By: Michael Mattis
Martin Scorsese, Director
Warner Home Video
It should come as no surprise that a gentleman with a talent for making a cravat seem to float in the air would hold a fascination with flight. Indeed, dandies have been flying almost from the start. When brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier first witnessed their newly invented hot-air balloon ascend above the streets of pre-Revolution Paris – their feet safely on the ground, we might add – you can bet they were in their Sunday best. By the beginning of the 20th century, aviation became one of those dangerous pastimes practiced by the rich, the fashionable and the adventurous.
Chief among these daring dandies was Alberto Santos-Dumont, the diminutive Brazilian who amazed Paris by attending soirees in his little dirigibles, and later his bat-like airplanes. Santos was always impeccably dressed for flying; the boutonniere being an essential accessory. To “le petit Santos” we owe the Cartier “Santos” wristwatch, the popularizing of the Panama hat, and, according to a lot of still-miffed Brazilians, the invention of the airplane. (His 14 Bis did manage to get off the ground before the Wright Flyer – publicly, at least – but Santos couldn’t control either its roll or its yaw, so the Wrights get all the credit.)
Like Santos-Dumont, Howard Hughes stands among the greatest aviators in history. Hughes can’t be called a dandy – particularly in his later, shall we say, “Methuselah” period – but he shared with Santos-Dumont and other elegant aviators and aviatrixes of the pioneering era the sort of spark, daring and self-confidence that would make even the Brummells of the world drop their snuff boxes in awe.
Director Martin Scorsese has made a dandy of a film about the aviator, industrialist and film director’s young life. “The Aviator” opens as Hughes struggles to get his World War I flying epic “Hell’s Angels” to the big screen and closes with the maiden (and only) flight of his massive “Spruce Goose” airplane and his long slide into paranoiac semi-sanity. In between is an entertaining and sometimes fascinating pastiche that traces Hughes’s battles with the Hollywood establishment, the airline establishment, the female establishment and the sanity establishment. It’s the story of the lone genius struggling against enemies from without while facing – and losing to – the demons from within. And who among us hasn’t been there?
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the lead effectively, if not magnificently, while Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holme, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani and even Brent Spiner of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame pass across the screen, creditably portraying various historical personages at varying odds with Hughes. By far the best among these is Blanchett, whose performance as – or rather, imitation of – Katherine Hepburn is so dead on it’s almost scary. Close your eyes and you think the Hep’s in the room with you, talking in her mile-a-minute “Connecticut clip” from beyond the grave. Open them and, while Cate’s no ringer for Kate, she has the elder actress’s moves and expressions down pat. Among the films best scenes is one in which the self-made Hughes goes to meet Hepburn’s effete, upper-crust, fashionably socialistic family. Hilarity ensues.
Scorsese’s grasp of the power of costume to communicate mood and tone has always been masterful. “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “The Color of Money,” “Goodfellas” and especially “The Age of Innocence” all tell stories of status in which clothing plays a more than supporting role. Even when the final product itself falls short, as was the case with “Gangs of New York,” the director’s feel for the power of clothes shines through. “Gangs” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 2002 and “The Age of Innocence” won the prize in 1993.
Scorsese knows well how clothes can make the man – or movie. And he is, of course, more than a bit of the dandy himself. Like Santos-Dumont, Scorsese is petit but dapper, rarely letting himself be seen in anything but one if his trademark, double-breasted designer suits. He once collaborated with “Age of Innocence” screenwriter Jay Cocks on “Made in America,” a documentary celebrating Giorgio Armani.
It is a sartorial sensibility that comes through to brilliant effect in “The Aviator.” From the directorial jodhpurs and businesslike fedoras worn by DiCaprio to Blanchett’s “Philadelphia Story”-style Hepburn ensembles, Scorsese – with a lot of help from his award-winning designer, Sandy Powell – uses costume to set period and convey status with almost academic precision. Would more fashion designers had Scorsese’s sense of style.