Our Favorite Performances: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator

Playing Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street was a great performance, definitely a switch for DiCaprio and showed a bit of a physical comedy side to him but it isn’t my favorite. The best Leonardo DiCaprio performance that I feel was definitely robbed of an Oscar was his portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator.


Each month the Cinelinx staff will write a handful of articles covering a specified film-related topic. These articles will be notified by the Movielinx banner. Movielinx is an exploration and discussion of our personal connections with film. We’ll even submit reviews of the films we discuss so that you can get a better idea of what we’re talking about. This month, in honor of the Oscars, we look at our all-time favorite performances. What performances are influential to you? Feel free to add your own comments or reviews of your all-time favorite performances.

The Aviator was made in 2004 and was DiCaprio’s second collaboration with the legendary director Martin Scorsese. It is a biopic that details the life of Howard Hughes from the late 1920’s to 1947. Hughes was not only a famous aviator and director but also dealt with mental illness, specifically obsessive-compulsive disorder. The film depicts the prime of his career as well as his downfall and DiCaprio’s performance is nothing but captivating the whole way through.

One may argue that the film is long, coming in at a little over two and a half hours, but you have to remember it is a Scorsese film. They are all long and they are all worth it. The story may lag a bit in the middle, but one thing that stays strong is DiCaprio’s performance. The audience is just drawn to him from the moment we see him. Mr. Hughes was not the greatest man by no means, he had many girlfriends that were outrageously underage, spent most of his money on crazy things like the world’s largest airplane, but he was a visionary that changed the world. He was passionate and persistent. Unfortunately, that passion and persistence lead to obsession, but you still root for him throughout the film.

People say “eyes are the window to the soul,” and if you don’t believe that statement watch DiCaprio in this movie. He has this enigmatic skill where you can see everything that he’s feeling and thinking through his eyes — hurt, anger, fear, drive, excitement — everything. I literally could just watch DiCaprio’s eyes for an entire movie and I would know the entire story of what is going on. You believe DiCaprio is Howard Hughes and going though these life situations because his eyes make you think he is Howard Hughes, too.



There is a lot of story in the film and information but DiCaprio’s performance brings everything together. In the film, Hughes’ passion and motivation to be the biggest and fasted eventually drove him mad. Throughout the film, Howard Hughes deals with obsessive-compulsive disorder. he fears contamination, but he deals with it fine. There are instances where the OCD creeps in, like he washes his hands over and over with his own, personal bar of soap. One scene, after washing his hands a man in crutches asks Howard to pass him a towel, Hughes is petrified of touching anything with his newly clean hands and says to him, “I really can’t do that, I’m sorry,” and walks out avoiding eye contact. Even though the man clearly seems annoying, we, the audience, feels for Hughes he really wanted to help but his fear cripples him.

Typically though, when his life goes well, liek during the years dating Katharine Hepburn and when he purchased Trans World Airlines (TWA), his OCD symptoms improved and are kept at bay. But once things start going sour, so does his illness. For instance, when other the big airline company (Pan Am)’s head honcho, Juan Trippe, enlists in Senator Brewster to introduce the Commercial Airline Bill. The Commercial Airline Bill would give Pan Am a monopoly on all international airline travel and thus ruin TWA. Senator Brewster has the FBI search Hughes’ house for war profiteering evidence and offers to drop these charges if Hughes sells TWA to Pan Am. Hughes becomes stuck between a rock and a hard place and decides to stay there for nearly three months. 

 These scenes where he locks himself in his screening room for three months is heartbreaking. He fears contamination so much and yet he just completely lets himself go. He drinks spoiled milk, urniates in bottles, is naked the entire time. His facial hair and nails grow out, it is a complete turnaround from the passionate, in charge Howard Hughes we knew. He can’t stop repeating how he shouldn’t pick up the bottle with his right hand. And he shouldn’t take the top off with his left…put it in his pocket. His left pocket. And yet he does drink the rotten milk over and over again. Eventually, almost miraculously, he leaves because he has to defend himself against the Senator Brewster’s charges in court and everything gets better, for now.

Towards the end, things seem to be going well for Howard Hughes, he tests his flying boat which is a success, he is all cleaned up but then it happens. He can’t stop saying “the way of the future,” it is devastating. He just cannot stop, but then he hasa flashblack of himself as a child telling his mother how he wants to be a great man and he actually calms himself, he continues to say “the way of the future,” but in a more accepting way. In a way, it is Hughes accepting that even though he is conflicted with this illness that he cannot control he did control his life and future and did become that man that flew the fasted planes, made the biggest movies, and the richest man in the world. It is an extremely powerful scene and just leaves you with the need to just take everything in.



DiCaprio’s performance as Howard Hughes is one of my favorite performances ever. You just feel entirely for the character how he breaks down completely, it is so believable. It’s crazy how DiCaprio can pull off such a character who was so powerful and yet so weak. DiCaprio’s performance as Hughes in a way was kind of like a china doll, he was so strong and sturdy at one point but then there would be a crack there in the bathroom scene or there when he wanted to fire the janitor with long fingernails and finally he would just break to pieces. If Howard Hughes was portrayed by any other actor I don’t think it would have been pulled off so perfectly. It’s devastating and inspiring all at once.

Thus, although there are sad moments, in a way the movie sends a great positive message. You may deal with hardships and illness, no matter what you can overcome and be the person you always wanted to be. Sometimes things don’t always go according to plan and nothing is always perfect, but you still can be that person. The Aviator is an incredibly powerful movie with an equally powerful message and without DiCaprio’s performance who knows if it would have been as great.

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