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Howard's end: Scorsese and 'The Aviator'

Martin Scorsese (left) directs Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Aviator": "What the [script] chose not to show, that's what interested me."

LOS ANGELES -- Martin Scorsese is not a creature of the sound bite. In an age when directors and stars are trained by their publicists to stay on message and repeat glowing mantras about their movies, Scorsese is all over the map. He loves his new movie, "The Aviator," you can tell that, but he's finished with it. It's in the can. He's straining at the bit.

He's talking out loud about ideas for his next movie. He'll make a Boston police picture, starring DiCaprio for the third time in a row. Then maybe he'll adapt Endo's The Silence, about a Jesuit missionary in Japan in the 16th century. Or maybe Boswell's London Journal -- he loves that book, about a young man from Scotland, on the make in the big city: "I love it when he gets the clap from that actress and after he's treated, he goes around and presents her with the doctor's bill."

We are having lunch in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He is eating a piece of chicken that has been prepared to his specifications. Flattened. Seasoned. Breaded. His mother was a great cook. He once included her recipe for tomato sauce in the credits of a movie. He knows how he wants his chicken.

His hair is gray now. His face is lined. I met him when we were in our 20s. He had a mane of hippie hair and a beard, wore the jeans and the beads, was editing "Woodstock" in a loft in SoHo. We went down to Little Italy on the Feast of San Gennaro and ate pasta, and he told me about a project that would become, a few years later, "Mean Streets." I cannot look at Martin Scorsese and see a man who is 62. I see the kid. Certainly I hear the kid.

"I've never been that interested in Howard Hughes's life, beginning to end," he said, talking about the subject of "The Aviator," opening Dec. 25. He was interested in the middle. Then he saw a screenplay by John Logan, who is good at finding the story line in an epic life; he wrote "Gladiator" and "The Last Samurai."

"What Logan chose not to show, that's what interested me," Scorsese said. "You can't do the whole life. The last 20 years, it's a guy locked in a room watching movies. I went through a phase like that myself, movies all day long, all night long; my friends would say I was walking around with the Kleenex boxes on my feet again. Just like Howard Hughes.

"What I liked was the young Howard Hughes who came to Hollywood with the money his dad made on drill bits, and bet the store. He had energy and lust. I saw him walking into the Coconut Grove, beautiful girls on swings above the dance floor, L.B. Mayer standing there with his flunkies, asking Mayer if he could borrow a couple of cameras. 'Cause he's got 24 cameras for this scene, but he needs two more. He needed 26 cameras to film the aerial fights in 'Hell's Angels.'

"Mayer gave him excellent advice. 'Go back to Houston. You'll go broke here.' But even 'Hell's Angels,' then the most expensive picture ever produced, eventually made its money back. He was a genius at getting rich, he had a visionary sense, but always there was that fatal flaw eating away at him, consuming him."

Hughes spent his last decades as a mad recluse, but Scorsese's film only takes him to the point where he is about to shut the door on the world. There are episodes of madness, but also flashes of triumph. We know Hughes is falling to pieces, but the world doesn't guess; he faces down a congressional hearing that tries to paint him as a war profiteer but fails.

"Most of the Senate stuff, that's what he really said, verbatim," he said. "He won. He really did say if the Spruce Goose didn't fly, he would leave the country and never come back again. And it flew."

It flew, in one of several special effects scenes Scorsese integrates with eerie realism into the film; another is a scene where Hughes crash-lands in Beverly Hills, the wing of his plane slicing through the wall of a house.

"You want my guess?" Scorsese said. "Ultimately, when he looks in the mirror at what he has become, he would do it all again. It was worth it."

And the girls. Harlow, Hepburn, Jane Russell and the pneumatic brassiere he personally designed to assist her bosom in its heaving.

"Breasts!" Scorsese said. "He embraced them so passionately. I am appreciative of that part of the female form, but it's not my point of view. But he loved them!"

There came a time when Scorsese had to decide between two films: Alexander the Great or Howard Hughes. "Alexander or Howard? But Alexander would take years of pre-production; I'm not getting any younger. And Oliver Stone told me it was the passion of his life. And the Logan script about Hughes was so attractive."

And you worked again with Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, I said, despite all those stories about how you were at each other's throats during "Gangs Of New York."

"Harvey? A difference of opinions. Issues of taste. No blood-letting. And ultimately, it came down to a hard, cold case of production costs and how much we could spend." Scorsese hinted, almost under his breath, that "Gangs of New York" had fallen a little short of what he had dreamed, but in the real world of production money and how much it can buy, Scorsese made the best movie it was possible to make.

More to the point, I thought, was the movie before that, "Bringing Out the Dead" (1999), with Nicolas Cage as an ambulance driver in Hell's Kitchen. This I thought was a brilliant film, a descent into the underworld. "But it failed at the box office," Scorsese said, "and was rejected by a lot of the critics."

I was astonished by its energy and dark vision, by its portrait of a man venturing nightly into hell to rescue the dying and the damned. "I had 10 years of ambulances," he said. "My parents, in and out of hospitals. Calls in the middle of the night. I was exorcising all of that. Those city paramedics are heroes -- and saints, they're saints. I grew up next to the Bowery, watching the people who worked there, the Salvation Army, Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, all helping the lost souls. They're the same sort of people."

Saints, I said. A lot of saints in your films.

"Despite everything, I keep thinking I can find a way to lead the spiritual life," he said. "When I made 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' when I made 'Kundun,' I was looking for that. 'Bringing Out the Dead' was the next step. Time is moving by. I'm aware of that."

Do you still read all the time, and watch movies all the time?

"Both of them, all of the time. On our top floor, I have a projection room, a big screen, I'm always watching something, and my daughter's bedroom is at the other end of the hall. She knocks on the door: 'Daddy, turn the movie down!' It's supposed to be the daddy who tells the kid to turn down the noise. And reading. George Eliot. All of Melville -- everything he wrote. I'm fascinated by whale boats, but I'm afraid of a picture on the water, so many technical problems. Then I got sidetracked by Ovid, and he took me back to Propertius."

He spells "Propertius" for me.

"You gotta read Propertius."

The movies? He sighed. "It's almost like I've seen enough of some of the old films. 'Citizen Kane,' it's a masterpiece, I'm in awe of it, but I know it. I know it. It comes up on TV, I don't stop. Now 'The Trial,' by Welles, 'Touch of Evil,' I'll stop and watch. And music. Leadbelly. If you sit through all the credits after 'The Aviator,' we play a song written and performed by Leadbelly:

Get up in the morning/Put on your shoes/Read about/Howard Hughes.

"He wrote that. Leadbelly wrote that."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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