The Aviator (2004 film)

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The Aviator
The Aviator Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by
Screenplay by John Logan
Based on Howard Hughes: The Secret Life 
by Charles Higham
Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography Robert Richardson
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker
Distributed by
Release dates
  • December 25, 2004 (2004-12-25) (North America)
Running time
170 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $110 million[1]
Box office $213.7 million[1]

The Aviator is a 2004 American biographical drama film directed by Martin Scorsese, written by John Logan, produced by Michael Mann, Sandy Climan, Graham King, and Charles Evans, Jr., and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner. The supporting cast features Ian Holm, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Willem Dafoe, Alan Alda, and Edward Herrmann. The film depicts the true story of aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, who later became the world's wealthiest man, drawing upon numerous sources including a biography by Charles Higham.[2] The picture centers on Hughes' life from the late 1920s to 1947, during which time he became a successful film producer and an aviation magnate while simultaneously growing more unstable due to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder exacerbated by airplane crashes.

The Aviator was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor in a Leading Role for DiCaprio, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Alan Alda and Best Sound Mixing, and winning five for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cate Blanchett. This achievement would not be matched for seven years until Martin Scorsese's film Hugo.


In 1913, nine-year-old Howard Hughes is being bathed by his mother in their home in Houston. She warns him of disease, afraid that he will succumb to a local cholera epidemic or typhus: "You are not safe."

By 1927, Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has inherited his family's fortune and is living in California. He hires Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) to run the Hughes Tool Company. Following an interest in film and aviation, at the age of 22, Hughes begins directing the silent film, Hell's Angels. He becomes obsessed with shooting the film realistically and when The Jazz Singer, the first partially talking film, premieres, he converts Hell's Angels to a sound film. As a result, it takes several years and an enormous amount of money to finish. Finally, despite press skepticism, Hell's Angels is a hit. However, Hughes is unsatisfied with the end result and orders the film re-cut after its Hollywood premiere. He later produces Scarface (1932) and The Outlaw (1943).

Hughes becomes romantically involved with actress Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). They live together and she helps alleviate the symptoms of his worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). As Hughes' fame grows, he is linked to various starlets, inciting Hepburn's jealousy.

Hughes' greatest passion remains the same: aviation. He purchases majority interest in Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), the predecessor to Trans World Airlines. In 1935, he test flies the H-1 Racer, pushing it to a new speed record, but crashes in a beet field; "Fastest man on the planet," he boasts to Hepburn.

Three years later, Hughes flies around the world in four days, shattering the previous record by three days. Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), chairman of the board of rival Pan American World Airways (Pan Am), is determined not to let Hughes challenge his company's success. Trippe gets his friend, Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), to introduce the Community Airline Bill, which would give Pan Am a monopoly on international air travel.

Hepburn and Hughes break up when she announces that she has fallen in love with fellow actor Spencer Tracy (Kevin O'Rourke). Hughes soon has new love interests: first 15-year-old Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner), then actress Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).

Hughes secures contracts with the Army Air Forces for two projects: a spy aircraft and a huge troop transport designed to circumvent the U-boat menace. By 1946, Hughes has only finished the XF-11 reconnaissance aircraft and is still building the enormous "Spruce Goose" flying boat.

Hughes' OCD worsens, characterized by the repetition of phrases and a phobia of dust and germs. He takes the XF-11 for a test flight. One of the engines malfunctions, causing the aircraft to crash in Beverly Hills; he is severely injured and takes months to recover. Although the H-4 Hercules flying boat order is canceled, he continues development of the aircraft with his own money. When he is discharged, he is told that he has to choose between funding a floundering TWA or his flying boat. Hughes orders Dietrich to mortgage the TWA assets so he can continue developing the Hercules prototype.

Hughes grows increasingly paranoid, planting microphones and tapping Gardner's phone lines to keep track of her. His house is searched by the FBI for incriminating evidence of war profiteering. The incident creates a powerful psychological trauma for Hughes, with investigators handling his possessions and tracking dirt everywhere. Brewster privately offers to drop the charges if Hughes will sell TWA to Trippe, an offer Hughes rejects. Hughes sinks into a deep depression, shuts himself away in his screening room and grows detached from reality. Hepburn tries unsuccessfully to help him. Trippe has Brewster subpoena Hughes for a Senate investigation, confident that the reclusive Hughes will not show up, though he visits Hughes and tries to persuade him one last time to sell TWA to him, but Hughes again refuses. Irritated, Trippe leaves and quips that when Hughes returns home, it will be on a Pan Am plane.

After Hughes has shut himself away for nearly three months, Gardner visits him and personally grooms and dresses him in preparation for the hearing. Reinvigorated, Hughes defends himself against Brewster's charges and accuses Trippe of essentially bribing the senator. Hughes concludes by announcing that he is committed to completing the H-4 aircraft, and that he will leave the country if he cannot get it to fly.

Hughes successfully test flies the flying boat. After the flight, he talks to Dietrich and his engineer, Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), about a new jetliner for TWA.[N 1] He seems free of his inner demons, but relapses after seeing strange men in germ-resistant suits who may not be real. Hughes begins repeating the phrase "the way of the future" over and over again, until Dietrich and Odekirk hide him in a restroom while Dietrich fetches a doctor. Hughes has a flashback to his boyhood, being washed by his mother, and resolving he would fly the fastest aircraft ever built, make the biggest movies ever and become the richest man in the world. He continues to say "the way of the future" as the screen cuts to black.




Warren Beatty planned to direct and star in a Hughes biopic in the early 1970s. He co-wrote the script with Bo Goldman after a proposed collaboration with Paul Schrader fell through. In the event, Goldman wrote his own script, Melvin and Howard, which depicted Hughes' possible relationship with Melvin Dummar. Beatty's thoughts regularly returned to the project over the years,[5] and in 1990 approached Steven Spielberg to direct Goldman's script, but the outing never materialized.[6] Despite Beatty's hope to make a Hughes biopic, Charles Evans, Jr. purchased the film rights of Howard Hughes: The Untold Story (ISBN 0-525-93785-4) in 1993. Evans secured financing from New Regency Productions, but development stalled.[7]

The Aviator was a joint production between Warner Bros, who handled US and Canadian distribution, and Disney, who released the film internationally under their Miramax Films banner. Disney previously developed a Howard Hughes biopic with director Brian De Palma and actor Nicolas Cage between 1997 and 1998. Titled Mr. Hughes, the film would have starred Cage in the dual roles of both Hughes and Clifford Irving. It was conceived when De Palma and Cage were working on Snake Eyes with writer David Koepp, who regarded it as being the best screenplay he ever wrote.[5][8] Universal Pictures entered competition in March 1998 when they purchased the film rights to Empire: The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes (ISBN 0-393000-257), written by Donald Barlett and James Steele. The Hughes brothers were going to direct Johnny Depp as Howard Hughes, based on a script by Terry Hayes,[9] Universal canceled it when they decided they did not want to fast track development to complete with Disney. Following the disappointing release of Snake Eyes in August 1998, Disney placed Mr. Hughes in turnaround. Nicolas Cage would still be intrigued by the idea of playing two characters in one film, which led to him starring in Adaptation.[5]

Disney restarted development on a new Howard Hughes biopic in June 1999, dropping the Clifford Iriving angle, and hiring Michael Mann to direct Leonardo DiCaprio, based on a script by John Logan. Disney intended to release it under their Miramax Films banner.[10] The studio put it in turnaround once more following the disappointing box office performance of Mann's critically acclaimed The Insider, and the release of DiCaprio's The Beach. New Line Cinema picked it up in turnaround almost immediately, with Mann planning to direct after finishing Ali.[11] Mann was eventually replaced with DiCaprio's Gangs of New York director Martin Scorsese.


Hughes crashes in a field; screenshot showing the simulated bipack color film used in scenes depicting events before 1935.

For the first 50 minutes of the film, scenes appear in shades of only red and cyan blue; green objects are rendered as blue. This was done, according to Scorsese, to emulate the look of early bipack color films, in particular the Multicolor process, which Hughes himself owned, emulating the available technology of the era. Similarly, many of the scenes depicting events occurring after 1935 are treated to emulate the saturated appearance of three-strip Technicolor. Other scenes were stock footage colorized and incorporated into the film. The color effects were created by Legend Films.[12]

Film models[edit]

In The Aviator, scale models were used to duplicate many of the flying scenes. When Martin Scorsese began planning his aviation epic, a decision was made to film flying sequences with scale models rather than CGI special effects. The critical reaction to the CGI models in Pearl Harbor (2001) had been a crucial factor in Scorsese's decision to use full-scale static and scale models in this case. The building and filming of the flying models proved both cost-effective and timely.[13]

The primary scale models were the Spruce Goose and the XF-11; both miniatures were designed and fabricated over a period of several months by New Deal Studios.[14] The 375 lb (170 kg) Spruce Goose model had a wingspan of 20 ft (6.1 m) while the 750 lb (340 kg) XF-11 had a 25 ft (7.6 m) wingspan. Each was built as a motion control miniature used for "beauty shots" of the model taking off and in flight as well as in dry dock and under construction at the miniature Hughes Hangar built as well by New Deal Studios. The XF-11 was reverse engineered from photographs and some rare drawings and then modeled in Rhinoceros 3D by the New Deal art department. These 3D models of the Spruce Goose as well as the XF-11 were then used for patterns and construction drawings for the model makers. In addition to the aircraft, the homes that the XF-11 crashes into were fabricated at 1:4 scale to match the 1:4 scale XF-11. The model was rigged to be crashed and break up several times for different shots.[13]

Additional castings of the Spruce Goose flying boat and XF-11 models were provided for new radio controlled flying versions assembled by the team of model builders from Aero Telemetry.[N 2] The Aero Telemetry team was given only three months to complete three models including the 450 lb H-1 Racer, with an 18 ft (5.5 m) wingspan, that had to stand-in for the full scale replica that was destroyed in a crash, shortly before principal photography began.[15]

The models were shot on location at Long Beach and other California sites from helicopter or raft platforms. The short but much heralded flight of Hughes’ HK-1 Hercules on November 2, 1947 was realistically recreated in the Port of Long Beach. The motion control Spruce Goose and Hughes Hangar miniatures built by New Deal Studios are presently on display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, with the original Hughes HK-1 "Spruce Goose".[13]

Obsessive-compulsive disorder and its depiction in the film[edit]

Howard Hughes suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a disorder that consists of persistent disturbing thoughts and images of the world (obsessions) with repetitive actions (compulsions) in an attempt to ward off anxiety. Factors that could have prompted the onset of OCD was Hughes’ mother and her obsession with polio. She would check Hughes every day to see if he had any diseases. This stressor eventually manifested itself in the form of conversion disorder: Hughes could not walk for a few months in childhood, but there was seemingly no biological reason why.[16] Hughes’ obsession was with germs and cleanliness. He would wash his hands until he bled and often repeatedly tapped his chest and performed other tactile sequences, not to mention his servants and colleagues were given specific instructions for cleaning his utensils and hearing aid. The disorder interfered with virtually every aspect of his life.

In production of the film, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio worked closely with Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, Ph.D. of UCLA to portray the most accurate depiction of OCD. With the help of Dr. Schwartz, their presentation of the disorder was textbook and clear. The filmmakers had to focus both on previous accounts of Hughes’ behaviors as well as the time period. In the time when Hughes was suffering, there was no psychiatric definition for what ailed him. Instead of receiving proper treatment and coping mechanisms, Hughes was forced to hide his stigmatized compulsions. His disorder began to conflict with everyday functioning and eventually destroyed his once-successful career.

Leonardo DiCaprio put many hours of work into presenting Howard Hughes’ unique case of OCD for the screen. Apart from doing his research on Hughes, DiCaprio actually met with people suffering from OCD. In particular, he focused on the way some individuals would wash their hands, later inspiring the scene where he cuts himself scrubbing in the bathroom. The character arc of Howard Hughes was a drastic one: from the height of his career to the appearance of his compulsions and, eventually, to him sitting naked in a screening room, refusing to leave and repeating again and again the phrase “the way of the future.” DiCaprio successfully found this range of behavior in his portrayal of Hughes.[17]


The film had several distributors worldwide. For example, it was distributed in the Latin America, Australia, and United States by Warner Bros. Pictures, in the United Kingdom and Germany by Miramax Films,. 20th Century Fox held the Spanish rights.[18]


Critical response[edit]

The film received highly positive reviews with the review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 186 out of the 213 reviews they tallied were positive for a score of 87% and certification of "Fresh".[19] At review aggregator site Metacritic the film scored a 77 average out of 100, based on 41 reviews.[20] Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars out of four and described the film and its subject, Howard Hughes, in these terms: "What a sad man. What brief glory. What an enthralling film, 166 minutes, and it races past. There's a match here between Scorsese and his subject, perhaps because the director's own life journey allows him to see Howard Hughes with insight, sympathy – and, up to a point, with admiration. This is one of the year's best films."[21]

Box office performance[edit]

The Aviator was given a limited release on December 17, 2004 in 40 theaters where it grossed $858,021 on its opening weekend.[22] It was given a wide release on December 25, 2004, and opened in 1,796 theaters in the United States, grossing $4,240,000 on its opening day and $8,631,367 on its opening weekend, ranking #4 with a per theater average of $4,805.[23][24] On its second weekend, it moved up to #3 and grossed $11,364,664 – $6,327 per theater.[25]

The Aviator grossed $102,610,330 in the United States and Canada and $111,131,129 overseas. In total, the film has grossed $213,741,459 worldwide.[1]


Academy Awards
1. Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Cate Blanchett)
2. Best Film Editing
3. Best Cinematography
4. Best Art Direction
5. Best Costume Design
Golden Globe Awards
1. Best Motion Picture – Drama
2. Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (Leonardo DiCaprio)
3. Best Original Score (Howard Shore)
BAFTA Awards
1. Best Picture
2. Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Cate Blanchett)
3. Best Production Design
4. Best Makeup and Hair

Home media[edit]

The film was released in DVD in a two-disc-set in widescreen and full screen versions. The first disc includes commentary with director Martin Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and producer Michael Mann. The second disc includes "The Making of 'The Aviator' ", "Deleted Scenes" as well as 11 other special features.

The film was later released in High Definition on Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD on November 6, 2007.[26]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Hughes tested and tried to purchase license rights for the Avro C102 Jetliner, although it is never mentioned specifically in the film.[3] In addition, Hughes was heavily involved in the process of the design of the Convair 880 and later Convair 990 Coronado jet airliners, specifying their five-abreast seating configuration, and gold-anodised internal trim designs.[4]
  2. ^ Aero Telemetry’s primary business was in building UAVs and satellite telemetry systems for the government and defense contractors.


  1. ^ a b c " 'The Aviator' (2004)." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: January 11, 2011.
  2. ^ Caldwell, Chris. "Murder in Hollywood: Charles Higham." The University of Wisconsin Press, September 7, 2010. Retrieved: May 9, 2011.
  3. ^ Floyd 1986, pp. 56, 63.
  4. ^ Wegg 1990, p. 214.
  5. ^ a b c David Hughes (March 2004). Tales From Development Hell. London: Titan Books. pp. 136–140. ISBN 1-84023-691-4. 
  6. ^ Joseph McBride (1997). Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York City: Faber and Faber. p. 446. ISBN 0-571-19177-0. 
  7. ^ Hughes, p.144-147
  8. ^ Staff (1998-08-06). "'Snake' trio tackles Hughes; LaPaglia in 'Sam'". Variety. Retrieved 2009-01-03. 
  9. ^ Staff (March 2, 1998). "Hughes team tags Depp; 'Spider' rumors fly". Variety. Retrieved January 2, 2009. 
  10. ^ Chris Petrikin; Michael Fleming (1999-06-24). "Mouse, Mann and DiCaprio pact". Variety. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  11. ^ Michael Fleming (2000-02-25). "New Line spruced up". Variety. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  12. ^ "'The Aviator': Visual Effects – Behind the Scenes." Retrieved: September 8, 2012.
  13. ^ a b c Cobb, Jerry. "Movie Models are the real stars of 'The Aviator'.", February 25, 2005. Retrieved: March 1, 2008.
  14. ^ "New Deal Studios." Retrieved: January 11, 2011.
  15. ^ Baker, Mark. "Cottage Grove pilot dies in replica of historic plane." The Register-Guard, August 6, 2003 via Retrieved: March 5, 2009.
  16. ^ Dittman, M. "Hughes' germ phobia revealed in psychological autopsy" Monitor on Psychology July/August 2005 via Retrieved: November 22, 2014.
  17. ^ Kinsey, Beck. "The Affliction of Howard Hughes: OCD - Aviator - Martin Scorsese - Leonardo DiCaprio" January 2014 via Retrieved: October 22, 2014.
  18. ^ "Miramax Gets Distribution Rights to 'The Aviator'." Miramax Films via Hollywood Movies. Retrieved: September 8, 2012.
  19. ^ " 'The Aviator'." Rotten Tomatoes via Flixter. Retrieved: November 17, 2009.
  20. ^ " 'The Aviator'." Metacritic via CBS Interactive. Retrieved: August 4, 2008.
  21. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Review: 'The Aviator'.". Chicago Sun-Times, December 24, 2004. Retrieved: January 11, 2011.
  22. ^ "Weekend Box Office Results for December 17–19, 2004." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: September 7, 2012.
  23. ^ "Weekend Box Office Results for December 24–26, 2004." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: September 7, 2012.
  24. ^ "Daily Box Office Results for December 25, 2004." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: September 7, 2012.
  25. ^ "Weekend Box Office Results for December 31–January 2, 2005." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: September 7, 2012.
  26. ^ "'The Aviator' (2004)." Retrieved: March 3, 2012.


  • Floyd, Jim. The Avro Canada C102 Jetliner. Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 1986. ISBN 0-919783-66-X.
  • Higham, Charles. Howard Hughes: The Secret Life. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2004. ISBN 978-0-312-32997-6.
  • Maguglin, Robert O. Howard Hughes, His Achievements & Legacy: the Authorized Pictorial Biography. Long Beach, California: Wrather Port Properties, 1984. ISBN 0-86679-014-4.
  • Marrett, George J. Howard Hughes: Aviator. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2004. ISBN 1-59114-510-4.
  • Wegg, John. General Dynamic Aircraft and their Predecessors. London: Putnam, 1990. ISBN 0-85177-833-X.

External links[edit]