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<i>The Aviator</i> Recaps Life of Eccentric Billionaire Howard Hughes

  • Alan Silverman

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in director Martin Scorsese's epic new film biography of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Alan Silverman has a look at The Aviator.

The Aviator introduces Howard Hughes as a young man in Hollywood of 75 years ago, making his mark amid the glitz and glamour with the movies he made, like the landmark war epic Hell's Angels, the women he romanced, including Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner.

Whether at the controls of his experimental aircraft, bringing his larger-than-life vision to movie audiences or waging political battles against government-sanctioned monopolies, Hughes' public life was filled with spectacle while his personal story was punctuated by bouts with OCD - obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, director Martin Scorsese believes it is easy to identify with him.

"Howard Hughes is this visionary who is obsessed with speed and flying, like a god, above everyone else: young, energetic, filled with wonder and excitement, not only with aviation, but also with Hollywood," he explains. "There is a lot that goes on in this story that has to do with accumulating greed, how much is enough - enough is never enough. The curse that he has - like an ancient Greek curse on his family - is the curse of wealth and the curse is in his genes. All of this is his undoing. I found that fascinating. It's a universal story.

"Often people have tried to define him in biographies, but no one seems to be able to categorize him. He was one of the most complicated men of the last century," adds Leonardo DiCaprio, who stars as Hughes. A self-described 'history buff' who loves to research his characters, DiCaprio delved deeply into details of the billionaire's early years, especially the OCD that drove and, perhaps, destroyed him. The more he looked into Hughes' true story, the more DiCaprio realized the film had to be sharply focused.

"You can do 10 different movies about Howard Hughes; let's focus on his younger years," he says. "Let's watch his initial descent into madness, but meanwhile have the backdrop of early Hollywood, these daring pioneers in the world of aviation that were like astronauts who went out and risked their lives to further the cause of aviation . . . and the first American billionaire who had all the resources in the world, but was somehow unable to find any sense of peace or happiness."

Australian actress Cate Blanchett co-stars as one of Hughes' most notable lovers from his Hollywood years, Yankee aristocrat Katharine Hepburn.

"The time is stretched, of course, because that always happens when you are streamlining a narrative of someone's life," she says. "They were romantically linked for about three years, but Hepburn comes back so it ends up being about 10 years, I guess."

English-born Kate Beckinsale plays another screen star in Hughes' life: the much earthier southerner Ava Gardner.

"Everybody seems to say they were romantically involved, except for her. In her autobiography she categorically denies that, so as a show of actress solidarity, I had to go with her story," she says. "From what I can gather, he was extremely fun. He had a broadness of vision and of scope for business and life and despair, but also for the things that were fun and I think that she enjoyed the fact that these grand gestures would happen."

It is that broad range which, DiCaprio says, makes Hughes such an interesting and challenging character to play.

"I think he certainly took things farther than I could ever imagine and he was such an obsessed human being - so obsessive about everything he got involved with, whether it be planes or women or the films that he made," he says.

The Aviator co-stars John C. Reilly as Hughes' longtime assistant Noah Dietrich; Alec Baldwin plays his aviation rival Juan Trippe; and cameos include Jude Law as Errol Flynn and singer Gwen Stefani playing Jean Harlow.