Category: biopics / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 65 of 100
While there is plenty to love about ‘Gangs of New York’ – the vast sets, the awesome opening sequence, Daniel Day Lewis in excelsis – it suffers from Leonardo di Caprio’s central performance. I still identified him back then as the floppy-haired romantic lead (albeit with a handful of interesting indie turns in his filmography) whose poster was di rigueur on the walls of teenage girls the world over. In ‘Gangs of New York’, he didn’t have the physicality, didn’t have the threat. His was a role that the younger de Niro would have torn into. For that reason, ‘Gangs’ never quite achieved what I wanted it to – the status of late-period Scorsese masterpiece that I’d been waiting for over a decade.
When ‘The Aviator’ was released, I approached it warily. It was an inherited project – Scorsese had only intended to produce, with Michael Mann calling the shots; Mann, however, decided he didn’t want to make another biopic so soon after ‘Ali’ and Scorsese took the helm – and it reunited the director with di Caprio. I was blown away. Sure, there are some minor quibbles (it’s slightly overlong, the CGI during the flight of the “Spruce Goose” is a bit wobbly), but ‘The Aviator’ has energy, visual opulence and a to-die-for cast pulling out all the stops.
Di Caprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes completely sold me on him as an actor and he just seems to have gone from strength to strength since. Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Katherine Hepburn (I love the way Scorsese shapes some of her scenes, such as the banter on the golf course or the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue around the dinner table, as homages to Hepburn’s own movies), while Kate Beckinsale pulls off a sexy, sultry, don’t-mess-with-me approximation of Ava Gardner. Rounding out the cast are such luminaries as John C. Reilly, Alan Alda, Danny Huston, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Frances Conroy and always excellent Ian Holm, one of my personal favourite actors. There’s even a cameo from No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow – she doesn’t do much, but she nails Harlow’s look perfectly.
Scorsese handles the long running time (a shade over two and three quarter hours) masterfully, structuring the first third as an exhilarating immersion into the world of Hughes’ key obsessions – aircraft, movies, women – and seducing the audience with his charisma and playboy lifestyle. This stage of the movie contains most of the spectacular flying sequences, culminating in the mechanical failure and devastating crash of a test plane that Hughes insists on piloting himself. The middle stretch is heralded by aftermath of the crash. Things go wrong for Hughes: he loses Hepburn; his relationship with Gardner turns into a miasma of jealousy and suspicion; senate hearings coincide with his deteriorating mental state and increasingly obsessive and reclusive behaviour. The final third charts Hughes’s hermit-like withdrawal from the world; his phobia of dirt, germs and human contact. Things are almost redeemed when he emerges to pilot the “Spruce Goose”, his most ambitious undertaking in the field of avionics, but history is waiting to write it up as a magnificent folly.
‘The Aviator’ is full-tilt filmmaking, often flamboyant and indulgent, but also intuitively attuned to character moments and not afraid to follow its subject into his darkest times. Scorsese eschews the mannered, plodding, heavily expository approach that typifies many biopics. He maintains focus and a linear through-line without ever sacrificing narrative drive, pacing or the audience’s attention span. If all biopics were this good, I probably wouldn’t be so reticent about the genre.