Howard Hughes was a true pioneer. As a movie director in the 1930s he filmed the most expensive—and extensive—motion picture of his era (the project ate up three years, $4 million and more than 25 miles of film). As a Hollywood playboy, the young, handsome billionaire became legendary for his romantic endeavors with actresses Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow and scores of other women. And as an aviator, he broke every flying record of his day for both speed and distance. In 1938 he circled the globe in just under four days. The next year, he purchased an entire fleet of commercial airplanes and established TWA as the world’s first global airline. Much of what we take for granted today when we fly the friendly skies was established by this aeronautical genius.
But for every mountainous accomplishment, Hughes experienced a hellish low point. His obsessive-compulsive disorder and various phobias—from a fear of germs to a paranoia that he was constantly being spied on—left him a basket case. The tycoon would lock himself in a room for weeks, watching movies naked and forcing his servants to follow strict guidelines on how to approach him, how to hand things to him, how to prepare food, etc. He refused to touch “unclean” items and roped off entire districts of his estate as germ-infested areas. It’s this dichotomy between the smooth-talking, powerful playboy and the psychotic recluse that sets the stage for The Aviator. From 1927 to 1947, Hughes seems to rule the world with his Midas touch. But his single-minded determination to build the biggest, fastest and most economical planes threatens him with financial ruin. His personal demons scramble to destroy everything else.
Eventually, a Congressional hearing brings both struggles to the surface. Contracted to supply the U.S. with 43 spy planes and the "Spruce Goose"—a 218-foot long, five-story tall, eight-engined mammoth of a plane, Hughes spends every dime of allocated government money (along with millions of his own) in development. But he fails to deliver the products.
Everything seems to hinge on the Spruce Goose. As it goes so will Hughes. He's set to either soar again as a pioneering mastermind or go down in flames as the world’s biggest and most eccentric bust—losing everything, including his beloved TWA—while being publicly humiliated as a fraud and a freak.
Though their romance goes sour, Hughes shares a deep friendship and understanding with Katharine Hepburn. (“We have too many eccentricities ... we’re not like everyone else,” she candidly says.) When the actress is photographed in a compromising situation with another actor, Hughes goes out of his way to protect her image by purchasing the pictures. Later, she tries to return the favor by helping him at his lowest point.
Likewise, Ava Gardner comes to rescue Hughes in the midst of his madness by prepping him for the Senate hearings. As one of his few remaining friends, she grooms him and forces him to come out of isolation and face the reality of the situation.
Despite losing millions of dollars of his own money, Hughes is committed to expanding the horizons of aviation while making it more accessible to the general public. Throughout the movie, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan salute Hughes for, among other things, pioneering faster airplanes, above-the-weather flying patterns and cross-Atlantic passenger routes.
As powerful as the billionaire Hughes is, his obsessive-compulsiveness, paranoia and phobias repeatedly bring him to his knees. When mentally stable, even his greatest accomplishments fail to fulfill, leaving him with nothing but an insatiable drive to climb the next mountain, or fly the next airplane.
Scorsese describes this cycle of emptiness as “the curse that [Hughes] has, like an ancient Greek curse on his family in a way, the curse of wealth, and the curses in his genes. All of this is his undoing. ... a man who wants to fly to the sun like Icarus. But his wings really are wax, ultimately.” Christians may link the story to Ecclesiastes 2:17 rather than Greek mythology. Hughes epitomizes King Solomon’s revelation: “All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
Though no explicit bedroom scenes are shown, the sexual nature of Hughes' Hollywood relationships is made clear. He and Hepburn share a passionate kiss while undressing each other. He later reaches down Gardner’s top while the two fool around. But this playboy didn’t limit his choice of women to A-list actresses. In a club he's seen hitting on a waitress. He uses the line, “I want to learn what pleases you,” while touching her in what is implied to be a sexual way (off-camera). The sleazy scene plods on as he asks the waitress if his advances feel good. Several times, Hughes’ romantic interests are said to be “screwing” other men.
When confronted by Hepburn about his unfaithfulness (though the two aren’t married), Hughes claims the other women involved in his highly publicized escapades are simply “Cracker Jack candy” and don’t mean anything to him. Turning the tables, Hepburn leaves him for another man.
After her departure, Hughes becomes domineering and distrustful in his relationships with the opposite sex. He hires a 15-year-old girl to accompany him to public events. (The interview and his later treatment of the girl are both degrading and creepy.) In his affair with Gardner, he becomes obsessed with knowing where she is at all times, even to the point of placing bugs around her house and hiring spies.
The playboy’s sexual obsession also migrates into his aeronautical work. For instance, while assessing the weather he compares clouds in the sky to giant breasts with milk. To court financial backers for TWA, he hires call girls to seal the deal. Others refer to this move as a “boob buffet” for potential investors who are assured of “scoring” that night.
Hughes’ second movie, The Outlaw, is described as “dirty” and becomes the first mainstream picture to feature prominent female cleavage. During its making, the filmmaker and his advisors go so far as to construct a cleavage-enhancing bra for lead actress Jane Russell. As a diagram for the “invention” is held up, breasts are repeatedly referred to using crude sexual slang. We get samplings of The Outlaw’s prominent displays of cleavage via replayed clips, and breasts become even more of a focal point when Hughes objects to the rating the film is assigned by the Motion Picture Association of America. He argues his case by presenting up-close, poster-sized photographs of various actresses’ on-screen cleavage.
During several club scenes, waitresses wear halter tops and skimpy outfits. One setting includes two girls in devil outfits dancing seductively.
Hell’s Angels, Hughes’ epic war movie, is predictably violent. We witness airplanes blow up after shooting at each other. A pilot catches fire in a cockpit. A soldier is shot. Then, fiction forecasts reality when Hughes is forced to crash-land in a Beverly Hills neighborhood. His wings slice through rooftops, leaving a trail of demolition and fire. Hughes smashes into the cockpit glass when the plane finally comes to a halt, leaving a bloodied imprint. As he escapes, he breaks a bone, burns his hands on the heated glass and crawls through fire. We see an aerial shot of his charred and battered body.
A jealous former fling repeatedly slams her car into Hughes’ when she sees him out on the town with Gardner. When he gets out of the car, he nearly gets pinned between the two vehicles. In a club, two of Hughes’ acquaintances get into a fistfight. Later, when arguing with Gardner, he slaps her; she responds by smashing a vase over his head.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Though Hughes’ swinging lifestyle would seem to demand that he consume quantities of drugs and alcohol, he frequently opts not to smoke or drink. (He does pour a drink once with Hepburn.) Unfortunately, those around him make up for his "dryness." Acquaintances smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol at virtually every visit to a club or restaurant. Waitresses at the Coconut Grove sell cigars and cigarettes. A business partner downs a scotch and immediately orders another to ease his stress. Potential TWA investors party with drinks in hand. FBI agents searching Hughes’ estate do so while smoking cigarettes. Threatening the TWA owner, a rival airline owner puffs away on a pipe.
Other Negative Elements
The older Hughes got, the more he quarantined himself in his own estate—naked. Though others were left in the dark about what went on behind closed doors, we’re privy to no fewer than 10 rear and side shots of the billionaire in the buff. In one scene, Hughes strips naked and burns all his clothes after Hepburn leaves him. While locked away in his movie room, Hughes urinates into milk bottles.
The senator presiding over the Congressional hearing blackmails Hughes to force him to sell TWA. A couple of characters use period-based racial slurs.
Today, most people know Howard Hughes as an icon, a mysterious legend. We’ve heard the rumors of his three-foot long fingernails, his CIA associations and his womanizing. Some of us have even heard about his ground-breaking feats in the modern world of aviation.
Martin Scorsese expertly exploits our cultural fascination with Hughes, delivering an in-depth, three-hour character study. He concentrates on Hughes’ internal struggles, and his film quickly reveals itself as a—well-made and eloquent—tragedy. Though Leonardo DiCaprio's titanic persona initially gets in the way of his believability as Hughes, the actor excels as a man well aware of yet helplessly trapped by his personal demons.
The movie's content is another matter. If one takes the liberty of equating "personal demons" with such things as foul language and sexual shenanigans, it can be argued that the film falls victim to the exact same thing Hughes does: it's well aware, yet helplessly trapped.