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Film / The Aviator

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The Aviator is a 2004 biopic about Howard Hughes, a 20th century industrialist, film producer/director... and, well, aviator. Martin Scorsese directed it, John Logan wrote it, and Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hughes; the film also features Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, and a bunch more really famous people playing other famous people.

The story, which takes place smack in the middle of The Golden Age of Hollywood, documents Hughes's production of the films Hell's Angels and The Outlaw, his efforts to establish and grow Trans World Airlines and to develop reconnoissance and troop-transport aircraft for the Army Air Forces during World War II, his relationships with Hepburn and Gardner, and his ever-worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder. It won five out of eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actress (Blanchett).


  • Answer Cut: When asked if he really thinks he'll be allowed to make "a whole movie just about tits," Howard replies "Sure. Who doesn't like tits?" Smash cut to: The review board, glowering angrily at him.
  • Artistic License History:
    • The film depicts Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy hooking up on a movie set while she's still in a relationship with Howard and Howard pulling a I Want My Beloved to Be Happy; in reality, she and Howard had already broken up for quite some time by the time she met Tracy. This seems to have been added just for the sake of the Rule of Drama.
    • There's a scene at the Hepburn dinner where Mrs. Hepburn says to Hughes, "We don't care about money here," to which Hughes retorts "That's because you have it. You don't care about money because you've always had it." Aside from the likehood of that exchange having actually taken place, the reverse happened in real life: Dr. Thomas N. Hepburn had raised himself from poverty working odd jobs through medical school in the early 1900s, while Howard Hughes had inherited Hughes Tool Company and a few millions in cash at 18.
    • The incident in which Howard locked himself in his screening room for months happened in 1958, not prior to the Senate hearings in 1947.
  • Author Appeal: Scorsese himself has been known to spend days holed up in his bedroom watching the same film over and over, though he doesn't take it to quite the extremes seen here.
  • Badass Bystander: True to Real Life, Hughes is saved from his plane crash by a bystanding GI, Marine Sgt. William Lloyd Durkin.
  • Berserk Button: Don't ever call the Hercules the Spruce Goose to Howard's face. He won't like it.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": This happens when Ava learns that Howard was tapping her phone lines and calls him out for it:
    Ava: What do you wanna know, Howard? Was I screwing Artie Shaw last night? Was I screwing Sinatra the night before? You bet! Everyone told me you were a goddamn lunatic, but I didn't listen! It's no wonder Katie Hepburn dumped your demented ass!
    Howard: (exploding, knocking her down) SHUT YOUR GODDAMN MOUTH!!!
    (Ava rebounds and shoves him down)
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: This is Howard's argument to the MPAA when they object to the prevalence of Jane Russell's "mammaries" in his film The Outlaw.
    Glenn Odekirk: Howard, you really think they're gonna let you put out a whole movie just about tits?
  • Camera Fiend:
    • Justified when you're trying to make a movie. "I need two more cameras by Saturday! Rent them if you can, steal them if you have to."
    • Kate's ex-husband.
  • Casting Couch: Howard is shown auditioning 15 year-old Faith Domergue, who's later shown crashing her car into Howard's in anger over him seeing Ava Gardner.
  • Chiaroscuro: The screening room.
  • Color Wash: Every scene is supposed to look similar to color film stock from that year/era.
  • The Consigliere: Odie and Noah Dietrich are - or at least try to be - this for Howard.
  • Cool Plane: One would hope...
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ava Gardner
  • Decade-Themed Filter: When the film begins in the 1920s, it is colored to look like Two-Tone Technicolor. Once it progresses into the 1930s onward, it gets a more-vibrant 3-Strip Technicolor look.
  • Determinator: Howard Hughes himself. When he wants something, he'll do whatever it takes to get it.
  • Digging Yourself Deeper:
    • Howard promises to remove all the bugs from Ava's room. Ava had just found out she was being bugged; she didn't realise there was more than one.
    • As Hughes turns the Senate hearings around on Senator Brewster, the Senator's responses only bury himself and subsequently his bill.
  • Downer Ending: The film ends with Hughes relapsing into his madness.
  • Ejection Seat: Averted when the XF-11 crashes.
  • Fiery Redhead: Katharine Hepburn.
  • Fish out of Water: The introverted and left-brained Howard has a hard time connecting with the loud, creative, and opinionated Hepburns at a family gathering.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Howard and Kate can't end up together. Nor can he with any of his love interests in the film. His further descent into madness is also this.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: If you hit the pause button just right when Hughes is being sworn in at the Senate hearing, you can see Hughes's skeleton exposed by the flash.
  • Friendly Enemy: Subverted. Hughes and Juan Trippe are certainly civil to each other, but you can sense Trippe's superior attitude when it comes to Hughes... who, in turn, barely manages to mask his own contempt for Trippe.
  • From Bad to Worse: Hughes' progressive descent into madness.
  • Futureshadowing: A literal version when the movie ends on Hughes' Madness Mantra, "The way of the future..." showing the mental illness that would eventually consume him.
  • Get Out!: Ava tells Howard to do this after she learns that he was tapping her phone lines. See Big "SHUT UP!" above.
  • Gilligan Cut:
    Glenn Odekirk: Howard, you really think they're gonna let you put out a whole movie just about tits?
    Howard Hughes: Sure. Who doesn't like tits?
    (Cue the Censor Board)
  • Girl of the Week: Katharine is not pleased about Howard's womanizing.
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: Martha Wainwright's brief appearance at the Coconut Grove. Rufus is also quite glamorous, but he technically doesn't sing during the war.
  • Good News, Bad News: This exchange, regarding a plane:
    Odekirk: You want the good news or the bad news?
    Hughes: Bad news, always.
    Odekirk: All right. We installed the radial. Struts won't take the vibration. The minute we fire her up, the struts start cracking at the attach points.
    Hughes: Well, what's the good news?
    Odekirk: There isn't any.
  • Herr Doktor: Professor Fitz.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Not entirely, since the movie does show Hughes' possessive nature, his paranoid wire tapping of Ava Gardner and his obsessive nature but it plays down a lot of Hughes' shadier and sleazier side and frames him as a Byronic Hero. Likewise, the film stops in the late 1940s, right before Hughes enters his darkest phase (the purchase of RKO Pictures and his hermetic retreat). Some critics have noted that the film is a movie about Hughes as he might have made a movie about himself.
  • Hollywood Healing: Almost averted: after the plane crash, Howard does develop scars all over his torso, but his face stays in pretty good shape considering the huge fireball that exploded toward it earlier. It helps that he partially hides the scarring with a mustache.
    • The real-life Hughes did in fact start sporting that mustache after the crash to hide a scar on his lip.
  • Hope Spot: After successfully standing up to Congress and getting the Hercules to fly, it seems like Hughes has finally overcome his mental instability — only to relapse into his madness at the end of the film.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    Hughes: Hey, Odie! Take it easy! (after telling him to fire a janitor because he was staring at him)
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Howard ensures that salacious photos of the married Spencer Tracy and Howard's ex Katherine Hepburn are not exposed by bribing a fortune in stock to the journalist.
  • Jar Potty: Part of Howard's first major breakdown.
  • Kick the Dog: Senator Brewster, having already charged Howard with war profiteering and invited him over for dinner as a pretense to blackmail him, presses his thumb against Howard's water glass before he arrives, knowing the smudge will irritate Hughes' OCD. Sure enough, Howard rotates the side with the thumb print away from his mouth before drinking, which is shown to privately amuse Brewster.
  • Kill It with Fire: Howard does this to all his clothes after Katharine leaves him, presumably to get rid of her germs.
  • Kinda Busy Here: Howard says this on the phone during an argument with Katharine.
  • Madness Mantra: One of the symptoms of Howard's OCD is repeating certain phrases over and over.
  • Mangst: Practically Howard Hughes's middle name, especially as he tries to combat the symptoms of his obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Married to the Job: The reason Katharine Hepburn dumps Howard.
  • Meaningful Name: Juan Trippe, as in airplane trip. Crosses over into Punny Name as well.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: We get to see Howard's mother plant the seeds of germophobia in his mind when he's a kid.
  • The Missus and the Ex: Howard goes to dinner at Katharine's parents' house; her ex-husband is inexplicably hanging out with her family. You can guess how that turns out.
  • Motive Rant: Hughes has a doozy on why he's going to take on Juan Trippe no matter the cost.
    No one airline should have a monopoly on flyin' the Atlantic! For Christ's sake, it just isn't fair! Look, he owns Pan-Am. He owns Congress, he owns the Civil Aeronautics Board, but he does not own the sky! We are in a street-fight with that sonuvabitch now and I'm not gonna lose; I been fightin' high-hat, Ivy League pricks like him my whole goddamn life!
  • My Beloved Smother: The opening and closing scenes of Howard's childhood heavily imply that his mental illness was triggered by his mother: She constantly reinforces to him that he will never be safe from infection, and she keeps him infantilized by hand-washing him naked in a bathtub while he is already at the age where he can wash himself. While it has been established that child abuse can contribute to mental illness, the reality and cause of mental disorders are far more complex than the film portrays.
  • Neat Freak: Hughes, and how!
  • No Ending: As men in black suits and protective gloves start walking towards Howard (or at least he thinks they're walking towards him) he starts saying "The way of the future" repeatedly. Brief flashback, then he says "the way of the future" a few more times. Roll credits.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: Hughes has Professor Fritz, a meteorologist, pretend to be a mathematician so he can argue to the censorship board that the boobs in his movie are no more prominent that the boobs in other movies.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Hughes when he realizes he can't stop repeating the phrase "Show me all the blueprints".
    • Senator Brewster has a silent one when he realizes he had just unknowingly revealed to Hughes that he flew to Peru instead of sailing.
    • When Juan Trippe learns that the airline bill is about to be defeated in the Senate, thus ending Pan Am's monopoly, he says, "Fuck!"
    • Just when it seems like Hughes has gotten over his mental issues at the end of the film, the sight of a pair of men in germ-resistant suits causes him to relapse.
  • Orange/Blue Contrast: See the poster above.
    • Invoked. Most of the film is also Teal and Orange to mimic the feel of the Multicolor two-strip process (used by Hughes in Hell's Angels). Even the golf's green looks blue.
  • Practical Voice-Over: Many scenes are narrated by news reports coming through a radio somewhere.
  • Precision F-Strike: Alec Baldwin's last line.
  • Pretty in Mink: Given all the old Hollywood movie stars in this film, many mink coats and fox wraps are worn.
  • The Professor: Howard thinks Professor Fitz should be like this, introducing him as a "mathematician" and expecting him to be able to improvise some legitimate-sounding BS despite being a meteorologist.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Howard thinks Katharine's family is this trope. Howard appears this way to many people as well. Late in the film when the government order for the Hercules is canceled and the Constellation airliners are grounded due to technical faults, Noah Dietrich tells Howard that he's going to be bankrupted by either "the big plane, or the big airline".
  • Romance on the Set: In-universe. The film depicts Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy hooking up on a movie set while she's still in a relationship with Howard; in reality, she and Howard had already broken up.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: This is pretty much Howard's approach to every endeavor. "I've got a tiger by the tail here and I'm not about to let go!" Either that or...
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: the only reason he's able to say "Screw the Money!" is because he has so damn much of it (at least he thinks he does).
  • Shame If Something Happened: Howard tries to buy off the journalist who has scandalous photos of Hepburn. He's not interested until Howard asks if he's ever been to a Communist Party meeting...
  • Sleazy Politician: Senator Brewster operates in the interest of Pan-Am so that he can be a committee chairman.
  • Speaking Like Totally Teen: After Hughes gives Kate Hepburn the controls of the plane and she breathlessly declares, "GOLLY!"
    Hughes: I don't think I've ever met someone who actually uses the word "golly."
  • Tabloid Melodrama: Averted when Howard bribes a paparazzo not to publish photos of Katharine Hepburn and the married Spencer Tracy cavorting on a boat.
  • Tempting Fate: Questioned about the usage of breasts in The Outlaw, Hughes confidently quips, "Who doesn't love tits?" The Motion Picture Association, that's who.
  • Terrified of Germs: This sticks with Howard pretty much all his life.
  • This Is Going to Be Huge: Howard has an eye for emerging trends. When The Jazz Singer is released, he declares that silent films are history and he needs to reshoot Hell's Angels for sound. At the end of the film, just before his final breakdown, he's talking about buying jet aircraft for TWA.
  • Tickertape Parade: Howard Hughes gets a tickertape parade after his around-the-world flight.
  • Title Drop: Done by Hughes in the immediate aftermath of the XF-11 crash. Also demonstrates what he considered important at the moment.
    Hughes: I'm Howard Hughes... The aviator.
  • Tomboy: Katharine Hepburn plays golf and wears slacks.
  • Troubled Production: In-universe with the long, long production of Hell's Angels.
  • Sex for Services: When getting military contracts Howard has no problem smoothing the way with a big spread and beautiful women who are implied not to be very prudish. When called on this by the Senate inquiry, Howard points out that it's not illegal and this is how everyone wins contracts.
  • Verbal Tic: Hughes' habit of repeating different phrases over and over again, like "Show me all the blueprints," "Come in with the milk," and "The way of the future."
  • Wham Shot: During Howard's hermetic isolation from his OCD, he has filled numerous jars with urine.
  • Yandere: Faith Domergue.

"The way of the future... the way of the future... the way of the future..."