How accurate is the movie The Aviator

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The Aviator Movie Poster

The Aviator, released in 2004, traces some of the key moments in the life of the famous American industrialist and Hollywood producer Howard Hughes. The movie was directed by Martin Scorsese and scripted by serial academy award nominee John Logan. It is a historical epic that focused on a key period in the life of Howard Hughes one of the most famous and arguably important men of the twentieth century.

Scorsese’s movie focuses on the rise of Howard Hughes and his impact on Hollywood, aviation, and his struggle with mental illness over twenty years from the 1920s to the 1940s. The motion picture starred Scorsese muse Leonardo di Caprio as Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchet as the acclaimed actress Katherine Hepburn and Kate Beckinsale played the screen star, Ava Gardiner. The supporting cast featured some high-profile actors who would typically have expected to headline a movie. The Aviator, which was released on Christmas Day was both a box-office smash and praised by critics. The movie received eleven nominations at the Academy Awards and won seven in 2005. When the film was released, there were questions regarding the portrayal of Hughes and other figures in the movie.

Howard Hughes Character

The movie perfectly captures the early life of Howard Hughes. He was a spoilt child of a very wealthy family in Texas. Hughes was fascinated by all things technical, an interest he shared with his father. Hughes father had invented a drill for the oil industry and had founded the Hughes Tool Company, based in Houston, Texas, which was extraordinarily profitable. [1]

Howard became very wealthy at nineteen when he inherited the majority of Hughes Tools. This allowed him to follow his passions. The movie captures not only Hughes's lifestyle but shows that he used the wealth to fund his numerous projects. The movie accurately portrays Hughes as a playboy in the roaring 1920s and 1930s. Scorsese manages to capture the drive and brilliance of Hughes. He was never idle and was always involved with multiple projects.

Howard Hughes and the Movies

The Aviator shows Hughes spending a lot of time in Hollywood both as a producer and a party animal. In this regard, the movie's portrayal was accurate because Hughes was an integral part of early Hollywood. Hughes uncle had been a writer and one of the early scriptwriters in Los Angeles. Because of Hughes' profitable oil business, he was able to use his money to make films and operate outside of the early studio system.[2]

The movie shows how Hughes invested heavily in the film Hell’s Angels a World War I epic about the airplane dogfight. Scorsese accurately shows that Hughes went wildly over budget as portrayed and lost a great deal of money. The Aviator portrays Hughes as gambling everything that he had on this movie despite being a novice in the industry.

Hughes had made movies before, and he was an established producer, and one of his productions had even won an Academy Award. The Aviator does show very accurately that Hughes movie Hell’s Angels was indeed a pioneering work in its realism and its use of special effects and it was and remains an influential movie.[3]

Scorsese’s biopic accurately chronicles Hughes involvement in filmmaking. It correctly shows him as willing to back risky and controversial subjects. At the time there was a growing conservative backlash against Hollywood and there was increasing censorship of the cinema. Hughes did push back against this and he was frequently in trouble with censors over movies such as Scarface and The Outlaw.

Scorsese shows Hughes being influenced by Katherine Hepburn about censorship and as a result, he takes a principled approach to the issue as a result in the movie. In reality, Hughes disliked censorship because he believed that it was financially bad for box-office. He was always a businessman and for him, cinema was a glamorous business and not an art form.

The many women in Howard Hughes Life

Katherine Hepburn c1940

The Aviator shows that Hughes had numerous relationships with several leading Hollywood actresses. It also showed that he had a long-term relationship with Katherine Hepburn (Blanchet) and Ava Gardner (Beckingsdale). To a large extent, this somewhat accurate. He did have serious relationships with Ava Gardner, and Katherine Hepburn and the Texan did have strong feelings for both women, especially for Hepburn. In the movie, Hepburn is shown as possibly the love of his life, and he wanted to marry her, which may have been correct.

Hughes did have several girlfriends and mistresses, but in real life, the Texan multi-millionaire was arguably even more promiscuous. The picture fails to address claims that he used his power and wealth to force women into sexual relationships with him. At least one actress later claimed that Hughes implied that he would ruin her career if she did not become sexually involved with him. Scorsese’s movie also glosses over the fact that Hughes was briefly married in the late 1920s. There are no references to his two wives, and the film gives the impression that he was never married.

Still, the movie captures that despite his several famous and beautiful paramours in Los Angeles, Hughes remained a very isolated figure and lonely man.

Hughes as the aviator

Scorsese titled in his biopic The Aviator because he believed that Hughes was a unique and important aviation pioneer. The movie accurately shows that Hughes was a lifelong lover of aviation and an innovative aerospace engineer. He had taken flying lessons while still a young man and was an excellent pilot. Scorsese emphasizes that Hughes would not hesitate to take extraordinary personal risks to advance aviation.

In real life, the Texan was indeed a dare-devil, and he was a fearless flyer. He survived four serious crashes and was severely burned on one occasion. Hughes was also famed as a round the world aviator, and he broke several world records. The Texan at one time held the record for the fastest time to fly around the globe, that was briefly held by the legendary Charles Lindbergh.

The producer and businessman was also personally involved in the design and manufacture of new aeroplanes and this is something very well shown in the motion picture. Hughes also had a controlling share in the TWA airline and was instrumental in the development of the modern airliner.

The multi-millionaire founded the Hughes Aircraft Company which played a critical role development of a great many aviation technologies. The movie also shows his interest in flying boats and his design for the Spruce Goose, the largest seaplane of all time.[4] Scorsese captures the importance of aviation in the life of Hughes and his contribution to the history of flight. Many have praised the movie for reminding the world that the subject of the biopic was a significant figure in the history of aviation.

Hughes's struggle with mental health

Howard Hughes c1940

In one of the opening scenes of The Aviator, a young Hughes is being bathed by his mother, and she is cautioning him of the many dangers that he faced in the world and warning him against dirt. Hughes is portrayed as a rather eccentric character even in his heyday as an aviator and Hollywood mogul. The movie shows that Hughes eccentric behavior was a result of his upbringing and his growing mental instability that is evident at the end of the movie. One theory is that Hughes problems were a result of syphilis, which was a sexually transmitted disease, and which often led to serious mental health issues, but this is a less plausible explanation.

It does seem that Hughes did have OCD and was obsessed with dirt and cleanliness. This is shown very well when some government agents raided his Hollywood home and Hughes is panicked by the idea that they are bringing germs into his home. His OCD became worse as it was untreated, and he also became dependent on painkillers after his various crashes. Scorsese’s movie does represent the variety of mental health issues that Hughes experienced but not their complex origins and causes. The 2004 motion picture was heavily criticized for not referencing the long physical and mental decline of Hughes. In later life, he became a recluse in Las Vegas and lived in appalling conditions, and he only had his hair, and nails cut once a year.[5] The man who was one of the richest men in America became petrified of germs. However, Scorsese does refer to Hughes' future mental deterioration in the final scene when the Texan has a breakdown after seeing two men in germ-suits.

The Congressional Hearing and Hughes

Hughes often had legal troubles and at one point was before the courts over a fatal car accident in the 1930s. The movie climaxes in 1947 when Hughes is forced to testify before the Senate, to defend himself against accusations that he had wasted government money during the war, that had been given to him for the production of the H4 Hercules Flying Boat and that the plane was not airworthy. The motion picture suggests that a rival of Hughes had bribed Senator Owen Brewster, to bring the charges against him as part of a vendetta. Just as in the motion picture the Texan millionaire was forced to testify before Congress, which was a major news story at the time. In one of the final scenes Hughes is shown flying the H4 seaplane and thereby proving that he had made a plane that could be used by the American air force and that he had not wasted government money[6]. In reality, the hearing into Hughes alleged misuse of funds was much more complex . Some have claimed that the Texan fabricated the story that a business rival had bribed the Senator, investigating Hughes. This was part of a clever strategy in order to get out of his legal troubles. The Texan was never charged with wasting government money and the investigation was soon dropped. However, there are lingering suspicions about Hughes business activities. The movie does not mention the Texan’s role as a philanthropist and that he founded the world-renowned Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) which has developed many pioneering medications and treatments. [7].


The Aviator concentrates on Hughes during his prime when he was a leading figure in Hollywood, business, and aviation. The movie does capture the personality of Hughes who was a complex, tireless, and charismatic figure who captivated a generation. It also captures the man’s essential loneliness and his growing mental instability. However, its explanation for the cause of his mental health problems is too simplistic. The movie does portray Hughes as a great womaniser but neglects to show that he was actually married for some of the film. It also portrays him as a great aviator and there is some truth to this. Scorsese’s motion picture does capture the brilliance and his slow descent into mental illness and even alludes to his later years that were marred by instability, when he lived as a virtual recluse. However, The Aviator, fails to address many issues in Hughes life such as his often-controversial business practices and the dark side of his womanizing.

Recommended Reading

Fay, Stephen, Lewis Chester, and Magnus Linklater. Hoax: the inside story of the Howard Hughes--Clifford Irving affair (New York, Viking Adult, 1972).

Brown, Peter Harry, and Pat H. Broeske. Howard Hughes: The Untold Story (New York, Da Capo Press, 2004).

Higham, Charles. Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (New York, Macmillan, 2004).


  1. Barlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. Howard Hughes: His Life & Madness (New York, WW Norton & Company, 2004, p 14
  2. Barlett, p. 45
  3. Porter, Darwin. Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel. ( Chicago, Blood Moon Productions, Ltd., 2005), p 78
  4. Barlett, p 245
  5. Meneghetti, Michael. "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate: The Aviator as History." Canadian Journal of Film Studies 20, no. 1 (2011): 2-19
  6. Poyntz, S. " The way of the future" probing The Aviator for historical understanding:. Celluloid blackboard: Teaching history with film (2007), p.41
  7. McCook, A. (2005). What the aviator left out: visionary Howard Hughes Medical Institute had trouble taking off in its early days. The Scientist, 19(2), 52-53