Stevi Costa considers representations of disability, Sandy Powell’s amazing costume work, critiques of celebrity culture, and the use of jazz standards in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.
I’m going to begin this review by stating clearly that I love Leonardo DiCaprio. As a tween, I naturally had a giant crush on him thanks to Titanic and Romeo + Juliet. But I have aged as has Leo, and while I admire the perfection of his young heart-shaped face, I have also become a great defender of Leonardo DiCaprio the man. I like his man face. I like his scruff and stubble. I like his man-bun. But I like these things mostly because I believe, as Martin Scorsese does, that DiCaprio is a great actor. I think he is one of the finest American talents my generation will see, and I hope that one day we speak of him the way our parents spoke of great actors like Paul Newman or Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro (or whom they still speak). But in spite of a career littered with good and great performances, DiCaprio has yet to earn an Oscar for any of them. I thought 2014 and Wolf of Wall Street would be his year because it would have made up for his loss 10 years prior for Scorsese’s The Aviator, but Matthew McConaughey took home the trophy instead, just like Jamie Foxx did ten years ago.
So I re-watched The Aviator with an eye on DiCaprio’s performance as filmmaker and aviation mogul Howard Hughes. The film itself is a standard, but well-written, biopic. It walks us through Hughes’ life from the 1927-1928 filming of his incredibly expensive WWI picture Hell’s Angels all the way through the flight of The Hercules aka The Spruce Goose, a gargantuan aircraft that now resides at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon. The events the film shows – the making of various motion pictures, the crafting of airplanes – are why Hughes is famous, and so this narrative trajectory seems fitting. It shows his drive for perfection and his willingness to throw money at a crazy dream. It posits Hughes as a Great American, a national type driven by a quest for exceptionalism that stands at odds with the national standard. Throughout the film, Hughes’ ambition and innovation is mocked by other Hollywood directors, by his aviation team, and by the FBI, but Hughes prevails in all cases. Like the Hercules, Hughes can fly in spite of naysayers and adversity.
And, of course, because this is a biopic, adversity is the other half of Hughes story. Scorsese’s film, scripted by John Logan, narrates Hughes’ achievements in filmmaking and aviation as driven not only by his enterprising nature and quest for perfection, but because of his obsessive compulsive disorder. The film’s first scene is of young Howard being carefully bathed by his mother while she lectures him not to go near a certain part of town in which there has been a Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E (which she makes him practice spelling). This seems an odd bookend, given that the next shot is of a 1927 Hughes shooting airplane combat scenes for Hell’s Angels, but it also attempts to psychologize Hughes’ OCD and insinuates that his perfectionism is not something he overcomes in order to be a great man, but something that enables him to be a great man. There are, however, times in which Hughes really, truly struggles to manage living with OCD, and this opening sequence in the candle-lit bathtub sets up a really wonderful visual parallel to the later scenes where Hughes locks himself for months in his screening room, watching only reels of the desert, refusing human contact, and peeing in a neat row of empty milk bottles.
In 2004, I wouldn’t have been conscious enough of disability politics to really know, or be able to articulate, how The Aviator’s portrayal of Hughes’ OCD reads to viewers. On the one hand, the film participates in the typical Oscar-bait tradition of allowing an actor like DiCaprio to show his chops by playing a person with a disability. It’s easy to argue that an able-bodied actor playing a person with a physical disability is problematic, but I will always blame this on the types of narratives we tell about disability rather than the fact that actors exist and are doing their jobs. Narratives about disability, written by able-bodied people, tend to see disability as inspirational to the able-bodied, and, as playwright Christopher Shinn noted in The Atlantic earlier this year, it reassures audiences of their normalcy when they can see able-bodied Daniel Day-Lewis walk to the podium to receive his award for playing paralyzed Christy Brown in My Left Foot. It is comforting for able-bodied people to know: 1) that disability is a temporary state, which the plasticity of the actor’s body, and his or her ability to convincingly be disabled one minute and able-bodied the next implies to the able-bodied viewer; and 2) that the narrative about disability asserts the disabled person overcomes their disability to achieve greatness. Biopics tend to be the worst perpetrators of these kind of troublesome narratives, both because they show people overcoming disabilities to do great things and because they require the plasticity of the actor’s body in order to do so.
Playing mental illness is a little bit different. Mental illness, like OCD, is an invisible disability. Hundreds of us suffer from depression, anxiety, OCD, and other mental illnesses that can be and are at times disabling. But because narratives about mental illness are less bodily, they focus less on disability as something to overcome. They tend to feel less “inspirational” and because audiences cannot know if the actor also experiences mental illness because they cannot read the signs of disability on the body, there is less reassurance involved for viewers after the film. So because of this, the challenge the actor faces is how to render something invisible into something visible. How do you show an audience what it’s like to be faced with an unclean doorknob and be out of paper towels when you have OCD? How do you communicate, silently, the discomfort you might have when Errol Flynn steals a dollop of carefully arranged food off your plate?
DiCaprio does it by skillfully manipulating the muscles in his face to create tiny twinges of displeasure or discomfort. He furrows his brow just so, blinks his blue eyes fiercely, and crinkles his lips. He translates Hughes’ OCD into a series of legible ticks, which progress into uncontrollable verbal patterns that he must clasp his hands over his mouth to stop as Hughes loses control at the most stressful and triggering portions of his life. What DiCaprio’s face does in The Aviator is allow non-disabled audience members a point of identification and understanding with his character’s mental state. It helps us recognize a disability that would otherwise go unread, or be considered merely an eccentricity by Hughes’ various peers and paramours. Hughes was also partially deaf, and his deafness factors in to his discomfort in a number of social situations in the film, but although Hepburn bonds with him over his deafness, this aspect of Hughes’ as a disabled man is not the focus of the film.
Clearly, this is a role where playing a person with a disability allows DiCaprio to show his chops, but I find it much less problematic than many other disability narratives because I don’t think the narrative pushes audiences to think that Hughes was a success in spite of his disability. The opening two shots I described above, combined with numerous scenes of Hughes taking his time to reshoot a scene to get it right, or taking ages to choose a wheel for an aircraft, show that Hughes’ fastidiousness, resulting from his OCD, was actually a driving factor in his success.
The film does, though, show a number of times in which Hughes struggled with his OCD. There are at least three more scenes in which Hughes feels the need to retreat to a public restroom and wash his hands with the same soap his mother used in the opening scene as a response to a stressful situation. There is also a scene in which he impulsively burns all of his clothes after Katharine Hepburn (brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett, who took home an Oscar for the role) leaves him for Spencer Tracy. And then there is the extended sequence in which Hughes locks himself in his screening room and spends several months there, naked and alone, watching his films, drinking milk, recording messages to his staff with highly specific instructions, and peeing in empty milk jars. These scenes do not strike me as impediments (save for the screening room scenes) that Hughes must overcome, but rather as honest management tactics of the disorder, and spikes and spirals within the disorder. Because the majority of the film is about Hughes’ life and his exceptionalism, his disability seems like it’s a part of that, rather than an impediment to it.
But I didn’t actually sign up to re-view The Aviator because of its representation of disability. I signed up to review The Aviator because Sandy Powell’s costume design, combined with Dante Feretti’s set design, makes it one of the gorgeous films I’ve ever seen. The golf outfit that Cate Blanchett wears on Hepburn’s first date with Hughes? That’s how you win Oscars, friends. That and all of Ava Gardener’s hats.
I also signed up to re-view this film because it was so much about celebrity culture that part of the allure of seeing it in 2004 was watching celebrities play other celebrities. In addition to seeing DiCaprio play Hughes, we also get treated to Blanchett as Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (purring like Marilyn Monroe), Jude Law as Errol Flynn, and Gwen Stefani deliver two lines as Jean Harlow. And because nightclub culture was a big part of early 20th century society, we’re also treated to a number of musical guests playing the entertainment at the Coconut Grove, and all of them happen to be Wainwrights: Loudon Wainwright plays Dixieland jazz, Martha Wainwright sings a torch song, and Rufus Wainwright delivers my favorite rendition of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” to date. The film delights in these cameos and castings because it’s like Hollywood is rubbing elbows with itself. It’s both navel-gazing and nostalgic at the same time, and the film itself doesn’t shy away from critiquing what celebrity culture might do to a person. When Hughes walks Harlow down the red carpet at the Hell’s Angels premiere, they crush blown flashbulbs with their shoes as the cameras flash around them. Harlow smiles and Hughes winces. Tabloids spin at the screen when Hughes is accused of seeing multiple women at once. He shies away from Hepburn’s ex-husband’s home movie camera. Although Hughes likes being behind the camera, it’s clear that being the center of attention is triggering for Hughes, and offers that his reclusive days hiding in his screening room are actually a great alternative to being consumed by cameras all the time. As Hepburn herself says of fame, “There’s no decency in it.”
But the thing that really struck me during my recent re-view of The Aviator was the evocative use of several jazz standards. When Hughes takes Hepburn flying for the first time, the glide over Los Angeles to the strains of Benny Goodman’s “Moonglow.” The film ends with the flight of the Spruce Goose to Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” The choice of moon-themed songs here for important flights in Hughes’ life is perhaps a bit on the nose, but also both songs have a loveliness and a lightness that must be what Hughes feels like in control of an airplane. These are sharply contrasted to three sequences set to Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare,” which anchor moments in the film where Hughes loses control. The first time “Nightmare” is used is the sequence in which Hughes burns all of his clothing after Hepburn leaves him. This sequence is perfectly timed to the length of the song (2:32), and the flames of the clothing pile roar upward around DiCaprio on the final trumpet notes from Shaw. “Nightmare” is used again as the FBI raid Hughes’ house to confiscate his financial records, but the song fades out into a conversation between Alan Alda’s Sen. Brewster and Hughes. After Hughes leaves the room, “Nightmare” begins again as he crumbles in the hallway, and fades perfectly into the soundtrack of the next scene: Hughes, naked and alone, a projection of the desert flickering over his body in the screening room. If the moon songs underscore Hughes at his best, “Nightmare” provides the soundscape for Hughes own nightmares – the triggers that send him into OCD spirals he cannot control. Is this also on the nose? Yes. But I’m willing to bet that most viewers in 2004 are pretty unfamiliar with jazz standards from the Big Band era, so this strikes me as a bit of Howard Shore’s own nostalgia for the past, a gift for those of us who recognize it. And goddamn do I love “Nightmare,” so it was a pleasant surprise to hear it so many times in this film.
Other fun surprises in The Aviator:
Alec Baldwin doing a Jack Donaghey warm-up as PanAm’s Juan Tripp.
Kellie Garner, who would go on to play a stewardess-spy on the short-lived Pan Am, playing a baby escort Hughes went around with for a while.
Adam Scott is Hughes’s associate producer Johnny Meyer. He’s wearing a mustache and I can’t fathom it.
Frances Conroy is Katherine Hepburn’s mother. Frances Conroy continues to corner the market on bitchy old ladies and I am most definitely going to model my old ladyhood after her career.
Another AHS actor, Danny Huston, is in this. He wears a hat and a suit like every other guy in this movie.
Brent “Data” Spiner is in this as an airplane exec. I spend most of my free time rewatchingST:TNG, so I can’t handle him playing a human being.