Thursday, April 13, 2017
April 13, 2017: Aviation Histories: Howard Hughes
[April 16th marks the 150th anniversary of aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright’s birth. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of key moments and figures in aviation history, leading up to a weekend post on the Wright Brothers themselves!]
On how two acclaimed films remember the iconoclastic aviator, and how to complement both narratives.
Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator (2004), starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, seeks to portray Hughes’s roller-coaster life in the most blockbuster epic way possible. Despite the title, and despite a number of bravura aviation action sequences, Scorcese’s film is no more about Hughes’s pioneering aeronautic achievements than it is about his film productions, his numerous liaisons with Hollywood actresses and celebrities, his descent into eccentricity and mental illness, or any other individual stage in this multi-act drama. As he does so many of his heroes and protagonists, even those who don’t seem to deserve any response other than criticism or even condemnation, Scorcese clearly sees Hughes as an embodiment of the best and worst of the American Dream, of the grandest kinds of triumphs and successes and of the cost and pain that they often bring with them. DiCaprio is impressive in the part as he always is, capturing each stage of Hughes’s life from boyhood ambitions through the worst moments of his final years, but to this AmericanStudier the film feels like one of those sweeping biopics that includes almost everything and adds up to nearly nothing. I don’t imagine many viewers would come away learning anything specific or in-depth about Hughes as, y’know, an aviator.
Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980), featuring Jason Robards as Hughes, couldn’t be more distinct in either overall tone or its portrayal of Hughes. Based on the true story (or at least true claims, although they have since received some validation) of a Nevada man who supposedly rescued Hughes after a desert car crash, befriended the aging and iconoclastic tycoon, and ended up receiving a controversial and still contested place in Hughes’s will, Demme’s film is a quiet and quirky character study, one focused much more on Paul Le Mat’s Melvin and his rocky life and relationships, with Robards’ Hughes as a sort of mysterious guardian angel and potential deux ex machina. As such, Robards’ Hughes is defined purposefully and entirely by his eccentric nature, as a man with virtually no remaining human connections sitting on a vast fortune that (due to precisely that eccentricity) might well end up with a schlub like Melvin Dummar. How Hughes got to that point and that fortune isn’t within the film’s purview, and so neither are his aviation achievements; Hughes the reclusive and mysterious billionaire is the character Demme’s film requires, and one that wouldn’t function as neatly if we heard about his high-flying exploits.
Both films are of course free (well, free with the permission of the Hughes estate, I assume, but that’s neither my business nor my concern here) to use and portray Howard Hughes however they see fit. And it’s fair to say that both the sweeping epic story of Hughes’s life and the eccentric details of his final years would be of more interest to audiences than would individual moments of aviation advances. But on the other hand, some of those aviation advances are pretty impressive—most especially Hughes’s record-breaking July 1938 around-the-world flight, which beat the prior record for such a journey by nearly four days (Hughes achieved the feat in 91 hours). Moreover, alongside such aeronautic accomplishments that rival (or at least approach) those of Charles Lindbergh and his peers, Hughes was also a highly successful aviation designer and engineer, with his work in advancing aviation technology deemed so significant as to win him (among many other awards) a 1939 Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of the achievements of Howard Hughes in advancing the science of aviation and thus bringing great credit to his country throughout the world.” While I certainly wouldn’t entirely equate Hughes with the Wright Brothers, I would say that he’s further toward them on the spectrum of innovation and achievement than many other pioneering aviators. Which might not make for the most exciting epic or intimate character study, but is a history worth remembering as well.
Next aviation history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories you’d highlight?