TWO WIDELY PRAISED RECENT AMERICAN FILMS OFFER biographical profiles of men who, for vastly different reasons, commanded headlines in the 1940s. Alfred Kinsey shocked the world in 1948 with his exhaustively researched bestseller, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. He is the subject of Bill Condon's Kinsey, which stars Liam Neeson in the title role. Movie producer and aeronautics businessman Howard Hughes is the focus of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading role. Hughes' busty shots of Jane Russell in 1943's The Outlaw led to the film's official censorship (it was cut by 20 percent before release), and he also made headlines in the late '40s for the wartime activities of his aircraft company. Providing filmmakers excellent dramatic raw materials, both Kinsey and Hughes would end up the subjects of Congressional investigations. Attacked by the religious right, Kinsey was accused of Communist sympathies and damaging the morals of America's young. Targeted by his business rivals, Hughes was charged with war profiteering in his development of a cargo plane and a spy plane, neither of which was completed before V-J Day. Though our most popular medium, feature-length dramatic film is hardly the best vehicle for biography. The human lives of public figures are so complicated that literary biographers often devote multiple volumes to the material a filmmaker would dare to address in two hours. Inevitably, much is condensed, and much is left out. Moreover, a dramatic film biography is routinely more subjective than a documentary treatment of the same individual as the screenwriter and director attempt to devise structured scenes that serve their story in the same way such passages advance a fictional narrative. Artistic license is inevitable. As a result, we often learn as much about the values of the filmmaker as we do about the lessons of the subject's life. Complaints have been lodged in some quarters about the "accuracy" of Kinsey and The Aviator both. Critics have argued that both men have been portrayed more sympathetically than they deserve. Of the two films at hand, Kinsey is probably the "truer," whereas The Aviator is the superior work of narrative art.
Righting the Ostrich Impulse
Worldwide events illustrate the troubling extent to which humanity is at war with its own progression into modernity. In the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalists rage at the "decadence" of the West and demand a strict adherence to Muslim principles as practiced in the Middle Ages. In America, an Idaho pharmacist refuses to dispense birth control pills "for religious reasons." Eighty years after the infamous Scopes "Monkey" trial, numerous state legislatures are debating whether to require their high school biology curricula to teach evolution and creationism as equivalently valid theories; some school boards have already done so. President Bush successfully campaigned for reelection on his opposition to funding new lines of stem cell research. Yielding to pressure from the religious right, his administration has blocked dissemination of family-planning techniques to citizens in third-world countries. A large part of the Bush electorate seems imbued with religious certainty and hostile to scientific inquiry. But such retrogressive attitudes are not new. Condon's Kinsey reminds us that Americans have long possessed a peculiar ostrich-like desire to stick our collective heads into the falsely comforting sands of ignorance.
As detailed in the film, Alfred Kinsey, born in 1894, is raised in a restrictive religious home where sex is a negative obsession. His Luddite father (John Lithgow) denounces almost all modern inventions as conveniences that facilitate illicit sex. The automobile isn't for transportation, but for parking. "The zipper," he sneers, "provides speedy access to moral oblivion." In rebellion against his father's narrow-minded self-righteousness, Kinsey becomes a man of science. He earns a Ph.D. in biology, lands a faculty position at Indiana University, and becomes the world's leading authority on gall wasps.
Then, after agreeing to teach a class in sex education that his fellow biologists duck like an inside fastball, Kinsey is appalled to discover the dearth of available scientific literature about this fundamental aspect of human life. Most literature that addresses human sexuality at all simply promulgates ancient and ridiculous religious superstition. Masturbation causes warts, blindness, and insanity. Cunnilingus inhibits pregnancy. Homosexuality is a treatable mental disease. In this sea of misinformation and vacuum of scientific data, Kinsey finds his life's work. By establishing the sexual priggery rooted in Kinsey's family, Condon moves to illustrate Kinsey's faith in the scientific method. He and his wife Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) are both virgins when they marry, neither very knowledgeable about human sexuality. Initially, Clara suffers such pain during intercourse that the couple's lovemaking approaches the disastrous. But rather than just cower in shame, they consult a doctor, identify the problem, initiate treatment, and achieve a healthy and vigorous sex life thereafter. Rather than yield to ignorance and fear, they put their faith in science to solve their problems. With this personal success in his own experience, Kinsey believes that he can wield the discipline of research to become the agent of greater sexual happiness for others.
BEGINNING IN 1940, WITH FUNDING FROM THE Rockefeller Foundation, he undertakes a sweeping survey of contemporary sexual experiences and practices. His exhaustively trained team of researchers criss-crosses the nation and conducts tens of thousands of confidential interviews. Pulled together, analyzed and summarized, these interviews first yield Kinsey's 1948 bestseller about male sexuality. The book explodes sundry myths about sexual practice. In short, people are doing a lot more in their bedrooms than they'd ever admit in the living room. And the very things they enjoy in private, and inevitably feel guilty about, are the same things that are criminalized in state statutes and denounced from the pulpit and public podium.
Bill Condon obviously sees Kinsey as a hero, a man who dared shine light where darkness had hitherto reigned. He portrays Kinsey as a strapping crusader, relentlessly honest, earnest, upright, and fearless. And in the film's last third we can see how Kinsey's strengths are the very qualities that lead to his downfall. Appearing in the McCarthy era of 1953, his second volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, is denounced as a treasonous plot, part of a vast communist conspiracy to entice Americans, the young in particular, away from the purity that made our nation strong. Like many crusaders, Kinsey suffers from self-righteousness and contempt for those who oppose him. Lacking political agility and unwilling to tack into the winds of opposition rather than sail directly into them, he squanders support that he needs to curry. But as long as he has the scientific high ground, he will grant no quarter. And when a Congressional committee investigates him and intimidates his financial sponsors (both the Rockefeller Foundation and Indiana University ultimately curtail his support), his short season as a prominent player on the American cultural stage is over. He dies in 1956 at age sixty-two without ever completing his study of sexual perversions, the project that occupies the last years of his life.
Condon might have profitably spent more time on Kinsey's persecution and demise. And the time to do so could have been found by eliminating some of the scenes in Kinsey's youth. But the filmmaker is fair and wise to enhance our understanding of how Kinsey's intrinsic nature would ultimately limit his success. He was a Joe Friday of a scientist. Just the facts, thank you very much. Contrary to the laws under which he lived (many of which have survived to our own time), Kinsey believed that sexual curiosity and pleasure should be limited only by the appetites of one's partner. Long before laws against "sodomy" (defined divergently as various sexual activities other than intercourse) were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in our own new century, long before the legality of gay marriage became an issue in the 2004 Presidential election, Alfred Kinsey called for the end of legal sanctions against sexual acts practiced by consenting adults. His research revealed that human homosexuality was much more widespread than had previously been understood, and he was able to document homosexual conduct among other animal species. Perhaps stimulated by this new knowledge, certainly curious, Kinsey undertook a homosexual relationship with his assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard). Condon's film never makes clear whether we are to understand Kinsey as clinically bisexual or just as a scientist willing to use himself as an experimental subject. Whatever, Kinsey's occasional homosexual dalliances were used to impugn the integrity of his work, during his lifetime and even unto today. Equally controversial, Kinsey encouraged wife swapping and group sex among his researchers. In part we understand this as a manifestation of Kinsey's increasing radicalism. The more religious and political America criticized his work, the more he sought to unmoor his research from social convention. The slogan didn't appear until the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but Kinsey evidently came to believe, "if it feels good: do it."
BUT HUMAN BEINGS ARE SPIRITUAL AS WELL AS PHYSICAL creatures. And though we're not sure she ever manages to get him to understand, Clara tries to explain to her husband that attributes like marital fidelity and friendship can validly require sexual restraint. The pleasures of sex need sometimes be trumped by even greater virtues. In sum, Condon's Kinsey is a flawed but compelling hero. And the film lingers not on his victimization or his emotional blind spots but on his invaluable contribution to our understanding of who we are as sexual creatures. There are many among us who would rush again to draw it closed, but Alfred Kinsey pulled back the cur on Victorian prudery that had rendered shameful what science showed to be entirely natural.
Fly Me to the Stars
In The Aviator, a mentally unstable Howard Hughs (Leonardo DiCaprio) repeatedly gets stuck on words an phrases. At the film's end he can't stop saying, "The wave of the future." Specifically, these five words refer to Hughe assessment in the late 1940s that jet airplanes, still only prototypes not yet successfully developed by the military, will soon come to dominate commercial aviation. But metaphorically, the phrase stands for many of the concers that Scorsese explores in his picture. Hughes has just come out of a bruising fight to retain control of Trans World Airlines in which his competitors use unscrupulous Congressional influence to try to break him. Dwight Eisenhower's warnings about "the military/industrial complex" are never spoken in this movie, but that's what Scorsese has in mind. And in his telling, Howard Hughes is the last American individualist, a brilliant visionary willing to risk a vast personal fortune in pursuit of innovation and excellence. The wave of the future that Scorsese is worried about has names like McCarthyism in the 1950s. In our day, the operable words are Enron and Halliburton.
WRITTEN BY JOHN LOGAN, THEAVIATOR DEVOTES BUT a single scene to Hughes' childhood, when he is perhaps age nine. The passage is an homage to an almost identical scene in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, the story of another rich man who will die in infamous isolation. Hughes as a boy stands naked in a tub of water, and his mother washes him, caressing his limbs with the soap while she drills him on spelling words and warns him about the dangers of a raging cholera epidemic in his native Houston. This opening passage, shot through a gauzy filter, is deliberately creepy. The boy is too old to be bathed this way, and the implications of incest are unavoidable. I'm not sure that we're to take the scene literally, however. It is never revisited, and there are no subsequent suggestions that Hughes's adult mental problems are the result of sexual abuse. But the scene nonetheless haunts the movie with its evident suggestion that Hughes carried obsessions from his childhood that would ultimately keep him from realizing an enduring greatness that might otherwise have been his, obsessions that tormented him into seclusion and madness.
Aside from its opening, The Aviator concentrates on the two decades of Hughes's life from 1927 when at age twenty-one he is obsessively working on Hell's Angels, the film that will first bring him national attention, until 1947 when he is forced to defend himself against charges of war profiteering before the U.S. Senate committee of Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). In the early years, rich and handsome, Hughes dates a galaxy of Hollywood stars including Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), Ginger Rogers, and Lana Turner, but the loves of his life would seem to be first Katharine Hepburn (Gate Blanchett) and later Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). The film implies that he would have happily settled down with either of them. But Hepburn can't seem to handle his inability to make her the center of his life. And by the time he's involved with the brassy Gardner in the 1940s, his eccentricities have become so pronounced he's no longer a suitable companion. (The real Hughes would marry Jean Peters after this, but she's not a character in the movie.) Notably, Scorsese emphasizes the enduring relations Hughes maintains with both Hepburn and Gardner. Gardner repeatedly rejects Hughes' offers of marriage, but she stands by him when he's in the midst of a psychotic episode. Long after Hepburn leaves him, Hughes buys off a blackmailer who has pictures of Hepburn with married lover Spencer Tracy.
Whatever Hughes's feelings for Hepburn and Gardner, however, and whatever his involvement with motion picture production—along with The Outlaw and Hell's Angels, which remains one of the most thrilling aeronautic spectacles ever put on film, he also made The Front Page and the original Scarface—Scorsese stresses that Hughes's real and enduring obsession is with aviation. (Almost half of his movies, including his last, Jet Pilot in 1957, were about planes and flyers.) As a pilot himself, he breaks speed records, halves Charles Lindbergh's flight time from New York to Paris, and becomes the first man to fly around the world in less than a week. For Hughes, flying offers the allure and pleasure of sexual passion. Scorsese films him from overhead in his airplane cockpit, the flight stick between his legs, his wild manipulation of the plane suggesting autoeroticism. Two other passages capture what matters most to Hughes. In one, Scorsese cuts from Hughes making love to Hepburn in his study, caressing her bare back, to a scene in his plane factory where Hughes caresses the skin of a new plane with the same hand and in a much more attentive manner. Later, as Hughes lies broken and apparently dying (he doesn't) after a horrible plane crash, he identifies himself to a rescuer this way: "I'm Howard Hughes, the aviator."
Hughes was born to a fortune and increased it many fold. (He inherited less than a million dollars at age eighteen and was worth 1.3 billion at his death in 1976). But Scorsese nonetheless refuses to see him as an heir of privilege and pointedly contrasts him with Hepburn's own wealthy family who seem to live a life of ease and repose. Hepburn's opinionated mother (Frances Conroy) excoriates Hughes for failing to praise Franklin Roosevelt and declares with self-satisfaction that the Hepburns "don't care about money." Hughes rejoins acidly, "That's because you have it."
In sum, Hughes had money, but he didn't rest on it. Scorsese's Hughes regards money not as an end but as a beginning, as a tool to achieve his vision of things, whether movies the likes of which have never been made before or planes, the likes of which have never before roared through the sky. Scorsese's Hughes is an emblem of a can-do America. Hughes starts life with incredible advantages, but he never plays it safe. His restless creative spirit is always willing to risk catastrophic failure (including death) in the pursuit of spectacular success.
THE FILM REACHES ITS CLIMAX IN THE SHOWDOWN between Hughes and Brewster. In this telling, Brewster is the ally of Pan American Airways president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) who is trying to land a congressional monopoly on flights from the U.S. to Europe. In service to Trippe, who flies him around the world for free, Brewster intends to besmirch Hughes, whose Trans World Airlines also intends to compete in the intercontinental market. Brewster fights dirty. Knowing that Hughes has odd dietary habits and obsessions about cleanliness, Brewster deliberately tries to provoke Hughes into a psychotic fit with undercooked food and unwashed tableware. Remarkably, Hughes holds together, and during the hearings launches an attack on government corruption that turns public opinion in his favor. Brewster ridicules Hughes's development of the huge, eight-engine, wood transport plane derided in the press as the "Spruce Goose." Produced from Hughes's own design ideas and employing revolutionary manufacturing techniques, the mammoth transport is built in response to German submarine attacks on allied shipping. In wingspan and weight, it remains to this day the largest aircraft ever built. And in perhaps his last moment of unqualified public triumph, and as the film's crescendo, Hughes takes its controls on 2 November 1947 and proves that it can fly.
Critics of Howard Hughes dismiss him as a playboy and a nut. Some have worried that The Aviator fails to explore the thornier sides of Hughes's social and political attitudes. Conspiracy theorists have tried to tie him to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Liberals detest him for his support of Richard Nixon and other Republicans. Some critics of The Aviator take Scorsese to task for addressing none of these issues and barely alluding to any of them. But Scorsese, I suspect, would sneer at such objections as outside his concern. He's a filmmaker, not a biographer. In treating Alfred Kinsey, Bill Condon would appear to hie closer to the biographer's requirements about thoroughness and disclosure in celebrating the complicated life of a man he admires. In The Aviator Scorsese seems far more interested in an attitude about hope and a belief in progress than in the full specifics of his complicated subject's life. And whatever the truths and complications of his story here untold, The Aviator wields Hughes's life as a forceful rebuke to an age of insider influence, smug, facile patriotism, and an attitude of corporate entitlement that asks not what can we do for our country, but what can our country do for us.
Fredrick Barton is Professor of English at the University of New Orleans where be teaches creative writing and film studies and currently serves as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost. He is also film columnist for the New Orleans weekly, Gambit. His fourth novel, A House Divided, which won the William Faulkner Prize in fiction, will be released in paperback this spring.