Hughes Kissing Her Now?
Warren Beatty's tall-tale about Howard Hughes, Rules Don't Apply, is about as ungainly as The Spruce Goose, but like the idea behind that aeronautical white elephant, it is not without its charms.
For one thing, it's not done with any malice aforethought. Beatty's been trying to make a movie about Hughes since the 1970's, and they've started it up and shut it down at various times, it never seeming right. After Scorsese made The Aviator, I'm surprised it was made at all, but one can see why Beatty still forged ahead with his story that he wrote with Bo Goldman (who also touched on Hughes in his original screenplay Melvin and Howard) and came out of self-imposed domestic bliss (Beatty wanted to raise the kids he had with wife Annette Bening, for God's sake!) to make it. He's managed to make a somewhat racy Disney fairy tale out of Hughes' life, complete with princess, Prince Charming, and even a happy ending for all involved. And that takes some doing, even if it takes a lot of liberties with the timeline and history.
It starts in 1964, where Hughes (Beatty) is a recluse who has not been seen in years, and an elaborate phone hook-up has been set up with Hughes experts from the press who are awaiting a call from the man, who is only speaking due to an unauthorized biography that a ne'er-do-well (Paul Schneider) has penned claiming it as a genuine autobiography.** His aides, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and Levar Mathis (Mathew Broderick) are trying to convince the reluctant Hughes to go through with it, as his reputation is on the line. But, the fire's gone out of Hughes, who couldn't care less and would just as soon be left alone. How he got here and how it gets resolved takes some back-story.
It's six years previous. 1956, to be exact, in this movie's version. Hughes is head of RKO Pictures where he fiddles with movies and has big aviation dreams, still designing aircraft and leading a lifestyle that goes beyond reclusive. Frank Forbes is a driver for RKO, specifically for the bevy of starlets Hughes has under exclusive contract, all hoping to make it big in movies...or at least meet Mr. Hughes personally. Frank and his immediate superior Levar are part of the motor pool for the RKO hopefuls—because the girls can't have their own cars, so as best to keep an eye on them (who knows how much trouble they could get into?) and the Hughes iron-clad contract guarantees that know Hughes employee is going to fraternize with them; the drivers stay in the front seats while the girls are completely safe and unmolested in the back-seats.
It's one of Frank's jobs today to pick up Marla Mabry (Lily Collins, who's presented as something like the love-child of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth taylor), RKO's latest recruit, escorted by her mother Lucy (Bening), who's there to make sure that Marla doesn't stray far from her Baptist upbringing (at one point, Levar, observing them says: "You know why Baptists are afraid of sex? They're afraid it will lead to DANCING!") and that things are on the up-and-up, especially with regards to meeting Mr. Hughes.
They're going to have to wait awhile, as nobody sees Mr. Hughes except for a select few in his daily flight-path. In fact, his way to pay the starlets is to lower checks from a clipboard attached to a string from his second floor window. Weird, yes, but Hughes is a busy man with a lot on his mind besides merely the RKO lot. There's his aerodynamic firm, his Daddy's tool company—of paramount importance—his studio, his investments—he's interested in birth control advancements, the recent discovery of DNA, and what appears to be an attempt at a clinch is merely his noticing that the fabric of an actress' blouse is rayon—but also, he's concerned with Congress breathing down his neck about his recent plane plans, questions of his competency and possible incarceration into a "looney bin," his abhorrence of appearing public (leading him to supervise the casting of "doubles"), and then, of course, there's "The Spruce Goose"—the HK Hercules—the wooden behemoth of a plane that has not yet flown (actually, Hughes flew it in 1947). It was built as an experiment to see if a transport could be built without commodities that might be in short ration supply during wartime, like aluminum.
A lot on his mind. Probably too much. Beatty plays Hughes in a hyper-scattershot style (which he excels at, and is always Beatty as his most interesting as an actor), usually obscured by shadow, often at a loss about what people are talking about when they're not talking about something that interests him. At this point, he's a man of reputation, which he keeps up by not being seen. A late night liaison arranged for Miss Mabry turns into a dinner where the two dine on TV trays with freshly warmed TV-dinners in tidy aluminum trays (which Hughes eats with gusto), a brief musical interlude where he plays the saxophone, and a lot of awkward silences.
The movie's at its best when Hughes is in the picture, although one wonders where it's all going when he doesn't show up for 45 minutes. At least, that early part of the picture is breezily, almost brutally, edited (Beatty has been known to turn in long edits of his movies, but this one clips along at just under 2 hours), and the director delights in period detail and idiosyncratic music choices for background—"Rockin' Robin," a Lawrence Welk tune—that entertain while teeing up the conflicts that will beset the young lovers from that first act as the movie progresses. The movie says something about breaking away from the constraints that hold us back, with Hughes as prime example, cautionary tale, and inconvenient road-bump on the path to true happiness. That's a lot of duty for the "Magical Helper" on a hero's journey, but Hughes was always an iconoclast.
Maybe too much. Around about the time Beatty's movie-Hughes starts making demands for a particular flavor of ice-cream, then flipping to another, the movie starts to sag away from that hyper first section and lose interest in the romance, losing its heart, but ultimately tying all loose ends together for a melancholy ending in which everybody seems to be getting what they want. It's a deft conceit and an odd unconventional addition to Beatty's short list of odd, sometimes unsettling, but always rather interesting films that linger in the memory far fonder than they do in the watching.
* Ascribed in the film as being said by Hughes, but I can't verify that.
** Anyone who's been alive as long as I have knows that phone conference didn't occur until 1971, when Clifford Irving published his bogus "autobiography" of Hughes that contained all sorts of wild speculations about Hughes' aversion to germs (not exactly false), and his dietary and personal habits, including growing out his fingernails—Hughes quipped during the call "Yeah, I was thinking how do I write checks?" As Beatty notes after that opening Hughes quote "Names and Dates Don't Apply."
*** One of my favorite films involving Hughes is Orson Welles F for Fake, which takes on the rather daunting subject of the worth of art, with amusing anecdotes a particular art forger, who became friends with, and was subsequently, biographied by...Clifford Irving.