Shortly after John Wayne died 25 years ago, the actor's family discovered a film print in his garage. As it turned out, this wasn't any old print but an original of Hell's Angels, Howard Hughes' 1930 aviation film. During production the movie ran up a staggering bill, for the time, of $5.2 million. When it came time to stash the print somewhere, the billionaire Texas entrepreneur and movie producer simply gave it to Wayne, probably as a thank-you for the work they had done together. Not much later it was in the garage.
"This is the history of Hollywood film preservation," Martin Scorsese says on a Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, concluding his anecdote, his eyebrows nearly flush against his hairline. "That's Hollywood history for you."
If Scorsese had his way, Hollywood wouldn't be so careless with its legacy. With The Aviator, his three-hour big-budget biopic about Hughes -- which recently won three Golden Globes, including Best Film (Drama), and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Film -- Scorsese may just be trying to sneak a little film history through the door.
Complete with beautiful stars (Kate Beckinsale, Cate Blanchett), big sets, fabulous bands and not one, but three endings, it is the most lavish homage to the glamorous old days of Hollywood in modern American cinema.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars) as Hughes and Blanchett (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) as love interest Katharine Hepburn, the film tracks Hughes' life, from being the heir to a tool company fortune in Texas to becoming an aviation pioneer and Hollywood's brashest, and probably craziest, producer.
"There was always something forbidden about the name Howard Hughes," says Scorsese, 62, dressed in crisp pressed slacks and a monogrammed shirt.
"He was a kind of bad boy of cinema, bad boy with women and a bad boy of aviation. I knew about his films through my father and a few other people, who were filmgoers. Working-class guys, you know. They were not educated, but they loved Hell's Angels and Scarface (another Hughes film)."
As a young man, Scorsese studied at New York University where he encountered eminent film historian William K. Everson and was introduced to Hell's Angels. So began his career of making artistic, actor-driven dramas such as Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver -- films drawing on his experience of growing up as an Italian-American in New York.
The director, who had to borrow money from Francis Ford Coppola for Mean Streets, reportedly had a $130 million budget for The Aviator. So what did he do? He spent some of it on film appreciation. During production, Scorsese showed everyone Hell's Angels and certain actors were treated to special tutorials.
Beckinsale had to see Mogambo to appreciate Ava Gardner's velvety beauty, while DiCaprio watched more and more Hughes films.
"You know what I did with Cate?" Scorsese asks. "I showed her every Katharine Hepburn film in 35 mm. In New York, London, wherever she was, I had prints sent from the studio. And she saw everything on the big screen, from A Bill of Divorcement to Philadelphia Story."
If Hughes' ghost were looking down on all this, he'd be smiling. If time ravages Hollywood's storage vaults, Martin Scorsese will be there to re-create whole decades of film from memory.
-- John Freeman is a writer in New York
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