Sunday, January 02, 2005
Howard and Ray
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator
Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray
I feel a little weird blogging about movies when the statistics from Southeast Asia keep getting more mind-boggling by the minute, but since I’ve been going to the movies during the holidays while relief workers bring in food and supplies and bury bodies, I guess that’s what I’ll write about.
Ray and The Aviator – probably the two movies with the most collective Oscar buzz between them – offer the life stories of two talented, charismatic geniuses who tend toward self-destruction. Both stories illustrate the notion that burning too bright often comes with a heavy price, that genius and madness are frequently two sides of the same coin. Neither address the opposite question, the one that most of us deal with: is the price of a more careful life, the one that most of us live, a long, slow, uneventful ramble toward death and anonymity? And which is preferable?
I’m tempted to say that movies usually don’t deal with the quieter of these two inquiries, but occasionally they do. Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt tackled it – what does the end of a quiet, risk-free life look like? Feel like? Is it satisfying? But usually, the common folk aren’t interested in watching their own forms and foibles wander across the screen, they have enough of that every day. It takes big risk-taking, big gambles, to warrant an entire feature film about a life.
And both Howard Hughes and Ray Charles were big risk-takers, each of the sort that American society worships. Nevermind the costs: Hughes ultimately paid in madness, drug dependency and complete social ostracization; Charles in heroin addiction. One was overrun by his demons, the other ultimately redeemed himself, but to some extent, the stories run on parallel tracks. While both men faced the world’s challenges head-on, at the end of the day they each seemed not to have enough left within them to handle the trivialities of their lives. Hughes escaped into mental disorder masquerading as order and control; Charles escaped into women he didn’t love and a drug that clouded his exuberant and musical mind.
In one interview, Aviator star and self-made Hughes expert Leonardo DiCaprio says that when Hughes crashed a test flight into Beverly Hills apartment homes, it was like Icarus flying too close to the sun. Hughes never really brought himself all the way back after that one, and the injuries he sustained in that catastrophic wreck eventually led him to become addicted to painkillers, an issue the movie, chronicling the younger man, doesn’t address.
Ray Charles also had his Icarus moments, flying high, crashing low. He went from churning out number-one hits and negotiating for himself the most lucrative record contract the industry had yet seen to getting busted for heroin possession and eventually having to wean himself off the evil substance, a process that in itself should deter anyone from trying that drug.
Maybe such big personalities require huge counter-measures to balance them out. While the average 9-to-5er can smooth out the edges with a glass or two of wine at the end of the work day, maybe it takes much more to settle these types down.
And maybe it’s a requirement that such folk be forged from difficult circumstances. Hughes, although he inherited a fortune, was an orphan by the age of 17 and an only child. His mother, as portrayed in the movie, was overprotective and overintimate. Charles was the son of a poor but strong single mother, and he watched his little brother drown in an accident when he was 7, an incident that haunted him throughout the rest of his life. Soon after, glaucoma took his eyesight, leading him to discover his other gifts.
Without the risks these men took, there’s much that society would be without. Hughes helped pioneer commerical transatlantic flight and jet air travel, while Charles gave us an entirely new form of music, fought successfully against segregation and proved one more time that all races are created equal.
Perhaps we get some solace from sitting in a dark theatre observing the lives of people who beat down such adversity and go on to live so largely – see, we can say, if we live likewise we too will face madness or drug addiction, disasterous marriages or no marriages at all. If we take no chances, at least we won’t pay big prices.
But maybe it’s the combination of all of the above factors that led Hughes and Charles to seem so fearless and take such big chances. They placed big bets because they felt they had nothing to lose, and it was just those bets that made them feel like they had any place on this earth at all. Both men seemed fearless on the outside, while demons gnawed at them from within. Hughes was engulfed, while Charles fought past his scratching and clawing. It’s not lack of fear that defines courage, it’s the willingness to face that fear and proceed anyway.
Both movies also embrace some fearlessness: Martin Scorsese has such a fear of flying that the title alone of The Aviator nearly dissuaded him from doing the movie; Leonardo DiCaprio has dreamed for ten years of bringing Howard Hughes to the silver screen, with himself in the title role, making a potential public failure that much more intolerable; and Jamie Foxx took on a beloved icon and inhabited the man so completely that there’s no sign left of Foxx.
Since it’s but two months away, let’s address my favorite awards show of the year, the Oscars. The Aviator could win the Oscar for best movie, but Scorsese has a better chance of walking away with Best Director because he thoroughly deserves it, and Oscar often awards statues to greater artists in lesser projects if they’ve been overlooked in the past. (See Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe). Scorsese is probably the most overlooked, legendary director working today. (Quentin Tarantino would be another one, but he’ll get his soon enough.) DiCaprio will be nominated but won’t win, but Cate Blanchett, playing Katherine Hepburn, will achieve both.
As for Best Actor, Jamie Foxx’s time has clearly come. No other performance this year even comes close. What Foxx does in Ray is closer to channelling than acting.
As I said, I’ve seen a lot of movies over the break, so besides the above-mentioned picks, here are a few more. Both Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet will be nominated for Finding Neverland, which also should be nominated best picture. Winslet also has a shot at a nomination for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which also will likely win Best Original Screenplay and should. If there’s any justice in the world, Eternal Sunshine also will be nominated best picture, but it was a quirky movie released a long time ago and both factors could hurt it.