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The Aviator - He’s the Minotaur, he is his own monster



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 flown.

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 Senate hearings.

"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 of Hughes.

"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 in life.

"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."

 

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