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Director Martin Scorsese last directed Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York, which recreated some of the poorest and meanest streets of 19th century New York. Now they team again to create a very different world: the glamour and wealth of a young Howard Hughes. The film lavishly recreates 1930s Hollywood, and examines Hughes's role in early aviation.

My 'History in the Movies' column on 'The Aviator' was printed in the Malibu Times on 12/23/04, and other newspapers the weekend of 12/25-12/26.

"A Hughes to Remember"

At the age of twenty, Howard Hughes impulsively wrote down his life goals on the back of a sales receipt. Never one for modesty, he aspired to be the world's best golfer, its greatest pilot, and its most famous movie producer.

Well, two out of three ain't bad. Though his golf game never amounted to much, Hughes realized his other grandiose dreams, at least for a time.

And it's that glorious-though troubled-time in his life that The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's new film, captures. Instead of the older, thoroughly oddball Howard Hughes, holed up with mangy hair in a darkened room, we have a young, vibrant Hughes; a man obsessed with achieving superlatives. The richest man in America. A record-breaking pilot. The producer of hugely expensive films. And the romancer of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood.

This Hughes is so larger-than life that I'm amazed his life hasn't been mined by Hollywood before now. But does The Aviator present a real or a fictionalized Howard Hughes? Here's a guide to sort it out.

Q. Since it's not covered in the film, how did Hughes get so rich?
A. It was his daddy's money, created in the decidedly unglamorous field of drill bit production. Howard grew up in luxury in Texas, then lost both parents as a teenager. Young, independent, and filthy rich (the perfect candidate for a reality series, today) he was lured to Hollywood at twenty to try his hand at filmmaking.

As the film suggests, Howard Hughes was far better at spending money than making it. But he hired astute business managers, who capably built up Hughes's assets faster than Hughes could spend them on planes and movies.

Q. Was Hughes's first film, Hell's Angels, the most expensive film ever made until then?
A. While that dubious honor probably goes to 1925's Ben-Hur, Hell's Angels cost a then-astounding $3.8 million. Producer, financier, and director, Hughes poured himself-and his cash-into the film for three years.

Though perhaps no more nuts than today's perfectionist directors, the stories about Hughes from the Hell's Angels set are legend. To stage the spectacular aerial battles at the heart of the WWI film, Hughes bought enough planes to rival the air forces of other countries. He then grounded the production for months while waiting for suitable cloud formations against which to film. He cajoled his pilots into attempting stunts never before tried, and when they refused, hopped into a plane himself and promptly crashed it. When the film was virtually complete and had already cost a fortune, Hughes decided silent movies were outdated, scrapped much of the footage, and reshot the film as a talkie. Then to cap it off, Hughes orchestrated the most spectacular film premiere in Hollywood history.

It all paid off. The film earned a twenty-minute standing ovation and critical raves. At twenty-four, Hughes had conquered Hollywood.

Q. The film shows Hughes's germ phobia originating with his mother. True?
A. In a classic "blame the mother" moment, the film opens on Howard as a young child, being bathed by his mother as she incessantly lectures him about the danger of germs and the need for quarantine. The soap she uses reappears throughout the film-the adult Hughes's talisman against the evils of germs.

There's a lot of truth to this. The real Allene Hughes did get hysterical about germs, and coddled her only child excessively. But Hughes's phobias weren't all mom's fault. His well-documented aversion to handshaking, for instance, probably began when he contracted syphilis-an episode not shown in the film. The disease first revealed itself in the form of tiny blisters erupting on his hands. After receiving medical treatment, Hughes was warned by his doctor not to shake hands for a time. Hughes avoided it the rest of his life.

The syphilis was also responsible for a bizarre episode in which Hughes burned all his clothes. The film presents it as his response to Katharine Hepburn's leaving him. In reality, it was Hughes's overreacting to the syphilis diagnosis by ordering every piece of clothing and bed linen in his home destroyed.

Q. Speaking of Katharine Hepburn, were she and Ava Gardner really Hughes's lovers?
A. Yes, but the film shows restraint here, for they were just the tip of the iceberg. Hughes slept with a veritable who's who of Hollywood beauties. Beside Hepburn and Gardner, he dated (and bedded) Ginger Rogers, Gloria Vanderbilt, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, and countless other lesser known starlets or debutantes.

Yet lots of evidence suggests that Hughes's libido was never as strong as he pretended. His obsession seemed more in collecting women than loving them. It was the image of himself as Hollywood's biggest playboy that he loved.

Q. How important were his aviation achievements?
A. Very, and the film resurrects this forgotten aspect of Hughes's life. Hughes not only was a flashy pilot-breaking speed records, and achieving a Lindbergh-like fame after an around-the-world flight in 1938-but he was also a visionary in aviation technology. In his thirst to fly higher, faster, and farther than anyone else, he pushed his engineers relentlessly, often resulting in significant technological breakthroughs.

Perhaps with this film, Martin Scorsese will rehabilitate Hughes's image. Rather than dwelling only on the weird eccentricities of his old age or the Hollywood escapades of his youth, we'll think of Howard Hughes as he would have wanted to be remembered, as the Aviator.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.

© 2004 History in the Movies