Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Do not be afraid when some become rich,
when the wealth of their houses increases.
For when they die they will carry nothing away;
their wealth will not go down after them.
It has been 40 years since the death of billionaire Howard Hughes, yet interest in him remains high. There have been two major movies about one of the most eccentric men of the 20th century, Melvin and Howard (1980) and The Aviator (2004), and now a third, Warren Beatty’s mixture of fiction and fact. The fiction involves the budding romance between an employee and a protégé of Hughes, which turns out to be not nearly as interesting as the scenes involving the filmmaker-business man who, in the central portion of the film is showing signs of the bizarre mental instability that will in his old age turn him into a prisoner of his own fears and fantasies.
Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is one of Hughes’ young drivers kept busy ferrying his boss or one of the many starlets that Hughes maintains around town, allegedly for a future screen test. Frank also aspires to better things, sometimes offering tips on what he thinks is a good investment.
Lovely, and very naïve, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) has come to Los Angeles chaperoned by her mother Lucy (Annette Bening). She is thrilled with her contract to Hughes at $400 per week and their cozy Hollywood Hills home. She looks forward to a screen tested soon, but her wiser mother has a wait and see attitude. It is not reassuring that her daughter is one of 25 such lovelies that the middle-aged mogul is supporting. Frank drives one or another of them back and forth between her bungalow and the Hughes mansion. When Frank had picked up the Mabreys at the airport, their get acquainted conversation revealed that Frank is a Methodist who goes to church every Sunday, and that the Mabrey’s are equally devout Baptists. Lucy joked that she forgives him for being a Methodist.
Weeks pass without Marla even getting to meet Hughes. The young people enjoy getting to know each other better, even though Frank is engaged to his 7th grade sweetheart. We soon see how this will turn out. Marla and Frank are very much attracted to one another, but one of the many rules Hughes has imposed forbids any of the starlets from dating any of his employees. Of course, the two do fall in love, with Frank declaring that the “rules don’t apply to them.” Mom, however, becomes so fed up with no sign of a promised screen test that she decides that they should go back home. She does, but Marla decides to stay. Both Frank and Marla are drawn into a closer relationship with their reclusive boss, though in very different ways, with their faith and their ethics tested.
In scene after scene we see that Hughes is very concerned that his bizarre behavior—drapes, usually closed around his bed even when Frank or another employee is talking with him; phobias about contacting germs, and thus his refusal to meet face to face with a group of bankers from whom he wants to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars—these, and more, will cause others to declare that he is insane. He still controls his airline TWA and is embroiled with a fight with his board who oppose his plan to switch their airliners from prop to jet. The board schemes to have him declared mentally incompetent so they can wrest control of the airline from him.
Hughes also is involved in movie making, and wherever he goes watches his copy of his early hit Hell’s Angels. And we should mention his troubles with Congress, upset with him because of the slow progress made in building the huge seaplane dubbed “The Spruce Goose.” Begun in 1942 as a prototype for transporting supplies and troops, the war was over before it was finished. It was made of wood because of wartime restrictions on metal, critics giving it the rhyming nickname even though most of the wood was birch. One of the film’s most delightful and surprising scenes is the one in which Howard and Frank sit outdoors at night while eating a hamburger. The camera switches from a frontal shot of the pair to a rear one, and there, looming over them, is the world’s largest airplane.
I enjoyed the way in which so many details of Hughes’s life and the times are woven into the fictional romance (as well as depicting two sincerely Christian young adults without condescension). In the shots of Frank driving the women through the heart of Hollywood it is fun to pick out period details, such as late 50s cars, old signs and billboards, including a billboard promoting a Hughes film. The real chronology of Hughes’s life is changed for the sake of the story, but this is not meant to be a film biography. The major stars turn in good performances, and the able supporting cast is joined by quite a group of well-know stars in minor roles, no doubt eager to work under director Beatty. These include Alec Baldwin, Candace Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, James Gleason, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, and Paul Schneider. This is not Aviator class, but it is still an enjoyable look back at a by-gone time and a damaged mover and shaker who eventually came to a sad end. Although not meant to be a morality tale (consider who wrote and directed it), the film does suggest that money is not all that it’s cracked up to be, that mental stability and a concern for others are more important. I think the Psalmist or the authors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes would see in the tortured life of this billionaire enough material for another book or two of wise maxims.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Dec. 2016 issue of VP.