Stream On: ‘The Aviator’—Howard Hughes, Katherine Hepburn, OCD and more

By on February 16, 2023

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic ‘The Aviator.’ (Warner Brothers)

Howard Hughes (1905-1976) was an American manufacturer, aviator, and motion-picture producer and director who acquired enormous wealth and celebrity from various ventures but was perhaps better known for his eccentricities, especially his reclusiveness. Martin Scorsese directed The Aviator, an epic biography of an epic life, in 2004.


/Amazon /Streaming /Trailer /🍅86% /2004 /PG13

Get up in the morning, put on your shoes, You can read about old Howard Hughes (“Howard Hughes,” by Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly)

Based on the 1993 non-fiction book Howard Hughes: The Secret Life by Charles Higham, Martin Scorsese’s epic film depicts Hughes’ life from 1927 to 1947 during which time Hughes became a successful film producer and an aviation magnate while suffering from increasingly severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Cate Blanchett is second-billed as Katherine Hepburn.

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) disappears into the audacious and impatient young industrialist whom we first see struggling to make Hell’s Angels (not currently streaming but available on DVD and online), a film about two brothers in the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Struggling not from a lack of talent or vision, but because of the sheer size and scope of the film: It cost an unprecedented $3.5 million to make in 1930; in 2023 dollars that would be $62.2 million. Hughes needed 26 cameras, airplanes, pilots—when the principal stunt pilot told Hughes that a stunt in the final scene was too dangerous, Hughes flew the aircraft himself, but crashed. He suffered a skull fracture and had to undergo facial surgery. Three stunt pilots and a mechanic died in accidents during filming.

Hughes’ taste in larger-than-life projects manifested itself also in his affair with actress Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett, who is surprisingly good in a challenging role). They had met on the set of Sylvia Scarlett in which she was acting and he courted her with the single-mindedness he had displayed in producing Hell’s Angels. They were well-matched: even though both got their start with family money and connections, both followed through with talent and intelligence, making their successes their own.

In 1935, Hughes tests his H-1 Racer, pushing it to a new speed record, despite having to crash-land into a beet field when it runs out of fuel. (It was the last aircraft built by a private individual to set the world speed record.) Three years later, he breaks the world record by flying around the world in four days. He subsequently purchases majority interest in Trans-World Airlines.

In 1947, Hughes finishes the XF-11 reconnaissance aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Force and takes it for a test flight. One of the engines fails in midflight, and he crashes spectacularly in Beverly Hills, miraculously surviving the crash. The army cancels its order for the H-4 Hercules flying boat, although Hughes continues the development with his own money. Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ CEO (John C. Reilly), informs Hughes that he must choose between funding the airlines or his flying boat. Hughes orders Dietrich to mortgage the TWA assets so he can continue the development.

Pan American Airline’s Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, Dopesick) and Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) sponsor a bill that would require all American airlines flying abroad to give up their routes to a consolidated international airline corporation in which Pan Am, the largest carrier, would have a controlling interest. Brewster begins an investigation of Hughes as a wartime contractor, claiming that Hughes Aircraft received 40 million dollars of government funding but failed to complete the Hercules or the XF-11. When the Hercules is criticized during the hearings, called by its derogatory name of the “Spruce Goose” (it was built of laminated birch wood, since aluminum wasn’t available during WWII when it began production), Hughes defends the aircraft, insisting that its development is a major advance for aviation.

Meanwhile, Hepburn grows tired of Hughes’ increasing eccentricity and leaves him for fellow actor Spencer Tracy (Kevin O’Rourke). He quickly finds a new love interest with 15-year-old Faith Domergue, and later, actress Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). But he still has feelings for Hepburn, and bribes a reporter to keep reports about her and Tracy, who was married, out of the press.

The Aviator’s special effects are outstanding, including the depicted flight of the H-4 Hercules, by far the largest airplane ever built at the time. During taxiing tests in Los Angeles Harbor, Hughes decides on the spot to try a flight and goes airborne for 26 seconds, covering about a mile (still longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight of 12 seconds).

In spite of its great promise, the spruce goose would never fly again.

Howard Hughes suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), most notably an obsession with germs and cleanliness. Scorsese and DiCaprio worked with Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD of UCLA, to portray the most accurate depiction of OCD. When Hughes was suffering from the disorder, there was no psychiatric definition for what ailed him. Instead of receiving proper treatment, he was forced to hide his compulsions until his disorder began to conflict with everyday functioning.

(On February 19, the Don and Catharine Bryan Cultural Series will present Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story at RC Kill Devil Hills Movies 10 with commentary by Dr. Chris Palestrant, Professor of Music Composition at Elizabeth City State University. In 1938 Hepburn was box-office poison after a string of flops, and while it’s not mentioned in The Aviator, Howard Hughes bought the screen rights to Philip Barry’s play for her, engineering her Hollywood comeback.)

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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