The Aviator

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19 January

Howard Hughes sets transcontinental air record, 1937

On this day in 1937 Howard Hughes set a new world record for flying across the continent of America. Flying a H-Racer with extra long wings, he made the journey from Los Angeles to Newark in 7 hours 28 minutes and 25 seconds. The plane had been commissioned by Hughes himself and was innovative in many respects, not least its insistence on all rivets and joints being set flush, which greatly increased its slipperiness through the air.

The record was one of many accolades that this man born into wealth would accrue. His father had made his money by designing a bit for oil drilling, and when Hughes inherited his money aged 19, he immediately set about doing extraordinary things with it.

This included becoming a Hollywood producer, flying and designing planes, buying and running the TWA airline, designing a bra for Jane Russell (which she never wore), designing a hospital bed for himself after a plane crash (which he never used), designing and building the world’s largest plane built from wood, the H-4 Hercules aka the Spruce Goose (which flew only once) and founding the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, now the second largest medical research foundation in the world.

The Aviator (2004, dir: Martin Scorsese)

Though he hasn’t made a really great film since Casino, with The Aviator Martin Scorsese returns to something like classic form. Yes, this means I’m down on Gangs of New York – but then most people are these days, now that the dust has settled.

The aviator in question is Howard Hughes, with Leonardo DiCaprio taking the role of the magnate/producer/oddball and proving again that Scorsese’s faith in him is well founded.

It’s a riches to something like rags story, the film following Howard from his first arrival in Hollywood as a young, handsome, stupendously rich man to the beginning of his long decline sat in the dark, in his own filth, suspicious of everyone around him.

On the way we’ve been treated to one of those love letters to old Hollywood that Scorsese loves writing – with Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale making a particularly fine Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, and Gwen Stefani doing OK as Jean Harlow, as does Jude Law as Errol Flynn (these are all pretty tough calls).

We’ve seen something of Hughes’s airplane obsession – the designing and flying of the Spruce Goose (it was made mostly of birch, in fact), the takeover of TWA, the round-the-world flight and the spectacular crash of his XF-11 into a Beverly Hills neighbourhood which ensured Hughes was in pain for the rest of his life.

We’ve also, in one of the film’s most gripping sequences, seen something of the keen brain that probably would have made Hughes rich if he hadn’t inherited wealth, as he is grilled at a Congressional hearing and turns the tables on the Senator (demonically played by Alan Alda) who is convinced Hughes’s corporation is milking money from the government and profiteering from the Second World War.

Ultimately this is a sad story, though Scorsese loads it with Hollywood glam as John Logan’s script touches down nimbly at key points from the 1920s to the 1940s. Hughes would live until 1976 and spent the last years of his life as the world’s most famous recluse. But there’s no need to go from A to Z when A to B tells us what we need to know. B, in Hughes’s case, often standing for “breasts”. Enter Jane Russell’s cleavage.

Why Watch

  • A glossy, spectacular biopic about a fascinating character
  • The stunt casting of famous people as other famous people
  • Cinematography by Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds, World War Z)
  • Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing

    The Aviator – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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