By John Newsinger
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 294

Fanciful Flight of the Aviator

This article is over 16 years, 10 months old
The Aviator is an accomplished piece of cinema, but Stephen Philip is right to criticise its politics (Movie News, December SR).
Issue 294

Martin Scorsese has made a film celebrating billionaire Howard Hughes as a romantic hero, an underdog struggling heroically against the odds. This is a complete travesty.

One would have to be very naive to expect any historical Hollywood film to be accurate. What is significant is what film-makers choose to leave in, leave out and make up. With The Aviator we have Hughes’ racism and anti-Semitism left out, his hatred of trade unions and the left and his enthusiastic support for the Hollywood blacklist removed, and his close relationship with the CIA and clandestine attacks on Castro’s Cuba excised.

For some reason the episode in June 1936 when the impatient Hughes ran over and killed a shop assistant does not appear in the film. The bribes paid to the District Attorney’s office to avoid prosecution go unremarked. This is rather surprising because bribery and corruption were one of Hughes’ hallmarks with the list of politicians on his payroll going up to and including Richard Nixon.

Hughes was a notorious sexual predator, exploiting his wealth and power to take advantage of hundreds of young men and women. Scorsese tones this down but also leaves out the rather inconvenient fact that Hughes was bisexual. While he had his affair with Katharine Hepburn he was also having an affair with Cary Grant. This would have added some challenging complexity to the film, but Hollywood cannot deal with bisexual heroes and it would have been goodbye Oscar and probably goodbye to Leonardo DiCaprio as well.

What of Hughes’ business acumen? The reality is very different from the film once again. Hughes’ wealth rested on the engineering business he inherited from his father. This was run for him by Noah Dietrich. Every business venture that he involved himself in – film-making, aircraft, and airlines – failed commercially. They were all self-indulgences only made possible by his great wealth. The flying exploits that Scorsese portrays so effectively were those of a super-rich playboy enjoying himself during the Great Depression. Indeed, the Great Depression is completely absent from Scorsese’s masterpiece.

What Hughes did find profitable was war. The Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War (he manufactured helicopters) were all great opportunities with bribery and corruption greasing the way to enormous profits. Scorsese has achieved a first here: making a film that celebrates a war profiteer. This is very much a film for the Bush era.

But there are snakes in Scorsese’s capitalist garden. The film goes out of its way to denigrate the Hepburns, Katharine’s mother and father. They are the only really decent people shown in the film and their treatment serves to highlight Scorsese’s agenda. The Hepburns were reformist socialists, supporters of women’s suffrage, trade unions, civil rights, birth control, and strong anti-war campaigners. Katharine Hepburn’s mother was a friend of Emma Goldman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Pankhursts. She had taken her daughter factory leafleting. Katharine’s father, an eminent doctor, campaigned to remove the stigma from venereal disease. These are the people Scorsese holds up to ridicule.

John Newsinger

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