Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed biopic of the young-to-middle age Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has much to recommend it. It was the first role that established DiCaprio as a force, and in inhabiting the kinetic, driven and tortured character of Hughes, he was able to shuck off the callowness of his characters in Titanic (Jack London: Teen Wolf!), The Beach and Catch Me if You Can. His time to become a leading “man” had arrived (his attempt at a mature character in Gangs of New York was undermined by the garish nature of the picture, Daniel Day Lewis’s battering ram of a counter-performance and what appeared to be DiCaprio’s own discomfort in the role).
The film is also visually stunning. Scorsese is usually the king of movement in tight spaces, but the sky liberates his eye, and the scenes of flying (there are five) are vast and poetic, and for the ones that end in crashes, utterly thrilling.
When Scorsese is on the ground, the film does not suffer. His glitzy pre-war Los Angeles, where the parties are populated by the likes of Errol Flynn (a jaunty Jude Law) and Ava Gardner (a tough, motherly Kate Beckinsale), are eye-popping.
Finally, the choices of Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Sweeney Todd, Skyfall) are adept. Rather than focus on the breadth of Hughes’s life, they opt to show him at his most vibrant, while giving ever-increasing glimpses of the madness that would grip and eventually consume him later in life. For an almost 3 hour film, it’s clear they could have shot for Hughes in the 70s, surrounded by a Mormon coterie and the madness that it protected. By skillfully giving us the symptoms, they economically finish the story.
So, what’s not to like? While DiCaprio and Alan Alda (playing Hughes’s nemesis, the slimy Senator Owen Brewster) were rightfully nominated, though they did not win, so too was Cate Blanchett as Hughes’s love interest Katherine Hepburn, and she actually took home the Best Supporting Actress statuette.
To call her performance cartoonish is a gross understatement. It’s manic, ludicrous mimicry.