Director Martin Scorsese last directed Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs
of New York, which recreated some of the poorest and meanest
streets of 19th century New York. Now they team again to create
a very different world: the glamour and wealth of a young Howard
Hughes. The film lavishly recreates 1930s Hollywood, and examines
Hughes's role in early aviation.
My 'History in the Movies' column on 'The Aviator' was printed
in the Malibu
Times on 12/23/04, and other newspapers the weekend of 12/25-12/26.
"A Hughes to Remember"
At the age of twenty, Howard Hughes impulsively wrote down his
life goals on the back of a sales receipt. Never one for modesty,
he aspired to be the world's best golfer, its greatest pilot, and
its most famous movie producer.
Well, two out of three ain't bad. Though his golf game never amounted
to much, Hughes realized his other grandiose dreams, at least for
And it's that glorious-though troubled-time in his life that The
Aviator, Martin Scorsese's new film, captures. Instead of the older,
thoroughly oddball Howard Hughes, holed up with mangy hair in a
darkened room, we have a young, vibrant Hughes; a man obsessed with
achieving superlatives. The richest man in America. A record-breaking
pilot. The producer of hugely expensive films. And the romancer
of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood.
This Hughes is so larger-than life that I'm amazed his life hasn't
been mined by Hollywood before now. But does The Aviator present
a real or a fictionalized Howard Hughes? Here's a guide to sort
Q. Since it's not covered in the film, how did Hughes get so
A. It was his daddy's money, created in the decidedly unglamorous
field of drill bit production. Howard grew up in luxury in Texas,
then lost both parents as a teenager. Young, independent, and filthy
rich (the perfect candidate for a reality series, today) he was
lured to Hollywood at twenty to try his hand at filmmaking.
As the film suggests, Howard Hughes was far better at spending
money than making it. But he hired astute business managers, who
capably built up Hughes's assets faster than Hughes could spend
them on planes and movies.
Q. Was Hughes's first film, Hell's Angels, the most expensive
film ever made until then?
A. While that dubious honor probably goes to 1925's Ben-Hur, Hell's
Angels cost a then-astounding $3.8 million. Producer, financier,
and director, Hughes poured himself-and his cash-into the film for
Though perhaps no more nuts than today's perfectionist directors,
the stories about Hughes from the Hell's Angels set are legend.
To stage the spectacular aerial battles at the heart of the WWI
film, Hughes bought enough planes to rival the air forces of other
countries. He then grounded the production for months while waiting
for suitable cloud formations against which to film. He cajoled
his pilots into attempting stunts never before tried, and when they
refused, hopped into a plane himself and promptly crashed it. When
the film was virtually complete and had already cost a fortune,
Hughes decided silent movies were outdated, scrapped much of the
footage, and reshot the film as a talkie. Then to cap it off, Hughes
orchestrated the most spectacular film premiere in Hollywood history.
It all paid off. The film earned a twenty-minute standing ovation
and critical raves. At twenty-four, Hughes had conquered Hollywood.
Q. The film shows Hughes's germ phobia originating with his
A. In a classic "blame the mother" moment, the film opens
on Howard as a young child, being bathed by his mother as she incessantly
lectures him about the danger of germs and the need for quarantine.
The soap she uses reappears throughout the film-the adult Hughes's
talisman against the evils of germs.
There's a lot of truth to this. The real Allene Hughes did get
hysterical about germs, and coddled her only child excessively.
But Hughes's phobias weren't all mom's fault. His well-documented
aversion to handshaking, for instance, probably began when he contracted
syphilis-an episode not shown in the film. The disease first revealed
itself in the form of tiny blisters erupting on his hands. After
receiving medical treatment, Hughes was warned by his doctor not
to shake hands for a time. Hughes avoided it the rest of his life.
The syphilis was also responsible for a bizarre episode in which
Hughes burned all his clothes. The film presents it as his response
to Katharine Hepburn's leaving him. In reality, it was Hughes's
overreacting to the syphilis diagnosis by ordering every piece of
clothing and bed linen in his home destroyed.
Q. Speaking of Katharine Hepburn, were she and Ava Gardner really
A. Yes, but the film shows restraint here, for they were just the
tip of the iceberg. Hughes slept with a veritable who's who of Hollywood
beauties. Beside Hepburn and Gardner, he dated (and bedded) Ginger
Rogers, Gloria Vanderbilt, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner,
and countless other lesser known starlets or debutantes.
Yet lots of evidence suggests that Hughes's libido was never as
strong as he pretended. His obsession seemed more in collecting
women than loving them. It was the image of himself as Hollywood's
biggest playboy that he loved.
Q. How important were his aviation achievements?
A. Very, and the film resurrects this forgotten aspect of Hughes's
life. Hughes not only was a flashy pilot-breaking speed records,
and achieving a Lindbergh-like fame after an around-the-world flight
in 1938-but he was also a visionary in aviation technology. In his
thirst to fly higher, faster, and farther than anyone else, he pushed
his engineers relentlessly, often resulting in significant technological
Perhaps with this film, Martin Scorsese will rehabilitate Hughes's
image. Rather than dwelling only on the weird eccentricities of
his old age or the Hollywood escapades of his youth, we'll think
of Howard Hughes as he would have wanted to be remembered, as the
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor
at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.