Thursday, August 17, 2006


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I wouldn't have cared if Howard Hughes had been a thief (which he most certainly was not). For all his eccentricities, he gave the world an eminently important legacy- the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a bastion of top biomedical research, which has funded scientists in the US for many years now. In fact, the professor with whom I am collaborating is a Howard Hughes fellow.

In my continued run of watching good movies long after they have hit the theater, I finally watched The Aviator yesterday, biopic of millionare, obsessive aircraft maker and owner, womanizer, movie producer, philanthropist, and general eccentric Howard Hughes. Most of the movie is big; big sets, big landscapes, big aircraft, big money in big parties, and a big man at the middle of it all. And an eccentric man, obsessed with obssesive compulsive disorders that kept him grimacing at the sight of a mote of dust on a rich businesman's lapels, and that kept him from staying put in a bathroom until somebody else came in because he was too repulsed to touch the doorknob. But most likely, it was this obssesion that made Howard Hughes dream obsessively all his life, and make every effort to achieve those dreams. He wanted to build the biggest and fastest aircraft, he wanted to fly fastest and farthest in them, he wanted to become the richest man in the world, wanted to womanize with the most beautiful women of his time, and hated small mindedness in all its forms.

The talented Martin Scorsese has made a commendable effort to portray the glory years of Hughes, long before he succumbed to the demons inside him and turned into a compulsive drug addict, with long hair and fingernails, and a 6 foot 4 tall, 90 pound body. But even then, the demons were brewing inside him, they made him shut himself up for days at a time in a room, with a deafening backdrop of World War 1 epics playing behind him, collecting his urine in two dozen milk bottles for no particular reason. They made him suddenly find himself obssesively repeating a phrase and not being able to stop talking to himself. It is quite remarkable that in spite of these afflictions, he managed to mostly separate the public and private Hughes, appearing charming and dapper in public, fearing but still suppressing his inner paranoias from the public.

In my opinion, Leonardo De Caprio playing Hughes comes of age in this movie. He has put up a fine performance, and after Gangs of New York, seems to have blossomed again in Scorsese's hands. As Roger Ebert says, portraying any kind of madness is a notorious invitation to overacting, but like him, I agree that De Caprio treads the line extremely well, and realistically depicts Hughes's struggles to put on a sane face and suppress his inner voices. At least in his initial years, it was rarely that Hughes showed signs of his mental distress in public, but anyone who looked closely would have certainly noticed something wrong.

Hughes became a millionare, not by astutely investing his wealth, but by taking gigantic risks, by mortgaging his assets even when he had millions, simply to give vent to his big dreams of building the world's biggest and fastest aircraft. He was also not averse to taking each new prototype for test runs, no matter that every one of them crashed with him inside it, but not before he had broken a few records in each. The crashes, at least most of them, did not faze him in the least. Perhaps he sought solace and relaxation from the tension by engaging in affairs with most of the beautiful and famous women of his time, all actresses. Katherine Hepburn, the sassy, tomboyish screen queen may have been his most ardent and poigant catch, but she was only one among a string of beauties who essentially hung out with him for his fame and money. Hepburn was probably the only genuine romance he ever had, and she was no less eccentric than him, if anything. A scene in which Hughes' curt and abrupt behaviour is completely justified is one where he has lunch with Hepburn's parents and her ex-husband who for some strange reason, is allowed to cheerfully hang around the estate. Hepburn's family is irritating, opinionated, and judgemental to the point of of being obnoxious, and Hughes's exasperation is sympathetically understood (At one point, when he has just started to describe his latest grand and novel aircraft model, Hepburn's mother suddenly quips in with something about a bird-house that Katherine's ex-husband has built). I would run for my life with in-laws like that.

However, the portrait of Hughes the womanizer that I saw was interesting. I did not see a man who was indifferently using women for his own benefits and then casting them aside. Instead, Hughes appears to be a man who yearned for companionship without commitment, whose attitude towards his affairs was of an innocent indulgent, who seemed to think that having affairs was just the most natural and normal thing in the world. Even though he gambled on his own life and those of the women around him, most of them treated him as something of a dependent. They were not flattered by him, did not hesitate to show him that he did not own them, and seemed to look down upon him with some kind of detached amusement. Modern American feminist women who believe in being 'independent' would have liked them I think. Except Kate Hepburn, they were simply with him because he was rich and famous. Hughes on his part treated them with no great respect, but neither with cold manipulation. For him, they were important where and when they were, and even if in the end he appears like a profligate casanova, he was one who was much more innocent than many such philandering Don Juans. That was part of Hughes's character that struck me as quite unique. In any case, he never put them up and above his obssesion with flight.

Hughes also did not hesitate to speak out his mind. When he was investigated for being a war profiteer, he managed to convince the congressional committee investigating him that he did what he did only for making himself and his country aspire to the highest heights in aviation. In the investigation, with his frank admissions but unwavering conviction, he essentially ate the Senator investigating him alive. Hughes personality is interesting because in spite of amassing millions, he is shown to be an artless man who first and foremost is concerned with flight, and as a secondary interest, with making movies. He won't compromise on standards, he will always be frank, he will shun accepted norms, but all this mainly to live and achieve his dreams, and not to earn money. My PhD. advisor says that your primary aim should not be to make money, but if there is money that can be made on your endeavors, then you should be sure you are the one who is getting it. Hughes seems to have taken this belief to heart. If there can be anything such as an innocent millionare, Hughes could very well top the list. In one way, Hughes reminded me of Oscar Schindler, who was also an opportunist with no great scruples, but an honest opportunist at that.

As far as the technical aspects of the movie are concerned, they are very impressive. Especially the scene in which Hughes crashes a new prototype aircraft after mowing its wings through houses in the chic Beverly Hills is breathtaking and should keep the audience at the edge of their seats. Desperately clawing at the blazing hot glass of the cockpit, blood streaming down his face, Hughes managed to hoist himself out of the aircraft. The episode, which almost killed him, left him scarred for life. That did not dampen his enthusiasm for flying high, and after the second world war, he converted his dream of building the biggest aircraft in history, The Hercules, into reality. As he himself described it as a 'flying ship', it was a wonder that it took to the air and stayed there.

Aviation is one of the greatest collective dreams and achievements of humanity, and men like Hughes, for all their other flaws saw high and told others to see equally high. If there's one word that described Howard Hughes, it was 'obssesion'. But then, most trailblazers in history have been men and women who were obssesed with something. That Hughes's obssesion with other matters turned inward on himself is unfortunate. But as far as visionaries go, he was as big a visionary and dreamer as any. There's no doubt that he saw and lived big, and told others to do so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

fine review dude. I will go check the movie out. I remember going to watch this movie when it came out and ended up watching Meet the Fockers. I know it's ridiculous.


11:13 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

That's a funny movie. Don't think you wasted your time :)

7:41 AM  

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