All That Heaven Allows

Marty's magnificent obsession takes flight in 'The Aviator'

Acute anxiety over the relatively minor things in one's life generally functions as a shield against the ones that are more pressing, more difficult, less socially acceptable. The women whom Hughes invited to share his cockpit--most notably Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett in the film) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale)--would no doubt report that the aviator never had a problem with expressing lust. (This is probably the time to mention that Scorsese has been married five times.) Anger is another story: Say what you will about Jake LaMotta and his social skills, but the raging bull had a clear outlet for his aggression. (Don't ask me how Jesus Christ or the Dalai Lama fits in here.) Hughes, an aristocrat, was left to wash his hands--again and again--of unclean thoughts and feelings. Whether or not he saw the airplane as a way of getting closer to God, flight suited him better than a fight by far. Still, when challenged by the courts to state his defense of entrepreneurial autonomy (not to be confused with that of a more recent Texas millionaire), the aviator rose to the occasion. On some level the trial actually played to his strengths: The fear of making a rare public appearance--particularly after two plane crashes and years of hair and cuticle growth--inspired the formerly fastidious Hughes to clean up his act once again.

Higher and higher, baby: Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Aviator'
Miramax Films
Higher and higher, baby: Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Aviator'

DiCaprio's skin-deep appeal serves him well here, perversely, as it did in Gangs: Scorsese may have worked overtime to curry favor with the young star in trade for the gigantic budgets he believes he needs--but don't think for a moment he isn't fully aware of what his matinee idol conveys (or doesn't convey) and how to use it. Like its subject, The Aviator has damn near everything at its disposal: gorgeous cinematography (combining CGI and old-fashioned grain), at least three or four indelible supporting turns, and a more subjective view of aberrant psychology than in any Scorsese movie since The King of Comedy. Like Hughes's own Hell's Angels, The Aviator is built to peak late with a spectacular action scene--defying not just gravity but narrative chronology in order to push itself closer to the exit. It's the definitive Hughes bio, Marty's Citizen Kane, and probably even an Oscar winner. Better still: It's a privileged tour of Martin Scorsese's inner sanctum and all its riches, all its restrictions. This uncommonly personal epic will likely be the one to get Scorsese to the podium--but not, I hope, to the general audience. The auteur, as much as the aviator, demands his privacy.

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