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The Aviator Film Versus the Real Howard Hughes, Part I  

Published 2001

If there were ever a man larger than life, it was Howard Hughes.  Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator brought more interest to this eccentric billionaire and entrepreneur.  Investigative writer Richard Hack’s definitive biography of Howard Hughes, Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters, adds a mountain of detail to compare to the excellent film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.    


Howard Hughes as a boy possessed precocious mechanical ability but was a poor student. He designed an ingenious motorized bicycle which was a hit with the kids in the neighborhood. His father, “Big Howard,” used his considerable resources to essentially bribe the heads of various prestigious private schools to accept “Sonny.”  Yet the dreamer and future entrepreneur considered his ideas for his own future more compelling than math class. 

From the beginning, Hughes had a desire to strike out independently, and this quality was present even when he was a boy.   This independent, willful quality surely helped him achieve greatness as an adult.  

The film The Aviator does not give details of Hughes’ childhood nor his adolescence. But it does include a scene which alludes to his mother’s fear of germs.  In this scene, Howard’s mother is washing him meticulously in a washbin and spelling the word “quarantine,” after which young Howard repeats the word back to her.  She then goes on to delineate the diseases to be on the watch for: typhus, cholera.  “You know what they can do to you…You are not safe,” she warns him ominously.  

From this we are to infer that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between his mother’s germ fears and Howard’s own obsession with germs.  This suggestion is particularly salient given that it is the first scene in the nearly three hour film. 

Yet this is only one theory.  It is plausible that his mother’s preoccupation with germs caused Hughes’ own phobias, but it is not a settled fact.  His decline in mental health could also be attributed to his many plane crashes, one of which put him in a coma, and several head injuries.  Moreover, it is worth mentioning that Hughes and his mother had no such ritual as portrayed in this ominous washbin scene. 

This scene also tends to exaggerate the neuroticism of Hughes’ mother, portraying her as almost psychotic. More accurately, she was just an overprotective mother of her only child.  She was certainly scared of diseases and overly worried for Howard’s health. But the creepy scene suggests she was clinically disturbed, rather than just a nag frankly.  

To his embarrassment, his mother frequently picked Howard up early from camp or boarding school to allay her constant fears.  She was a helicopter mom while Howard was away at boarding school as a child, sending annoying notes to the headmaster: 

“I hope the doctor will keep an eye on him, watching his feet and teeth, and seeing that he takes his Russian oil every night–I put a large bottle of it in his suitcase…We think that neither he nor Dudley should go on long hikes or eat the precious flap-jacks.” (34) 

Mrs. Hughes understandably feared the Spanish flu.  Again, it is plausible that her hypervigilance could have led to Hughes’ own paranoia about infection later in life.  As an adolescent, though, Howard himself did not necessarily have an unhealthy obsession with viruses and infection.  If anything, young Howard was more interested in striking out into the world than staying in the shelter of his mother’s embrace. 

DiCaprio as Hughes  

Howard Hughes was indeed a ladies’ man, and so it made sense to cast someone with a similar reputation in Hollywood.  At 6′ 2”, Hughes was taller than Leonardo DiCaprio. Hughes was even described as “gangly.”   The 5’ 11’’ DiCaprio is not exactly short; yet there are scenes when it is attempted to make him look to be of a more imposing height with some camera angle maneuvers.  Hughes perhaps had a more masculine aire than the delicate, boyish good looks of DiCaprio, who was just 30 at the time of filming The Aviator in 2004. 

In terms of costuming, DiCaprio sported a stylish brown leather jacket and flying goggles, as did the real Howard Hughes.  DiCaprio also deftly imitates Hughes’ “high, nasally” voice, a voice which is also confident and commanding.  DiCaprio adopts Hughes’ manner of clearing his throat incessantly, yet in a manner that integrated into the rhythm of his forceful cadence of speech.  

Though he died his hair a striking dark brown and wore his bangs longer in the style of the twenties and thirties, still DiCaprio has a fairer complexion than did Hughes. One has to give a little creative license in the casting: he is not a dead ringer. 

DiCaprio’s Hughes inspects an airplane

Still, DiCaprio nicely captures the steely determination of Hughes, which perhaps DiCaprio shares in his dedication to his own craft of acting.  Suffice it to say that this spiritual affinity which Hughes and DiCaprio share is more important than a literal physical resemblance for the purpose of the film.    

An interesting anecdote omitted from the film which would have felt like a call back to another DiCaprio film, Catch Me if You Can:  Hughes used a false identity to become a commercial pilot, at one point happily helping passengers with their luggage.  This amazing ruse ended when his real identity was discovered.  It is something that Hughes led a life so full of adventure that such an incredible episode could be omitted from a nearly three hour biopic. 

A Playboy? 

In his biography, Hack repeatedly refers to Hughes as a “playboy” during his time directing films in Los Angeles and thereafter.  The sister of his first wife, Ella Rice, referred to him as a “philanderer.”  Indeed, he was a shameless philanderer; he cheated on Ella with various Hollywood starlets.  Yet according to  Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters, he was “tongue-tied,” “shy,” and “flushing in embarrassment” (74) when he first met the actress and starlet Billie Dove.  Another woman whom he wooed described Hughes as “like a little boy who needed to be cared for” (100).  

Indeed, he was a shameless philanderer…

If we were to analyze his romantic pursuits psychologically, Hughes’ conquest of women could be seen as part of a “need for validation” (100)–one more trophy to put on the shelf.  This is too clever by half, though, because a beautiful woman may be an end in herself (no pun intended), not necessarily a psychological affirmation. 

While it is true that Hughes intentionally cultivated his image as a womanizer, according to this biography, he was more complex.   Under a “facade of raffish allure” (94) was a shy, sullen boy. 

Perhaps it is better to take it at face value: Hughes was a playboy with an insatiable desire for conquests with ever more beautiful women. Any man with such unlimited fame and resources could be reasonably expected to act in a similar manner. It would only depend on one’s self-control, of which Hughes had little if indeed he felt the need of restraint with beautiful women.  

The Entrepreneur

That he was born into considerable wealth doesn’t diminish the success that Hughes achieved in his own right.  It is a common misconception that someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth is therefore not worthy of any accolades –even if he got some help along the way.  His father, Howard Sr., was also smart and he passed down assets, wealth, and good genes to Howard Jr.   

Howard Hughes wasn’t particularly interested in Hughes Tool Company, the drill bit company from which his father’s fortune derived.  Howard Sr. and a partner invented an ingenious drill-bit to drill through bedrock and extract vast quantities of oil that was previously inaccessible.  When his father passed, his mother already having died relatively young, Hughes was now in charge of his family fortune.  He took advantage of his new financial position with his typically headstrong attitude and took decisive action. 

In The Aviator, as we see him take charge of his family wealth. He advises his new accountant Noah Dietrich:

“Tell them boys in Houston not to call me Junior; it’s Mr. Hughes now.” 

In fact, Hughes was not called “Junior,” but rather “Sonny” until around the age of 19.  The name “Sonny” is used in the film once, when Hughes is conferring with a film executive, who refers to him as “Sonny” dismissively.  His insistence on not being called “Sonny” marks the point at which Hughes took control of both Hughes Tool Company and his own destiny. 

As profitable and innovative as the drill bits were, the young and now independent Hughes was more interested in aviation and film.  He therefore focused his creative energy on those fields instead, treating Hughes Tool Company with benign neglect.  Ultimately, Hughes Tool Company was an asset that Hughes leveraged to pursue other ventures which he found more interesting.  

Meanwhile, he had the foresight to buy his remaining family members’ and relatives’ shares in Hughes Tools, thus becoming the sole owner.  According to the Hack, Hughes “never paid attention to business,” and was surprised when the firm had to lay off employees during the depression. 

As the Great Depression wrought its financial devastation, Hughes could no longer use his credit from Hughes Tools to make purchases.  He was obliged to cede 25 percent of the stock ownership to his ex-wife Ella Rice as part of an alimony renegotiation during these difficult times in the thirties; a set back from the heady times of the roaring twenties.  

Hughes was merely a toddler when his ingenious father innovated the drill bits which were so vital to the oil industry.  But young Howard inherited his father’s innovative spirit and business acumen.  He leveraged his inheritance from his father’s untimely death not just to make films, but to buy industries peripheral to the film industry, such as a color processing firm and a theater operating company.  All the while, he continued in his quest to become a great film director.  At one point the chronic-worker had four films in production simultaneously, all the while delegating little to his subordinates. 

Hughes’ whirling activity in the film industry is all in the background of the boom times of the twenties, which Scorcese portrays with aplomb in The Aviator.  A big jazz band fronted by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright plays Gershwin’s “Stairway to Paradise”; the ballroom is alive with the convivial and exhilarating spirit of the times.  Jazz music expresses the optimism of the ’20s, during which Hughes literally soared to new heights.   DiCaprio’s Hughes sports a debonair grey checkered three-piece suit with slicked-back hair moving to his table in the wild club atmosphere.   

Rufus Wainwright sings “Ticket to Paradise” in The Aviator

Hell’s Angels 

Hughes’ obsessive work on his film Hell’s Angels plays a prominent role in The Aviator.  He acquires a veritable airforce, the World War I era planes are magnificently lined up in open fields, some bearing the German Iron Cross, others representing the British RAF.  Then there is his tortured search for a cloudy day so as to juxtapose the speed of his planes.  In a comedic touch, he has a scientist and professor on the payroll specifically to find these elusive clouds.  

The clouds materialize: they do indeed add a sense of motion and distance to the aerial clashes in Hell’s Angels. It is not hard to imagine that the resulting battle scenes would have appeared impressive in 1930. The opposing fighters’ dialogue is in German, with snippets in subtitles which appear briefly to take up the whole screen.

During production, Hughes’ accountant Dietrich pesters him about the mounting expenses of the film, which is portrayed in The Aviator:

“I got a call from Houston, they’re getting real nervous about all this.”  

By this Dietrich, played by John C. Reilly, is referring to the executives of Hughes Tool Company, the company from which Hughes derived his funding.   

Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos, and Letters describes Jean Harlow’s  screen test for Hell’s Angels. At the time, she was an unknown actress who accepted the role for a mere $1,500, “the lowest fee allowed by the screen actors guild” (76).  However iconic she became, at the time she was contracted at a bargain basement price; an inexperienced actress who by serendipity became a star. 

Harlow’s bleached blonde hair was a novelty.  When Hughes had a look at her, he walked off the set thinking it was hopeless.  He would later coined the term “platinum blonde” to describe her shocking locks.  

Harlow’s style of platinum blonde hair is now a mainstay, echoed in the ‘80s by Madonna.  In the film, Harlow is played by pop star Gwen Stefani, who sported a similar platinum hairdo in her music career.  Though her role is brief, Stefani appears strikingly similar to Harlow. 

In Hell’s Angels, Harlow is a beauty, yet so different than a leading lady might look nowadays.  At any rate, with her graceful and sexy figure, it is clear why she caused such a stir in 1930, the year of the film’s release.  Her alabaster skin and seductive stare give her an undeniable charisma in Hell’s Angels, whereas the male leads lack much of anything to recommend them.  

Her character Helen is a seductress.  Morty warns his friend, who is in love with her:

“I wouldn’t be so idealistic about Helen if I were you,” 

Morty had just slept with Helen; so his advice was a bit of an understatement.  

Yet the lovestruck and fairly pathetic Roy persists with Helen, despite the fact that she seems keen on almost every other man that appears in the picture. Jean Harlow’s bad girl image in Hell’s Angels must have been novel to audiences who were not too far removed form the Victorian Era.

After three years of production and 4 million dollars in costs, Hell’s Angels was finally released.  The expense of the film was an ongoing object of ridicule in the press.  Indeed, it wasn’t cheap to acquire all the airplanes nor to pay the pilots.  Hughes had worked on the film obsessively.  As portrayed in The Aviator, he had to reshoot the silent picture with sound when it became clear that silent films were a thing of the past.  A radio announcer is heard proclaiming that the film is done after two years and two million dollars.  Not quite yet.  

Now film audiences demanded “talkies.”  Dicaprio’s Hughes tells Dietrich as they watch a film with sound: 

“You see, this is what the people want.  Silent pictures are yesterday’s news.  We got to reshoot Hell’s Angels for sound.”  

Dietrich is aghast, fearing what the pricetag will be, but Hughes is adamant.  This also meant recasting the female lead; the original actress had a strong Norwegian accent which would have been distracting. 

Hell’s Angels holds up as an innovative film.  Although the acting even at the time of its release was considered shoddy and the dialogue is stilted, Jean Harlow’s performance remains compelling. 

To be Continued… 

Into the early thirties and the depression, Hughes moved his attention from film to aviation.  The film industry was not the safest bet in terms of investing money. And with all the controversy, perhaps Hughes had his fill of that world.  Now he turned his attention and ambition to his other love: aviation.  

Works Cited 

Hack, Richard. Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters.  Beverly Hills: New Millennium Press, 2001. 

The Aviator. Directed by Marin Scorsese, performance by Leanardo Dicarpio, Warner Bros Pictures, 2004.

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