Feature by: Jack Foley
HOWARD Hughes - troubled genius or sympathetic character? Both,
according to Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, who depict
the early career of one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century
in their new film, The Aviator.
To many, Howard Hughes epitomised the glamour and glitz of the
golden age of Hollywood; he was an accomplished director, a handsome
ladies' man and a keen aviator capable of pushing himself to the
absolute limit in his search for perfection.
At various points in his life, he owned an international airline
(TWA), two regional airlines, an aircraft company, a major motion
picture studio, gambling casinos and hotels in Vegas and a vast
amount of real estate.
Yet beneath the public persona lay a deeply tormented soul, whose
own anxieties and insecurities forced him to become a recluse.
Hence, by the time of his death, in 1976, he had not been seen
publicly or photographed for 20 years.
For Scorsese, in particular, the Hughes life-story bears uncanny
similarities to a Greek tragedy.
"Here’s a guy who got everything he wanted, and it
did remind me of something out of Greek mythology, like the richest
king who gets everything he wants but ultimately his family has
a curse on it from the Gods," he explained at a recent press
conference, held at the Dorchester in London.
"Here you have this disorder which is in the genes. It’s
not his fault, it’s not his mother’s fault, it apparently
comes from the mother’s side of the family, but no one went
in and fooled round with their DNA, it just happens.
"It reminds me very much of the curse of the ancient world
in a way, on a family and how it deals with this person. Like
the Minotaur in the labyrinth, and the idea that Icarus’s
father, Daedalus, who builds the labyrinth to keep the Minotaur
in the centre and keep him under lock and key. And to save his
son, he makes him wings of wax.
"In a sense, his father died young, too, he was orphaned
but he left him this extraordinary fortune based on drill bits.
And basically, throughout his whole life, he tries to escape from
the labyrinth, but he is the labyrinth. He’s the Minotaur,
he is his own monster.
"That’s what he knows at the end, he looks in the
mirror and says he knows the way of the future, he knows what
the future is going to be."
DiCaprio feels the same about Hughes, and even admits to having
become a little obsessive, himself, while preparing to play such
an important historical celebrity.
"I knew of this ‘Wolf Man’-like figure who was
locked away in a hotel room in Las Vegas, who wouldn’t communicate
with anyone except by telephone; almost this monstrous image that
I had of the man," he explained.
"And I really didn’t know the genesis of how he became
that. More so than trying to portray an American hero or an icon,
it was like a Greek tragedy.
"He was a man obsessed with everything, truly everything
that he put his mind to. He was relentless and would not stop
until he had reached his own ideals of perfection.
"That went with creating a bra for Jane Russell, or building
The Spruce Goose, or sleeping with as many women as he possibly
could, or breaking speed records.
"To have that element of a character obsessed, and then
have that character be confined to his own private, mental hell
by microscopic germs just made for one of these characters that
I or any writer could not have possibly made up."
Having decided to take on the Hughes story, however, the next
challenge for both star and director was what to leave out.
Hence, The Aviator only focuses on
the man at the peak of his celebrity, from the beginning of filming
his genre-defining film, Hell's Angels, to the flight of The Spruce
Goose - which, to this day, remains the largest airplane ever
Explains Scorsese: "I was hooked on the Hollywood edge;
I was a little nervous about it, reading that it was Howard Hughes,
but what really took it, what really locked me in, was the fact
that it only took 20 years of his life, maybe the most productive.
"The 20 years in which his vision, his obsession with speed,
his obsession with aviation really formed in its most lasting
pattern in a way, in that it’s affected our lives today.
"We leave him at the end, at the right point. I read the
Senate scene, I said it was like Frank Capra, it couldn’t
happen but it did.
"That was almost word for word in the transcript, what he
says. And then he flies the plane [The Spruce Goose]. He did fly
it. But after that he has to deal with his inner self destruction,
which ultimately takes him down."
In researching for the role, DiCaprio was similarly methodical,
meeting with everyone who could possibly shed some light on the
Hughes persona, and watching as many news clips as he could to
capture the true spirit of the man.
"I read as many as I could, and I got to meet with the real
Jane Russell, and talk with her about Howard.
"I also spent a lot of time with Terry Moore, his ex-wife,
who gave me a lot of insight into the man.
"People who actually worked with him, I met a doctor who
knew about his condition. But the main thing that really helped
me in capturing his character was the documentary footage of the
"There is other footage of the man, but he’s such
a private man that whenever there is a clip of him, he’s
always talking very specifically about the props of an engine
plane or the landing gear. He goes on and on for hours about the
specifics of the plane and how it works.
"But the Senate hearing stuff was the only example I got
to see of the raw state of the man. A man confronted, a man pushed
up against a wall and attacking. In a lot of ways, he was a hero
to a lot of people because of those Senate hearings.
"He was an individual, a billionaire – America’s
first, a powerful man – but an individual taking on a corporate
monopoly and the Senate. He succeeded, and there was a huge grass
roots effort for a while to make him President."
Such was the intensity of DiCaprio's research that he was able
to pick up on several small but crucially important things, such
as the way in which Hughes would touch the leg of his trousers
whenever he was in public.
As a result, The Aviator marks a strong return to form for Scorsese
as a director, while DiCaprio's portrayal of Hughes is being hailed
as the finest performance of his career to date.
And that's no mean feat given the quality of the actor's body
of work (Titanic, Catch Me If You Can and What's Eating Gilbert
Grape, to name but a few).
DiCaprio is now considered to be one of the most sought-after
stars in Hollywood, so it was little surprise to find him being
asked about whether his own life bore any parallels with that
"I don't have obsessive compulsive disorder, number one,
and I'm not a germophobe," he replied, with a wry grin.
"But I do get asked that question a lot, and I have a hard
time drawing parallels because I wouldn't have my plate that full
"You're really focussed on so many different things, that
work themselves into a frenzy. I'm trying to focus on being an
actor, to do the best possible job I can at it.
"And I'm very lucky, I'm a very lucky person, and I'm very
appreciative, certainly, to be able to be in the position that
I'm in as an actor. It's the only thing that I've known I really
wanted to do professionally so I'm very appreciative of it.
"And while there are certain invasions of privacy and all
that, I hate sitting around complaining about it - I just don't
like to hear it come out of my mouth.
"I'm a very fortunate person being able to do what I do."