part of the story. He just foreshadows it like crazy, as he relates the less widely known legend of Hughes’s Hollywood exploits from 1927 through 1947. Lean, handsome and a child of wealth, the young Hughes left Houston for Los Angeles to make movies–big movies–and to have his way with the women drawn to that gaudy occupation. While in town he also designed and flew airplanes, set world speed records, ran an airline, procured controversial War Department contracts and broke a few taboos (that is, exploited them deliriously) by making The Outlaw, a western that focused single-mindedly on Jane Russell’s breasts. Since well-funded mischief, off-screen and on, has always been part of Hollywood’s fun, it’s not surprising that Scorsese likes the bustling young don’t-give-a-damn Hughes. He enjoys the way Hughes spent recklessly on movies and airplanes, outside the rules of studios and most other business institutions; and this enjoyment comes rushing off the screen like a strong updraft, giddily lifting the audience’s spirits.
Yet just when The Aviator is at its flightiest, Scorsese will remind you of the crash to come: Hughes’s descent into mad, bitter isolation. In these darker moments of The Aviator, which grow more frequent and prolonged as the film progresses, Scorsese subtly evokes a second film legend: that of Charles Foster Kane.
Look at a close-up of Hughes (or, rather, Leonardo DiCaprio) late in the film, with shadows spilling over a face grown puffy and mustached, and you might almost think you’re seeing Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. In case the resemblance isn’t strong enough to register on its own, The Aviator also echoes some of Kane’s cocksure dialogue (“If I go on losing money at this rate…”) and provides two or three Welles-like semi-theatrical tableaux, called up as the lights rise here and there on a darkened soundstage. The most important of these latter scenes involves Hughes’s memory, from boyhood, of his beloved mother–a Rosebud moment, you might say, which is meant to explain all of the protagonist’s subsequent behavior in a way that Welles himself once belittled as “rather dollar-book Freud.” But I doubt the cheapness of the explanation bothers Scorsese. Like Welles, he is telling a fable, about a rich boy from the American heartland who bulled his way into a popular business, indulged his sexual appetites, clashed with a politician and ultimately (after The Aviator ends) became a dotty hermit. Add a few incidental associations–such as the fact that Hughes bought and ruined RKO, the studio where Welles had made Citizen Kane–and the usefulness of the parallel becomes obvious. Hughes’s story gives Scorsese the opportunity to make his own version of The Greatest Movie of All Time.
And why shouldn’t he try? The third legend worked into The Aviator, the one that is most covert and yet most personal, concerns the ambitions of Scorsese’s youth. He was among the 1970s wild men (so the story goes) who broke into a moribund Hollywood and gave American movies a new life. By presenting Hughes as a heedlessly creative maverick in a monopoly-run film business–that is, by making him not only Kane but also a tycoon version of Welles–Scorsese implicitly projects something of his own myth into The Aviator. Surely the film draws a portion of its exuberance from the director’s memories of his early, joyful breakthroughs, or from the audience’s recollections of them. And the foreboding, the deepening gloom, the frustration of energies thrown back on themselves, the sense of waste? That, too, may belong as much to Scorsese as to Welles, Kane or Hughes. The generation of the 1970s, having failed to “save Hollywood” (whatever that means), finds itself aging in Jerry Bruckheimer’s unlovely world. No wonder Scorsese now gathers his forces, as if in defiance, to hurl himself once more at cinematic glory.