Thursday, January 13, 2005



Martin Scorsese at the top of his form is a sight to see. I’ve seen some reviews that have suggested that The Aviator is his best film since Raging Bull. But The Aviator is considerably better than Raging Bull, even if Leonardo DiCaprio will never be a Robert DeNiro. That, in fact, is the secret to this historic ballet. Rather than have his film overwhelmed by a towering lead performance, the way DeNiro does Bull, Taxi Driver & King of Comedy, The Aviator is built around a more static actor – exactly the way Mean Streets is constructed around Harvey Keitel – which then enables several more powerful supporting actors to use the lead almost as if he were their stage. And in this instance, it is Cate Blanchett who is the DeNiro to DiCaprio’s Keitel.


DiCaprio – who has been better in a number of vehicles, including Romeo & Juliet, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries & Catch Me If You Can – has a daunting task. Even his eyebrows have been died black in an attempt to both make him look more like Howard Hughes & less like someone doomed to appear eternally 25 years old. He’s onscreen virtually every minute of a film that runs some two hours & forty-five minutes. DiCaprio is forced to appear both smarter than any actor gets to be & brimming with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that feeds increasingly into a paranoia over the course of the film. A lot of this DiCaprio conveys by furrowing his brow, but you can see the actor attacking Hughes’ spells & ticks from the outside in.


Blanchett on the other hand has simply an impossible task. She has to become one of the most recognizable film icons of all time in some fashion that makes you believe in the possibility. And she does a tremendous job. Like DeNiro in Mean Streets, her presence alone brings every scene in which she appears to a point of extraordinary intensity, even when she is doing nothing more than walking across a golf course or sitting at her mother’s table in Connecticut. She is so much better as an actor than so many of her peers in the current generation of lead female actresses – Kidman, Roberts, Paltrow, Zellweger – that it’s not funny.


But she is only one of several strong female roles in this film – indeed, the key actors around DiCaprio’s passive center here are Blanchett, Kate Bekinsale as Ava Gardner & Kelli Garner as Hughes’ jailbait paramour who actually auditions for the job. Around this are a series of strong supporting males – John C. Reilly & Matt Ross in particular, as well as Ian Holm playing a fusty professor & Alec Baldwin as the head of Pan American & Alan Alda as Baldwin’s personal go-fer in the U.S. Senate. Beyond this, Scorsese has salted the film with an extraordinary number of significant cameo roles – Brent Spiner, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani (or, more accurately, Gwen Stefani’s hair). The degree to which this is carried out can be seen in three scenes at a more fabulous than can be imagined Copacabana Club. In the first, the lead singer in front of the band is Rufus Wainwright, looking very 1930s. In the second, a female lead singer is portrayed by Rufus’ sister, Martha, & in the last number we see a band leader, played by daddy Loudon Wainwright III.


Scorsese can get away with this because its ultimately his film, not DiCaprio’s or Blanchett’s or writer John Logan’s. This is why I called this a ballet at the start of this note. It’s about conducting a story as much as it one about directing it. Much of The Aviator is about pacing & a lot of it is also about the use of color in film to convey historical time. Large portions of Hughes’ black & white war epic Hell’s Angels appears here not sans color, but in blue & a neon orange in cuts so quick that you never get to stop to notice how unlike the original that really must be. The flying sequences – and especially the use of planes that I can only imagine had to be created via computer graphics – are breath-taking, one of those “how did they do that” experiences. The film’s one extended crash – Hughes lived through five, both in planes & cars – is worthy of Spielberg.


Being an artist of any sort is an athletic activity – it’s rare for a poet, for example, to be consistently at the top of their game for any more than 20 years, often far less. The same is true for directors & actors – look at how much better DeNiro’s recent work would be if he just took on roles that go these days to Sean Connery or Bruce Wills. It’s been fifteen years since Scorsese directed Goodfellas, 22 since King of Comedy. The Aviator is better than either of those pictures & it just may be a fluke, but it’s as good an example of mainstream American cinema as you are apt to see for some time