The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Dec. 17 2004 8:07 PM

Wings of Desire

Martin Scorsese joins the mile-high club in The Aviator.

After the (ongoing/endless) discussion in this column about the biopic and its discontents, the genre's problems can be neatly summarized: Biopics hit their prescribed beats with metronomic predictability and often tin-eared dialogue; they use artistic license to the point of distorting the meaning of the lives they purport to interpret (see Beautiful Mind, A); and they're generally too choppy, too spread out, or too fatuously tied-up in neat little Freudian packages to have any sustained dramatic impact.

Which bring us to Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (Miramax), which flirts with just about every biopic infelicity I've cited above and then waltzes away, unsullied. I don't know what the movie adds up to: It neither celebrates nor ridicules its subject, and its analysis doesn't cut especially deep. In retrospect, its weakest moments are its least typical: the opening tableau—Hughes as a naked boy being bathed (standing up) by his mother, who warns him that the world is a dirty, plague-ridden place and then teaches him to spell "quarantine"—and its protagonist's vision, in a moment of high emotion, of himself as a shivering old man. In other words, it falters when it departs from its buoyant, one-thing-after-another tempo and tries to interpret Hughes' encroaching madness. The rest of the time, The Aviator is seductively noncommittal—three hours long and a breeze.

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Few biopics with this kind of crazy scope have ever been so seamless. Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was a daring test pilot, a hard-charging capitalist, a film producer, a romancer of gorgeous Hollywood actresses, and an obsessive-compulsive germaphobe who finally succumbed to mental illness—ending up as an emaciated recluse running one terrible movie, Ice Station Zebra, over and over in his sterile lair. No one has ever made sense of the Ice Station Zebra thing, but The Aviator connects the rest of the facets of Hughes' character. Well, I think it does; I'd have to read John Logan's screenplay to see if it's all there. What's clear from the movie is that Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, are transition demons. Fluidity and momentum—hours in the editing room rubbing and buffing and tweaking and smoothing out—can make a lot of plot holes (and even a few chasms) seem negligible.

My guess is that Scorsese was galvanized by the superb pacing (and nonjudgmental tone) of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can—which offered the rebuke of a wonderful DiCaprio performance while the actor was floundering on neighboring multiplex screens in Scorsese's Gangs of New York. DiCaprio doesn't have much weight as an actor, and he has no pipes to speak of; he doesn't have the size, the life force that many of us associate with Hughes. But he has always made his lightness an asset, bringing a certain spring-heeled, unselfconscious suavity to everything he does while remaining likably vulnerable. (You can't always read that big, fleshy, Clintonesque face, but you never tire of scrutinizing it.) In the early scenes, the pacing is of the fast-talking, keep-it-moving '30s newspaper variety, with the occasional split-screen and intertitle adding spice. It's the best setting imaginable for young Leo.

Logan and Scorsese have a brilliant idea for the movie's first section: It revolves around Hughes, freshly in control of his family's Texas finances, siphoning his inheritance
into
the aviation adventure Hell's Angels. He hires an accountant (John C. Reilly) to manage his funds and a somewhat confused meteorology professor (Ian Holm) to help him find the right cumulus clouds to give the dogfights scale and contrast. He pores over his footage in the editing room, struggling to give the movie form—and in the process underscoring Scorsese and Logan and Schoonmaker's task: finding a thread in a life that was first about fearlessness and motion, and then about terror and stasis.

Both sides are in play from the start. The filmmakers dazzle you with aerial sequences (obviously computer-enhanced, but designed with such old-fashioned brio that you don't care), with Hughes defying death at speeds and in planes that had never been tested, and then they top them with scenes in which he can't pass a towel to a man in a men's room or bring himself to turn a germ-laden doorknob. Hughes brings all his life force to bear in taking on PanAm's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin in another peerless, bullying fat-cat performance—how much more fun he is now that he's no longer a leading man!) and Trippe's Senate stooge Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda in a mesmerizing depiction of an immaculately poised and tailored establishment sleazebag). Then the über-capitalist seizes on a phrase—a paean to the future—and can't stop repeating it, finally locking himself in a room for months. You don't know where visionary American enterprise ends and American lunacy begins.

Scorsese's need to be seen as a Great Director distended parts of Gangs of New York, but here the style is subordinate to the story. It's almost as if he allowed himself, this time, to pick up DiCaprio's vibes. The actor is a real charmer. He fixes his wide-set blue eyes on a cigarette girl (comer Gwen Stefani), furrows his brow, and says, softly, "See, I wonder what gives a beautiful woman like you pleasure." Obvious—but coming from a DiCaprio (or a Hughes), devastating. Hughes turns that cigarette girl into Jean Harlow, and whenever The Aviator needs a jolt of sex or comedy, there's another beautiful woman on Hughes' arm. I was never convinced by Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner: In real life, the actress was apparently a regular ol' good-time gal in the body of a goddess, but Beckinsale, however goddessy, is anything but a good-time gal, and her earthy interjections just seem weird.

But Cate Blanchett ... ahhhh. She doesn't impersonate Katharine Hepburn; she channels her. She crystallizes something I've never quite realized: that Hepburn was at once jaunty—WASPily nonchalant—and at the same time monstrously high-strung. Scorsese and Logan underline Hughes' discomfort with bluebloods in a priceless dinner-table scene at the Yankee Hepburn estate, a display of verbal slapstick presided over by Frances Conroy as Hepburn's truculently liberal and incorrigibly patronizing mother. When you watch Blanchett plant her nose in the air, throw back her red curls, and come out with that insouciant falsetto braying laugh from The Philadelphia Story, you know exactly where it came from. The whole performance is pitched at that level. It's a delightful circus turn, one of many spinning balls that Scorsese keeps in the air. (See a correction to this post at the bottom of the page here.) ... 5:07 p.m.

Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2004

Punch Drunk: In Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby(Warner Bros.), Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, an aging boxing trainer who's known as the "best cutter" in the business—he can relieve the pressure, patch his fighters up, and send them back into the ring for more punishment. But Frankie is a tortured man. He has premonitions of doom, perhaps the result of letting one-time boxer Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman) stay in the ring too long, with dire results: Eddie lost an eye, and now he's manager/janitor of Frankie's rundown gym. Eddie is also the film's narrator, making pronouncements like, "Boxing is about respect—getting it for yourself and taking it away from the other guy."

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