Film: Poor Howard

Is there anything so unintentionally amusing as ill-concealed autobiography? When I heard that Martin Scorsese had made a three-hour-long biopic about Howard Hughes that portrayed the crazy billionaire-recluse as a misunderstood artist brought low by vaulting ambition, I laughed out loud. The director of Goodfellas is widely thought to be a genius, a word I stumbled over more than once in newspaper reviews of The Aviator. Er…no. Jean Renoir was a genius. Alfred Hitchcock had his moments, and Orson Welles could have been a contender. Scorsese, by contrast, is nothing more (or less) than a gifted commercial filmmaker with delusions of grandeur whose erratic career is a case study in what can happen to an artist who takes himself too seriously.

On one or two occasions Scorsese has managed to transcend his limitations, though not by much. Taxi Driver, for example, had something genuinely interesting to say about the dark side of the American psyche—but Paul Schrader wrote it. As for most of the remainder of Scorsese’s uneven output, David Thomson nails it in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Scorsese is the adult version of a delicate, hypersensitive kid who grew up in a rough neighborhood and ever afterwards felt bound to pretend that he was a hit man as well as a violinist. He wants it both ways—like all fantasists.” Pow.

It’s fascinating to see how John Logan, author of The Aviator, has sought to sculpt Hughes into a symbol of Scorsese’s professional frustration. Logan’s Hughes is, not surprisingly, a figure of purest fantasy, a double-barreled genius who produces great movies in between designing great airplanes, then stumbles when lesser men, thwarted by his visionary gifts, join forces to trip him up. Never mind that Hughes’s various ventures into filmmaking were purely popular, even vulgar, and for the most part of no lasting interest (the only outstanding picture he produced was Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, with which Hughes had nothing to do beyond choosing the title). What of it? The important thing is that Hughes thought big, just like… guess who? And what does it matter that all those great big thoughts came to naught? For the megalomaniac, ambition is its own reward.

Scorsese portrays Hughes as a tragic hero whose demise was rooted in his flawed nature. Unfortunately, his flaw, a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder so malignant that it eventually turned him into a demented hermit, wasn’t very romantic, much less heroic. Scorsese and Logan have portrayed the onset stages of Hughes’s madness with something closely approximating candor, but the inevitable result is to make him look by turns pathetic and squalid—which, of course, he was. Since Hughes didn’t do anything especially distinguished en route to his final descent into the abyss, The Aviator is incapable of rising to the heights of tragedy to which its maker so clearly aspires.

I can’t tell you whether Martin Scorsese really believes in his heart of hearts that there was anything heroic about Howard Hughes, but every foot of The Aviator reeks of the rhetoric of heroism, from its excessive length to the emphasis it places on Hughes’s alleged feats of aerial derring-do. The problem, needless to say, is that Hughes wasn’t a hero (my Shorter Oxford defines “hero” as “a man…distinguished by the performance of extraordinarily brave or noble deeds”), and so doesn’t deserve to be portrayed as one on screen. Even if you know nothing of the actual details of his life—and my guess is that few people under the age of 40 do—it’s impossible to watch The Aviator without being puzzled by the extreme, even gross disproportion between what we see Hughes doing on screen and the way Scorsese wants us to feel about it.

Matters are further complicated by Scorsese’s decision to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. Hollywood’s heartthrob du jour delivers a perfectly serious, even earnest performance, but he looks and sounds callow—he’s made that way—meaning that even when he’s huffing and puffing, he still comes across like a talented teenager playing Hamlet on Broadway. No matter how hard he tries, he simply can’t “fill his space,” as actors say. Not so Cate Blanchett. To be sure, she doesn’t resemble Katharine Hepburn any more than DiCaprio resembles Hughes, which in theory ought to be an even bigger problem. Instead, Blanchett turns it into an advantage, steering clear of literal impersonation in favor of a full-fledged performance whose intense, focused energy miraculously suggests Hepburn’s essence. That’s acting.

Blanchett isn’t the only good thing about The Aviator. The rest of the cast is mostly fine, in particular John C. Reilly and Alec Baldwin, who only just figured out that he was born to play heavies. The period detail, including the music, is impressively exact. (The flying scenes, by contrast, make extensive use of obvious-looking digital effects.) I was never bored. Still, I knew when I left the theater that I’d sat through a three-hour-long movie, not because The Aviator feels that long but because the pumped-up self-importance of Scorsese’s directorial style is so far out of key with the underlying triviality of his subject matter that it leaves the viewer exhausted. Who cares about an eccentric billionaire who made bad movies and impractical airplanes? For that matter, who cares about Martin Scorsese’s delusions of grandeur? Only those similarly deluded Hollywood folk who have no doubt that bigger is better—and, of course, Scorsese himself.

As for me, I got far more pleasure out of the far more modest Being Julia, a witty screen version of Theatre, one of W. Somerset Maugham’s slighter novels, in which Annette Bening plays Julia, a middle-aged stage actress determined to stay on top of the heap by any means necessary. Maugham was no more a genius than Scorsese, but he rarely failed to amuse, especially when he was feeling cynical (which was most of the time), and Theatre is a veritable festival of cattiness, a backstage novel in which no one comes off looking good. To be sure, Ronald Harwood’s screenplay adds a spoonful of sentiment to Maugham’s vinegar soufflé, but the effect is to make the story more piquant, which is just fine by me.

István Szabó, the director, wisely puts Bening at the center of every scene in which she appears, and like Kevin Costner in Open Range, he shows her as the middle-aged woman she is, flatteringly but frankly. This being the whole point of Theatre, I’m delighted that Bening was willing to play Julia so honestly. One of our very best actresses, she has made only one first-rate film to date, The Grifters, and my hope is that she’ll beat the odds and come fully into her own at an age when most American actresses get put on the shelf.

Jeremy Irons, who plays Julia’s complaisant husband-director, is incapable of giving a bad performance, and the same could be said of nearly everybody else in Being Julia. (Any movie whose supporting cast includes Michael Gambon, Rosemary Harris, Miriam Margolyes, and Juliet Stevenson needs no further endorsement from me.) Profound it isn’t, but if you’re in the mood for worldly, well-crafted amusement, you’re in luck.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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