"The Amazing Howard Hughes," which can be seen in two episodes on Channel 9 tonight and Thursday night from 9 to 11 is both satisfying and unsatisfying.
Based on "Howard the Amazing Mr. Hughes," by his long-time associate Noah Dietrich in collaboration with AP Hollywood correpondent Bob Thomas, the television adaptation satisfies in that the subject is Howard Hughes.
But the disatisfaction arises since most of us have read or heard too much about Howard Hughes. yet with all taht we have read or heard, we have the vague feeling that we don't really know all there is to know sbout the man.
Viewers who watch "The Amazing Howard Hughes" will get up from their sets on Thursday night titillated but not better informed than they already have been by newspapers, weekly magazines, books or the nightly news programs.
That is not the fault of executive producer Roger Gimbel nor writer John Gay. They have given this production their best shot. THe acting, particularly Tommy Lee Jones as Hughes, Ed Flanders as Dietrich and Tovah Felshuh as Katherine Hepburn, one of Hughes' early Hollywood loves, is excellent.
So are the scenes of his life, especially those that are centered on Hughes' efforts as a film producer - "Hells Angels," "Scarface" and "The Front Page." (The part about Jane Russell and "The Outlaw" and how Hughes personally designed a bra for Russell is not all the great. It hints at the furor the pciture created without going into much detail about why it seemed so scandalous in the '40s.)
That is the main problem with the production. It hints more than it amplifies - that he picked up his phobia about germs from his relationship with a lady who may have picked up a social disease from a golf pro; that he had more than simply a passing relationship with the CIA or why he supported the blacklist during its worst excesses in the late '40s and early '50s.
Then there is the production's flirtation with the women in Hughes's life, which included some of the biggest stars in Hollywood - Hepburn, Ginger ROgers and later, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. What was his attraction - his money, his fame, his snap brim hat??
What was it that made him offer a million dollars to Elizabeth Taylor's mother in exchange for the young star's hand in marriage. In the second half of the film, we see Hughes telling Dietrich to make the offer in 1946. That bothered me. Since Taylor told Barbara Walters recently that she was about to become 45, that means by my calculations that in 1946 Elizabeth Taylor was 14 years old. Did Hughes fancy child brides or is Taylor fibbing about her age? I prefer to believe the lady, but the film does raise some awkward questions that it never answers.
But all this is small bore stuff compared to what is really lacking, namely a sense of how big a hero Hughes was to the American people in the '30s.
There was no one who could touch him. Lindbergh had gone into seclusion. Babe Ruth was through. Joe DiMaggio was only a few years out of the San Francisco Seals and not yet a superstar with the Yankees. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt and a few major stars like Clark Gable had so captured the imagination of his country as had Hughes.
That was what was really amazing about he man - the rugged individualsit, his money, his adventures in the air, the women in his life, We knew it then, and not even his later years of eccentricity and seclusion have dimed that hero role he played in the lives of those who read about him or saw him in the newreels in the '30s and '40s.
That is what is amazing about "The Amazing Howard Hughes," - it never quite captures that enormous celebrity quality that Hughes radiated in his younger years. Perhaps in trying to tell us too much about Hughes, those responsible for this production wound up telling us too little. Or put another way, they tell us not much more than we already know.
But these reservations should not deter you from watching the entire four hours. It is a good deal better than what is one television during these dog days of re-runs and tyouts of shows that the networks would like to add to their schedules in the fall. The problem, howere, is the man himself, as elusive in death as he was in life.