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."

Frankie protects his fighters to the point of jeopardizing their careers, holding them back from title bouts out of a (largely unexamined) fear for their safety. The upshot is that his best fighters are snatched away by more ambitious promoters—which leaves him more or less available when the dirt-poor but plucky Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) shows up and begs to be trained. But surly Frankie wants no part of women's boxing. When she proclaims her toughness, he rasps, "Girly, tough ain't enough." But plucky Maggie keeps plucking—training night and day (in between shifts at her minimum-wage waitress job), peppering Frankie with questions, calling him "Boss." Finally, struck by her pluck, he relents, and, after the requisite training montage, Maggie starts to win big—generally with first-round knockouts. She charges onto the canvas, shining-eyed, lit from within, and lays her opponents flat. But Frankie, characteristically, won't let her go for the title. He has a gut feeling about his fighters' destinies.

Heralded as a masterpiece by critics who consider Eastwood the greatest living American director, Million Dollar Baby is an exercise in obviousness. It's hard to exaggerate the crudity of this film, at least on a narrative level. (The screenplay is by Paul Haggis and is loosely based on stories by the late F.X. Toole.) If anyone but Eastwood—with his macho icon status and soft-pedal delivery (there's almost nothing left of the actor's vocal cords)—were to utter a line like "Girly, tough ain't enough," it would bring down the house. And if anyone but Morgan Freeman—so centered, watchful, canny—had played the sagacious Eddie, who finally takes over from a weirdly belligerent priest (Brian O'Byrne) as Frankie's spiritual adviser, the old-fashioned banality of the part would have flashed like a neon sign. At two points in the film, Maggie's family—her fat, bedraggled momma, single-mother sister, and ex-con brother—show up, and "trailer-trash" would be too subtle a designation: Eastwood practically superimposes dollar signs over their eyes.

Hilary Swank is totally phony—but that's not, in context, such a bad thing. She throws herself into the part, supplying energy and heart, and she's wiry enough to bring off her fight scenes without an imposing physique. But the role is grotesquely sentimental, its gee-whiz optimism (and saintly subservience) at odds with the character's drive to pummel other women in the ring. I'm not saying the impulses couldn't coexist: It's an irony that might have been mined. But it would take a brainier actress than Swank, and a director open to exploring his characters (or at least rehearsing his performers). 

Eastwood has suffused Million Dollar Baby with his usual gloom—with little sunlight and with characters who are frequently discovered, heads bowed, in pools of light amid the oppressive darkness. His is a remarkably consistent vision, and images from the movie—especially the images of the anguished, irresolute Eastwood himself—might return to haunt you. The sudden swerve into catastrophic territory is no less heavy-handed than the rest of the movie (it's more heavy-handed), but you're not prepared—even with the air of fatalism—for the jump from one shameless genre to another. It's impressive, in the sense that a sucker-punch impresses itself on your skull.

It's hard not to gush about the latest Zhang Yimou picture, House of Flying Daggers (Sony Pictures Classics). No, it's impossible. This is the most intoxicatingly beautiful martial arts picture I've ever seen—and if you think that's damning with faint praise, you missed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang's own Hero, as well as such deliriously surreal supernatural Hong Kong fare as A Chinese GhostStory, The Bride With White Hair, and Tsui Hark's Green Snake. Hero was splendid—arguably the more interesting movie—but a little solemn for my taste, with a stoic protagonist, more self-consciously edited fight scenes, and a greater emphasis on formal tableaux. Daggers is simply a sword-and-dagger extravaganza with some wonderfully florid romantic melodrama: The big fighting sequences bloom out of the characters' passions, the way song and dance numbers do in classic musicals.

It's set in the year 859, in an age of corrupt government and a secret rebel sect called the House of Flying Daggers. The plot is too convoluted—and too full of surprises—to recount here: It involves a blind rebel played by Zhang Ziyi (of Crouching Tiger) and two policemen played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau (the police-department mole in Infernal Affairs). The men are ordered to use the young woman to get to the HOFD leader—but no one is what he or she seems to be, and what seems like a straightforward chase picture becomes a knotty love triangle with twists and hairpin emotional curves.

It would be just an ooh-and-ahh movie—every shot a painting, like Zhang's earlier films and something like Days of Heaven—but the martial arts takes it into another dimension. Zhang has a wowza visual concept for each battle: His camera soars behind arrows and flying daggers, which boomerang and bounce off shields and deftly slice peoples' throats. One sequence will be talked about for years: the battle in the green bamboo forest, the assassins gliding silently down from trees, the fighting on the ground, in branches, in midair: Holy bamboo, Batman! It's furious yet so miraculously fluid—and so elegant. Zhang sets the bar so high I don't know how anyone could top him without redesigning the human body, and even then you'd need his genius for color and composition. Unlike Hero, House of Flying Daggers doesn't bear much thought. You just have to revel in it. ...12:47 p.m.

There weren't too many responses to my latest biopic challenge, perhaps for two reasons: 1) People remember movies but not lines of dialogue; and 2) no one wanted to go back and watch these rotten pictures to write the bad lines down. It might also be that the prizes—The Making of Alexander (first place) and De-Lovely: Behind the Creation of the MGM Motion Picture (second place)—were not much of an incentive. As Michael Fallon points out, the third-place winner should get both books.

Based on the entries, I can sort the typical bad biopic lines into three groups:

1) Clunky attempts by screenwriters to find a middle ground between period and modern diction, often exacerbated by miscast stars.

2) The absurdity of the quotidian in the mouths of illustrious personages—i.e., small talk from larger-than-life people.

3) The need to further the biopic agenda: to frame the central issues of the subject's life and to put his or her trials in historical context.

It's No. 3 that I think is the most instructive, and it's perfectly encapsulated by the line from Beyond the Sea that triggered this exercise: "While it looked like Bobby Kennedy might heal the country, Sandy and I drifted farther and farther apart." That's a classic genre howler—one that should be taught (as a counter-example) in film schools. But our winning entry tops it by a wide margin.

I have chosen not to name the screenwriters because, in spite of what you might think, I am a merciful man.

A disclaimer: I have not fact-checked a single one of these lines. For the sake of the historical record, feel free to send corrections.

First prize of The Making of Alexander goes to Arthur Tiersky for this jaw-dropping monologue from the stinko John Belushi biopic, Wired:

John, there's a light within you. I want you to burn it out. BURN IT OUT! BURN IT OUT! In Vietnam, monks set themselves on fire. Artaud. Artaud said that actors should perform like they are on fire. Signaling through the flames ... THAT'S our job as comedians! To burn brightly and stand as a symbol. I will not give in to this consensus reality! Cut the demons loose, John! Let 'em loose! That's were your characters come from.

Second prize was not as easy to determine. It goes to Bret Thompson, and it's Lee Krasner's assessment of the painter's latest canvas in Pollack:

"You've done it this time, Pollack. You've broken it wide open."

A close runner-up (via Dan J. Vice, also cited in my Slate review) was the tribute of agent George Shapiro to his client, Andy Kaufman, in Man in the Moon: "You're insane—but you might also be brilliant." Also consider this, via Kevin Dafler, from the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba: "I'm going to be a star, and stars don't fall from the sky, do they?"

Category 2 offered some doozies, the chercest from Nicholas and Alexandra, via Paul Notley:

TROTSKY: You've been avoiding me, Lenin.

From the same movie, James Hynes remembers a Lenin line that went something like: "Nice work on the manifesto, Trotsky." A potential winner if the quotation had been exact!

Another good Category 2 exchange is this from The Greatest Story Ever Told, via Paul Hynes:

URIAH (Sal Mineo, hobbling on a crutch and trying to keep up with Jesus, Max von Sydow, striding forcefully toward his destiny in Jerusalem): Master! Master! What is your name?

JESUS: People call me Jesus ….

I recall Dwight MacDonald having fun with the same movie and quoting a line that went something like, "I've heard many things about you, Baptist—all bad."

Lane Buckman offers this question, posed to Joan of Arc by a character called "The Conscience" (Dustin Hoffman) in the awful The Messenger: "When did this become painful for you?" Andrew Dardine remembers the title character's dying line in The Great Ziegfeld: "More stairs! More stairs!" And let's not forget this gem, sent by John Persinos, from the Genghis Khan biopic The Conqueror, uttered by John Wayne's Mongol leader as he contemplates Susan Hayward: "There are moments for action, then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tatar woman is for me. My blood says take her!"

Finally, via winner Arthur Tiersky and also Perry Seibert, comes a line from Max, the risible portrait of the young Hitler as a second-rate artist. It's so bizarre that it must be a joke, but even as a joke it's … words fail me.

"Come on, Hitler, I'll buy you a glass of lemonade." ... 9:30 a.m.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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