(MICHAEL,) MARTY AND HOWARD : a longer look at Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator

At the time of writing it seems likely that the Academy Awards on February 27th 2005 will see one of the world's most supremely talented movie-makers finally picking up his long-overdue first Oscar. And there'll be scarcely a word about it in the press.

Because Michael Mann won't be going up to the podium alone. He'll be with the three other producers of Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (Sandy Climan, Graham King and Charles Evans Jr) and the next day's headlines will be dominated by the film's director, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese – overtaken by Mann as Hollywood's leading director a decade ago – is a more famously "overlooked" auteur, although this status is perhaps due to the fact that he's rather more skilled at creating and exploiting a public profile than the relatively reclusive Mann.

While nobody's idea of a masterpiece, The Aviator is Scorsese's best film since Casino a decade ago, and at least hangs together much better than Gangs of New York (for which Scorsese was pipped at the Oscar post by The Pianist's Roman Polanski). With the exception of Peter Jackson for Return of the King, Scorsese's "achievement in direction" (to quote the official Academy rubric) matches or exceeds that of all that prize's recent winners.

Of course, it was a transparent nonsense when Robert Redford's Ordinary People edged out Raging Bull, and when Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves cantered all over GoodFellas a decade later (Scorsese might yet lose out to another actor/director if Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby maintains its dark-horse momentum) but Mann's Heat, which is now becoming widely acknowledged as probably the greatest American picture of the nineties, somehow failed to obtain a single nomination in any category.

Mann had to wait until The Insider for his first Best Director nod: his remarkable work on Manhunter and The Last of the Mohicans passed the Academy by, and in 1995 the Academy reckoned that the efforts of Mel Gibson (Braveheart), Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), Chris Noonan (Babe), Michael Radford (Il Postino) and Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking) all surpassed those of Mann in Heat. Which should finally establish, for those harbouring any doubts, that while Oscars are awarded for many reasons, talent and merit are some way down the list.

Ironically, after the (wasted) decades he spent developing Gangs, Scorsese was a relatively late-in-the-game recruit to The Aviator: Mann himself worked on the film for several years, only stepping aside at the eleventh hour (in favour of Collateral) when belatedly reckoning he didn't have the appetite for a third fact-based movie (in the wake of The Insider and the baffling misfire that was Ali). It's intriguing to ponder what Mann's Aviator might have been like – the Hughes presented by the film is nothing if not an obsessive perfectionist, a description which fits Mann (as previously noted, "relatively reclusive") a little more snugly than it does Scorsese.

The film's publicists do relate (in respectfully awestruck tones) how 'Marty' went to great lengths to ensure that the ashtrays for the Cocoanut Lounge set were exactly right for the period(s) depicted. If so, he should have paid closer attention to more humdrum concerns: keep an eye on Hughes' teenage protege Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) when she's eating ice-cream at the Lounge and you'll see some of the most amusingly blatant continuity errors since… well, since Lewis Arquette tucked into his ice-cream in Wes Craven's Scream – and those gaffes were deliberate. And it does seem a little odd that while great efforts are lavished on ageing Leonardo DiCaprio (as Hughes) over the film's 1928-1947 timespan, supporting actors like Ian Holm (as Hughes' hired meteorologist Dr Fitz), John C Reilly (his financial manager Noah Dietrich) and Matt Ross (his chief engineer Glenn Odekirk) look almost exactly the same at the start as they do at the end.

Then again, Hughes' story does illustrate in dramatic style the pitfalls of dwelling on peripheral detail instead of the 'big stuff' – and in general terms the film works surprisingly well. For all Hughes' glamorous achievements in the fields of movie-making, his Hollywood romances, and his visionary work as an aviation pioneer, we're never far away from the dark side. Hughes fights a constant battle against his neuroses and psychoses, a battle which we know he ended up losing – and Hughes himself also seems aware of his grim fate: he has brief but genuinely disturbing flash-forwards which hint at the germ-phobic billionaire hermit he so notoriously became in the 1960s.

It would seem difficult to concoct a happy ending to any film about Howard Hughes – but Logan seems about to do just that, rounding off the main action with Hughes's triumphant Senate-hearing appearance (where he bests devious Senator Brewster [Alan Alda]) followed by the one and only successful test flight of his colossal aeroplane the Hercules (aka 'Spruce Goose'). But this isn't quite the end: in what should be his moment of triumphant vindication Hughes' mental state gives way, he starts robotically repeating a random phrase ("the way of the future") and is bundled off out of public view and into a grimy toilet by the bewildered Odekirk and Dietrich.

Here he confronts himself in a mirror – rather like Jake LaMotta at the conclusion of Raging Bull – and has a flashback to The Aviator's opening scene. Unfortunately this curtain-raiser is easily the weakest part of the whole movie, an exercise in facile sophomore-psychology which pins the blame for Hughes's obsessions on his cleanliness-maniac mother. We see her carefully bathing her son with special soap, intoning the letters of the word 'quarantine' in a way which suggests she's lining her lad up for an early forerunner of Spellbound – and unfortunately recalling the pompous "blood stays on the blade" bathroom-set prologue from Gangs of New York.

DiCaprio's work, however, actually manages to erase some lingering bad Gangs memories – his Howard Hughes wipes away his unconvincing, forgettable work as 'Amsterdam' from the earlier film. Though not perhaps an ideal facial match for Hughes, he strikes the right lankily insubstantial figure, and its' DiCaprio's tormented energy which keeps The Aviator airborne through even its rockiest stages. Given the fate of her recent vehicles Charlotte Gray, Heaven, Veronica Guerin and The Missing, Cate Blanchett is an amusingly cruel choice as Hughes' main romantic interest, self-proclaimed "box-office poison" Katharine Hepburn.

Like Scorsese and Mann, Blanchett may pick up an overdue Oscar for her fine work here – but it's still a shame that eerie Hepburn simulacrum Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek's Janeway) wasn't sufficiently young or famous to be considered for the part – perhaps she (49) could have replaced Frances Conroy (51) as Hepburn's uber-patrician mother during the entertaining (but decidedly sub-Annie Hall) dining-table scene.

That said, Blanchett is decisively preferable to Nicole Kidman, who was reportedly lined up for the role at one stage. Indeed, there's a whole other 'phantom' movie existing in imaginary parallel to this Aviator: at various stages Mann was going to be directing Jim Carrey as Hughes alongside Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow in the Ava Gardner role taken by Kate Beckinsale, with Barry Pepper as Odekirk. Pepper may be glad he bailed in favour of Mr Ripley's Return, so thankless is Ross's role – in what may be an intentional parallel to the real Odekirk's fate, Ross works hard throughout The Aviator for little reward or public recognition.

He probably has as much screen-time and dialogue as Blanchett/Hepburn, but is insultingly relegated in the end-credits beneath No Doubt warbler Gwen Stefani, who has all of two lines as Jean Harlow. Equally ludicrous are the 'For Your Consideration' Oscar ads which seriously entreat voters to consider Holm as Best Supporting Actor for his entertaining but brief cameo appearances as Dr Fitz. Or perhaps this is yet another metafictional joke from Logan and Scorsese – Holm, like Fitz, was probably paid a considerable sum of money for fulfilling a function which didn't tax his abilities one iota. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. Welcome to Hollywood. [repeat until fade]

Neil Young

26th December, 2004

For the original review-length version of this feature click here