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The Aviator Film Versus the Real Howard Hughes, Part II

From Film to Aviation

A part of masculinity is taking risks.  If we take that definition, Howard Hughes was so much more the man.  In Part I, we explored Hughes’ childhood and early filmmaking. In this installment, we turn to his daredevil, record-breaking flights in the 1930s.  At the same time, Hughes kept up a frenetic pace of romance and filmmaking as we continue in our look at Richard Hack’s Hughes: the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters.  We track the historical record with the depiction of Hughes in The Aviator.  

Breaking Flight Records 

Hughes’ ambition was to break the world record for speed.  Using his H-1 plane, which he christened the Flying Bullet, Hughes made a test flight over Los Angeles at a “ripping 300 miles per hour” (97).  The world record at the time was 314.  Hughes was ready to break the record, having obsessively refashioned and fitted his H-1 for maximum velocity.  

Wearing a “black suit and tie, a leather helmet, and oversized goggles” (97), Hughes boarded his Flying Bullet, a plane he helped design, and proceeded to smash the record.   In the film, DiCaprio dons a different wardrobe, while still dapper, boarding the H-1 in a crisp white shirt, light brown jacket and fedora. It was a nod to Hughes’ lucky fedora.  

Hughes clocked in at 352 miles per hour.  In The Aviator, Hughes’ team can be heard cheering, “352!”  Hughes had deliberately kept the plane with a minimum amount of fuel so as to keep the load lighter.  Unable and unwilling to stop, he ran out of fuel, the engine stopped, and he crashed into a beet field. 

Yet he emerged from the cockpit only to pronounce, “It’ll go faster” (97).  In the film this is translated to, “She’ll go faster,” as DeCaprio sports his lucky fedora at a jaunty angle, leaning against the shimmering silver H-1 with the beet field in the background.  

He goes home to tell Kate Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) that he reached 352.  “You did it!” she exclaims.  Pointing to his chest, he simply responds, “Fastest man on the planet.”  

Pointing to his chest, he simply responds, “Fastest man on the planet.”  

In the film, Hepburn admonishes Hughes that his growing fame will be difficult to navigate.  Indeed, the couple were extraordinarily famous and hounded by the press.  Hughes’ aviation feats only added to the media circus.  The film suggests that their competing celebrity status was a source of friction in the relationship.  More likely, Hughes simply moved on to other women. 

Soon after breaking the record for fastest flight, Hughes would break the transcontinental record.  He realized shortly after take off in Burbank, California that his radio didn’t work. But the intrepid aviator decided to go ahead anyway, relying on visual contact with the ground and mere instinct.  Nine hours later he landed in Newark, New Jersey, having broken the record.  Yet he considered this feat insufficient, as he had only beat the record by 36 minutes.  He would repeat this flight later to beat his own record, this time in his refitted Flying Bullet. At one point in his flight, he lost oxygen and struggled to remain conscious.  Ultimately, he was able to make a safe landing in Newark Airport, despite his radio malfunctioning, rendering him unable to communicate with the control tower. 

The next aviation feat was a flight across the world; it was a go at yet another world record.  Quirky as ever, Hughes prepared by “comparing the nutritional value of fourteen different breads” for the crew rather than studying maps and flight plans (112).  On the day of the flight Hughes arrived in style:

“a pair of grey worsted trousers, an unironed, Brooks Bros. shirt, black tie, double-breasted jacket, topped off with his lucky fedora” (112). 

He made it to Paris in record time, cutting Lindberg’s record in half.  As for crossing continental Europe, “Adolf Hitler made it clear the plane was not welcome” (114).  A rapidly rearming Germany in 1938 was not in a welcoming mood to the American aviator.  A compromise was reached to allay Hitler’s concerns over spying: Hughes would fly at 12,000 feet altitude where spying would have been impossible. Even then, he was escorted by two Luftwaffe fighter planes.  

He received a better reception in Stalin’s Russia.  All the while, a worried Katherine Hepburn awaited his safe return nervously, frequently checking the radio for reports.  Hughes went on through the forbidding terrain of Siberia, unsuccessfully attempting to convey to the locals his need for fuel.  

The crew narrowly avoided a mountain in Siberia, which they surely wouldn’t have seen had they been flying at night.  After stopping in Alaska and Canada, they finally headed towards New York.  Above the airport, a large crowd of spectators had gathered, a crowd that included Mayor LaGuardia.  As Hughes changed his mind about which side of the airport to land, a stampede formed, “the throngs broke through the barricades and ran” towards Hughes’ landing strip (117).

He broke the record for a trip around the world: Just over 19 hours. It was a harrowing but speedy journey.  A gaunt and exhausted Hughes was shy of the press upon landing.  Instead, he snuck away and took up with Hepburn in her home in Manhattan. 

The record for the flight around the world is only briefly alluded to in The Aviator, showing the resultant parade and adulation, but eliding over the harrowing details of the flight.  

Katherine Hepburn 

During these feats of flight, Hughes was in a relationship with Katherine Hepburn, who is considered to be one of the greatest actresses of the time.  In The Aviator, Cate Blanchett deftly portrays both Hepburn’s dynamism and her vulnerability, even mimicking her facial expressions with fidelity.  Hepburn was provocative in choosing to wear pants, something odd for women in the ‘30s.  Her manner and brashness were likewise singular.  

Blanchett as Hepburn pronounces to Hughes on a golf outing: 

“Men can’t be friends with women.  They must posses them or leave them be. It’s a primitive urge from cavemen days.  It’s all in Darwin.”  

This observation foreshadows, ironically, the friendship that Hughes and Hepburn would ultimately develop.  But first, it was a romantic relationship.

The “love sick” Hughes was delighted when Hepburn accepted his invitation to move in to his home in Los Angeles (105), bringing along her staff and puppies.  In the now lively house, Hughes preferred to stick to his private study above the master bedroom. In The Aviator when Hepburn asks him, “Well, what room do you like?”  Hughes responds, “My study.”  His study is pictured with a beautiful dark mahogany desk, a large globe, and a brown leather couch where he kisses Blanchett’s Hepburn, her elegant ivory back facing towards the camera.  This is where he secluded himself and threw himself into his work at a fevered pace.  

The star couple generated their fair share of press and media attention.  Yet after breaking world flight records, Hughes became more distant with Hepburn.  She ultimately concluded that they had become friends, and she came to embrace this friendship.  Indeed, in a letter to his aunt, Hughes referred to Hepburn as an “exceptionally good friend” (131).  

Hughes’ Continuing Love Life and Sexuality 

Meanwhile, Hughes romanced new Hollywood starlets and other beautiful young women.  An heiress with whom he was romantically involved with for several months later explained the end of their relationship by asserting that he was gay.  Adding grist to this gossip was the fact that Hughes was at times seen with Cary Grant at a club which Marlene Dietrich considered her “favorite homosexual hangout” (121). 

Biographer Richard Hack concludes that the notion that Hughes was homosexual is “incorrect” (122).  Rather, he simply preferred the company of men, and treated women as trophies and conquests.   It would indeed be illogical to leap to such a conclusion with such scant evidence from possibly biased sources.  Yet Hack does cite the comments of a couple women, including Joan Crawford, who at least expressed ambivalence about Hughes’ sexuality.  This leaves us with a somewhat incomplete picture vis-à-vis Hughes’ love life which can only lead us to say…let’s give the guy a little privacy!  

Into the late ‘30s, Hughes continued to romance a rotating crop of women, some of whom were on the wrong side of 18.  Yet he didn’t make the mistake of trying to cohabitate with any of them, as he had with Hepburn, which proved a difficult arrangement.  One such girl was Faith Domergue, who was merely 15 when Hughes started to woo her.  When she turned 16, Hughes proposed marriage.  This was the same girl who would drive her convertible into Hughes’ car with Ava Gardner in the passenger seat. 

…Hughes continued to romance a rotating crop of women, some of whom were on the wrong side of 18. 

Though his romance with Hepburn had ended, their friendship continued.  Hughes was eager to help Hepburn with her fledgeling film career–she had been marked as “box office poison.”  In The Aviator she says as much to Hughes and some of his associates, “I’m box office poison.”  Hughes had Hepburn cast in a play and bought the rights for the script that would ultimately be translated to film. It was a hit: Philadelphia Story, released in 1940. 

The Outlaw   

Hughes’ next discovery was Jane Russell, who would star in his Western film The Outlaw.  Part of the marketing campaign were billboards plastered across the country featuring Russell’s ample bosom.  The ad stated crassly, “Two good reasons to see The Outlaw.”  Hughes concerned himself with how to best portray Russell’s breasts, inventing a “special metal bra” for the purpose (130).  In the film, DiCaprio’s Hughes refers to the “uplift ratio” of his special design and “torque support,” using a draft to illustrate his bra ideas to his associates. Russell, unsurprisingly, did not enjoy wearing this contraption.  

The 1943 film, shot in Arizona, was meant to be a Western, but sexier and with less dust, as Hughes put it.  The Outlaw features the familiar characters of the Wild West: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and Doc Holliday. It appears Billy the Kid has stolen Holliday’s horse; nevertheless, the two join up in cahoots. Despite their new friendship, Billy the Kid declines to return Holliday’s horse. Jack Buetel plays the quick-drawing, short-tempered Billy the Kid with a certain flair. With that said, he does not bear a physical resemblance to Billy the Kid in particular.

Rio McDonald (Jane Russell) is tasked with nursing Billy the Kid back to health after he’s shot by Pat Garrett. This is a fraught task though, because as it happens, Billy the Kid had killed her brother (in self-defense, according to him). Despite this bad blood, McDonald throws herself into the task of reviving him. Steadily a romance develops from the nurse/patient relationship.

It might be a little disappointing to learn that half the time, Russell wears a shirt which displays no cleavage whatsoever. But when she changes her wardrobe into a low-cut blouse; well, you can see what all the fuss was about.

…when she changes her wardrobe into a low-cut blouse; well, you can see what all the fuss was about.

At work on his B-2 bomber during the day, the prolific Hughes would shoot and direct the film at night.  In The Aviator, one of Hughes’ associates says about the film, “You know what it’s about–S-E-X.”  In this scene at a late night restaurant or club, Hughes is pictured eating a sirloin steak and petit peas, which was indeed his “standard evening meal” (134).  When one of his companions, an actor, helps himself to one of his peas, Hughes’ becomes disgusted and pushes his plate away.  Hepburn is bored by Hughes’ companions:

“Golly, their Hollywood talk bores me.  As if there aren’t more important things to talk about–Musollini for one.”  

It was not until 1945 when The Outlaw was debuted across the country. The film did pretty well at the box office, yet received “dismissive reviews” (156).

To Be Continued

In comparing The Aviator to Howard Hughes’ definitive biography, a theme develops: Hughes as a young and middle aged man was not crazy.  His biggest fault was simply working too much, which drove him to exhaustion and at times even the hospital.  It is later on in the story of Howard Hughes’ life when he becomes more eccentric, and begins to suffer from a cognitive impairment or mental illness.  But for the time, he was still a millionaire, an eligible bachelor, and in control of his own destiny…

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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