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Leo and Howard

With 'The Aviator,' DiCaprio Steered Through Eccentric Mogul's Turbulent Air

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page N01


Leonardo DiCaprio is speed-talking. He's making his pitch. Forget everything you might remember about the old Howard Hughes, the creepy billionaire dude with the three-inch toenails.

Forget the racist, red-baiting germ freak and pill-head who shuffled around in a pair of Kleenex boxes for shoes in darkened Vegas hotel suites, storing his urine in jars, attended by codependent vampires.

"We're similar to some degree," says DiCaprio, in reference to Howard Hughes. "We both try to keep things as private as possible." (Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)

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Not that Howard Hughes. That spooky recluse died mysteriously at 70 in 1976, withered to munchkin size, of renal failure or dehydration or overdose while flying from his hotel hideaway in Acapulco to Houston, the town of his birth, the fountainhead of his family wealth from the invention of the diamond-studded oil-drilling bit. Erase that disk.

Insert: the young Howard.

The matinee-handsome boy millionaire of the 1920s, "the fastest man on the planet" in the 1930s, who designed and flew his own experimental planes, broke speed records for transcontinental and around-the-world flight, acquired TWA and fought corporate trench warfare against his nemesis at Pan Am. The movie mogul who bedded Katharine Hepburn, who designed an early prototype of the Wonder Bra for the top-heavy Jane Russell.

That Howard. The one played by DiCaprio in the new Martin Scorsese epic, "The Aviator," opening in Washington on Christmas Day and already shortlisted by the critics for Oscar nominations across the board.

DiCaprio shoves his plate of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella aside. He is almost bouncing on the couch, his knees like slow-mo sewing machines. He is taller and longer than he seems on-screen. Over six feet. Large, knuckly hands. Though he still appears incapable of growing a full beard, and though he will leave the hotel later with a baseball cap turned backward and bid us farewell with a friendly adios "dawg," he is not so much the boy anymore; he just turned 30.

There is a line early in "The Aviator" where the young Hughes, in his early twenties, while filming his runaway-budget production of "Hell's Angels" about WWI flying aces, instructs a hireling that he ain't "junior" anymore. (The young Hughes was actually called "Sonny" in real life; his parents died when he was in his teens and he inherited his fortune at 19.) "It's Mr. Hughes now," the character barks in a Texas drawl that DiCaprio gets almost just right.

So, there are the parallels.

DiCaprio does look more mature these days. Still beautiful, of course, but a little more baked in the oven of life, which Scorsese uses to good effect in the film, showing him in a harsher light, accenting the shadowy lines and tiny pits and slight imperfections on the actor's face as he grows older in the role.

You wanna talk about Howard Hughes? DiCaprio can, talk about him all day long. Because this was not a role that was offered to DiCaprio; this is a movie that the actor got made.

He originally took the project to Michael Mann (director of "Collateral"), who brought in screenwriter John Logan ("Gladiator"). And then DiCaprio and Mann, both working as producers, secured the services of Scorsese, who had worked with the actor on "Gangs of New York."

At the beginning of our conversation, we mention that a college professor once suggested that to understand the darker tones of America, how the force of industry, Hollywood and media helped shape the early 20th century, one needs to pay attention to the biographies of Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst and Howard Hughes.

DiCaprio snaps that observation up. "Yeah! Exactly, the changing of the country... these visionaries, these madmen, you're absolutely right, man."

When he was a younger screen idol, DiCaprio read Peter Harry Brown's "Howard Hughes: The Untold Story" as he prepared to make "Titanic," the movie that would change his life ("I'm king of the world"). "I think what people know is the old man locked away in the hotel in Vegas, buying all the hotels he can buy that he can see from his view," he says. "This insane man with the long beard, right?"

He keeps going. "When I read the book about Howard Hughes, I knew nothing about him being a pilot, this man flying around in these airplanes, crashed them four times. I knew nothing about him being this rebellious figure in Hollywood, this anti-studio renegade producer who made the most expensive movie of his time, 'Hell's Angels,' cost 4 million bucks, all his own money. Then went and did 'Scarface,' the most violent film ever, then 'The Outlaw,' the most sexually explicit."

Wisely, the filmmakers and DiCaprio decided to constrain themselves and focus their movie on Hughes's younger years -- from the start of filming "Hell's Angels" in 1927 (the movie consumed thousands of extras, a fleet of 87 vintage aircraft and the lives of three pilots) to the confrontational Senate hearings of 1947 (a Watergate of its time, with Hughes accused of war profiteering), when Hughes was still keeping his demons mostly out of the public eye, and before he surrendered to drug addiction, paranoia, Nixon, the CIA and his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Q: So, you read the Hughes biography, and something clicked? Your Hughes Obsessive Disorder, how did that happen?

A: As an actor, you wait for roles to come along, you wait for that great role, and what can you do if you're not a writer yourself but look at the history and see what character is out there to play.

He continues, "When I was 22 I picked up a book on Howard Hughes and found an instant, ready-made, complex multidimensional man with all this insane stuff going on in our country -- the golden era of Hollywood and aviation. This Casanova, this interesting complex man with this condition, this great balancing act -- building the largest plane, dating the most beautiful women, making the biggest films, and the other side of that seesaw -- his fears of the most minute microbial germs. And taking that man and spiraling him into his own mental insanity, one of the most fascinating dynamics you could ever imagine for a character."

The two men have some things in common. Both were millionaires in their teens; they saw no reason for college because they were men in a hurry; both were objects of global curiosity with reputations as lady-killers, splashed across the tabloids.

Hughes dated Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner (played in the film by Gwen Stefani, Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale, respectively). DiCaprio now spends time with the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, and before that Kate Moss and Alicia Silverstone.

Hughes spent his own money making the most expensive film of his time, "Hell's Angels," which cost almost $4 million and was released right after the stock market crash.

DiCaprio starred in the most costly and lucrative film of the 1990s, the blockbuster "Titanic," shot for $200 million and grossing $1.2 billion worldwide.

Both men courted celebrity, when it suited their purposes; both shunned it when it got too close.

Q: You've been in the spotlight a bit yourself?

A: I think it's different for him and I.

Q: I'm not saying it's the same. If Howard Hughes were here, I don't think he'd allow me to breathe my germs on his food.

A: I know what you mean. We're similar to some degree. We both try to keep things as private as possible. How we only go out in public when we have something to say, or something to show for it. But certainly my reasons are I saw such over-saturation of my own image in that "Titanic" movie.

Q: You were in "Titanic"?

A: Believe it or not, I was in that film. I want people to buy me in certain roles. I don't want them to know too much about me. Or be out there too much. I want to be believable and have longevity in the business and all that.

Q: But Hughes was, you know, crazy.

A: He had this intense fascination and desire to be successful and have fame. But only to reap the benefits of all that. For his own power. His own need to succeed, but he didn't want anyone knowing about his private life.

During his preparation for the film, DiCaprio had the luxury of spending a year researching his character.

There are many volumes about the billionaire, like the Brown book DiCaprio discovered, and the more authoritative "Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness" by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, which he also read, and the trove of stolen personal papers retrieved by Michael Drosnin for his "Citizen Hughes."

DiCaprio says he spent days listening to recordings of Hughes testifying before the Senate in 1947. Hughes, for all the aeronautics in "Aviator," never actually put an airplane into production; his infamous "Spruce Goose," the largest plane of its time, made of wood, flew only once, with Hughes at the controls; his spy plane and fighter never made it into the air in WWII.

"The hearings were the most important thing," the actor says. "A public persona. Hearing Hughes, this voracious bulldog attack against the Senate. A man who was his own boss, anti-government control, taking on the system, taking on corporate monopoly with Pan Am, fighting tooth and nail, actually turning the tables, saying I'm afforded the same rights. A man gutsy enough, powerful enough, saying I have enough resources on my own, let me cross-examine you."

DiCaprio says he rewound those tapes "hundreds of times, because every other piece of Hughes footage is mundane, him talking about airplanes, not divulging one iota of information about himself. All turbines, mechanisms."

Hughes spent his life keeping his secrets safe -- his codeine and Valium addictions, his obsessions, his breakdowns. Yet he also spied on others, lovers and business associates and competitors, relentlessly.

"There's this thing about Howard Hughes," DiCaprio says. "As many different conflicting reports as there are. Some people think he's a homosexual. Some think he's a megalomaniac. Some think he's this shy, coy billionaire. No one really knows, though some know more than others. But in trying to define the man, one thing is consistent, from all the people I talked to -- Jane Russell, his mechanics -- they all loved him and thought he was such a kind man."

A kind man. That is not something most people would associate with Hughes, whose biographers saw him more as an infantilized madman-genius, a control freak who degraded his attendants and couldn't remember their names.

But these are more modern times, it seems, and the Howard Hughes in "The Aviator" is explained, to a large degree, by his mental illness, and the film lavishes attention on his obsessive-compulsive disorder: the excessive hand-washing, the fear of dust and germs and doorknobs, the constant repeating of phrases (as in the movie -- "the way of the future, the way of the future"). And then in the scenes that show Hughes locked away in his screening room, naked, watching films, filling milk bottle after milk bottle with his own urine.

"That was the most interesting stuff to get into," DiCaprio says. "Howard Hughes didn't know what he had. You couldn't diagnose OCD at that time. There was no medication for it. Even if you could find it, Hughes couldn't, because he didn't like to talk to doctors."

And if he had, we offer, they might have put him in a sanitarium and given him shock therapy.

"Yeah, like bloodletting, with leeches," DiCaprio says. "So you read the script and read a line written for three pages, over and over, okay? This is beyond me, how the hell do I do this? What is the intent, what is the driving force? As great as the screenwriter was, you can't explain where that comes from. You have to do your homework."

So DiCaprio spent time with experts in OCD and with a man who suffered from the illness.

"And you see, it's this brain mechanism. It's basically circuitry. We're left-brain, right-brain. We have a reptilian part of our brain that is instinctual. Foraging animals, they need to protect home, nest, reorganize the nest constantly, for safety reasons. But we're able to make distinction in the other side our brain, that logically, it's completely unnecessary to do that. But people with OCD, that gearshift gets stuck. And all they feel is intense fear, a dark foreboding feeling that something horrible will happen if they do not obsessively do the same thing over and over until that feeling is gone. That was the key to opening it up for me."

We spend a pleasant hour with DiCaprio; the more we talk about Hughes (and not about his love life), the more he relaxes and seems to enjoy it.

But there is a gun-shy quality about the actor, too. A wariness that does not go away, which in its own way is kind of endearing and human.

DiCaprio wanted to get more in the film, but you cannot have everything. "There is this great story of Howard Hughes, I think Life magazine, maybe not Life, but whatever. I wish I could do something like that. Such an awesome thing to do. They printed a story about him he didn't like. He said kill the story and they wouldn't kill the story. So he went and bought every single copy of Life magazine or whatever it was and stored it in a warehouse for 10 years."

Q: That would cost you a fortune today.

A: It would.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company