Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Howard Hughes, Swashbuckler
New topic 2019-01-09 20:07:02 description

Inside the Star Factory

The life of Howard Hughes is a 20th-century story; airplanes, money, movies, and sex. It’s usually presented as an enigmatic tragedy when it might play better as a rollicking Preston Sturges comedy. In her book “Seduction” Karina Longworth finds her own unique purpose for Hughes’s adventures: “It’s time,” she writes, “to rethink stories that lionize playboys” and “one way to begin” is to study “a playboy’s relationship with some of the women in his life from the perspective of those women.” This worthy purpose creates a book with two parallel tracks: one about Hughes and one about the lives and works of women in film. Ms. Longworth attempts to connect the biography of Hughes (1905-76) to the modern world of #MeToo awareness, a dubious scholarly idea but certainly a commercially viable (and highly readable) one.

The author of books on George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep, Ms. Longworth is the creator and host of the popular podcast “You Must Remember This,” for which she uses her prodigious research skills to present “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” The Hughes story is neither secret nor forgotten, having been covered in a fake autobiography by Clifford Irving in 1972, discussed in countless magazines (from Time to Confidential to Fortune to Modern Screen), reimagined in movies by Jonathan Demme (“Melvin and Howard”) and Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator”), and chronicled previously by various authors (including his long-time business associate Noah Dietrich).


By Karina Longworth

Custom House, 543 pages, $29.99

Thus the freshest—and most interesting—parts of “Seduction” are those where Ms. Longworth refutes the idea that there were no women working in key jobs in early Hollywood. She presents Hollywood “as a place where women could immigrate in search of legitimate work and do it without the help or chaperoning of men.” She’s right. When the film was officially born in 1895, it wasn’t a boy. It’s long past time for the history of the medium’s women pioneers to be written: This book isn’t that, but Ms. Longworth could write it if someone would let her.

The author is a dedicated film historian, and in “Seduction” her basic love for Hollywood and its motley crew of shysters and stars is on full display. She uses Hughes’s entire life—not just his relations with women—as a platform from which to jump off into areas of historical interest. A discussion of Hughes’s magnum directorial opus, “Hell’s Angels” (1930), corrects the exaggerated idea that sound ruined the careers of most silent stars. His production of the violent “Scarface” (1932) allows her to explain the demarcation between pre-Code and post-Code censorship. His relationship with Ginger Rogers veers off into a lengthy (and terrific) discussion of the film “Kitty Foyle” (1940), for which Rogers won an Oscar. Ms. Longworth says Rogers “is remembered as a trouper” but also was a woman “who believed in the ritual of marriage” (she believed in it so much she went through it five times). When Hughes takes up with Katharine Hepburn, Ms. Longworth puts the much quoted “box-office poison” label into accurate perspective, calling it “a work of hyperbolic propaganda.”

Ms. Longworth makes a strong statement about not caring about the scandal from the past (“I don’t think it matters”), but she supplies plenty of it, some of which is connected to Hughes and some of which isn’t. She is at her best writing about specific movie stars and specific films, such as the bizarro noir delight “His Kind of Woman” (1951), which she says Hughes “put his special touch on” and boasted was his best picture. (Ms. Longworth says “the boast was accurate.”) She describes Jane Russell, a successful Hughes protégée and star of his controversial “The Outlaw” (1943), as “a female Robert Mitchum,” saying the sultry and bosomy Russell was “Howard’s idea of the girl next door.” She assesses Terry Moore, a second-string starlet who in the 1940s and ’50s claimed to be Hughes’s wife, as “uniquely talentless.” She even dares to criticize America’s sacred cow, Hepburn herself, pointing out that Hepburn carved out her “level of liberation . . . thanks to her alliances with powerful men.” Ms. Longworth knows her stuff, although there are occasional minor errors. (For instance, K.T. Stevens was not the daughter of director George Stevens, but of director Sam Wood. Errol Flynn’s statutory rape trial was in 1943, not 1934.)

Howard Hughes was born in Texas, the son of a man who grew rich selling drill bits and other tools to oilmen. Hughes inherited his family’s considerable wealth at age 18 and took it to Hollywood in 1925. Ms. Longworth calls him “a failure as both an artist and a mogul.” She sees him as a seducer, an abuser of male power. Although famous for relationships with the great beauties of his era (movie stars Billie Dove, Rogers and Hepburn, Ava Gardner and others), he married only twice—first in 1925 to a Houston girl of good family, Ella Rice, and then, in 1957, to a beauty-contest winner from the Midwest, Jean Peters, who had become a successful star briefly in the late 1940s.

Newsletter Sign-up

As he aged, Hughes became known for “sponsoring” young females he hoped to turn into stars, signing them to contracts and keeping them as virtual prisoners held hostage to his whims. One of these women, Faith Domergue, never made it to the top and spent her youth captive to Hughes’s control. He kept a stable of informers, security guards and private detectives to spy on her, causing her to retaliate. In 1943 Domergue, tooling around Hollywood in a little red car Hughes had given her, spotted him driving his big black Buick with the gorgeous Ava Gardner sitting beside him. Domergue viciously rammed them, smugly saying later that “poor little Ava seemed to bounce up and down in her seat like a yo-yo.” (This surely has to be the only time anyone ever referred to Gardner as “poor little Ava.”) Domergue—with a straight face—once said Hughes told her, “You are the child I should have had.”

Ms. Longworth does not ignore the serious accomplishments of Hughes’s life. He was a man of innovation, intelligence, and enterprise. Besides running an enormous business empire and designing airplanes (and cantilevered brassieres), Hughes earned his pilot’s license in 1928. By 1933 he set a world land speed record and in 1936 a record nonstop transcontinental flight time. In 1946 he flew the test flight of the XF-11 he had designed for the government, crashing spectacularly in a near-fatal disaster.

“Seduction” carefully traces the ups and downs of Hughes’s career over decades that culminated in his personal decline. Ms. Longworth pinpoints 1942 as the year his workaholic habits began to become “unsustainable.” By late 1944, he began exhibiting “obsessive-compulsive tics.” Ms. Longworth pinpoints a July 1948 Time magazine cover story as the moment in which Hughes started to “lose control of his own story.” His behavior was erratic during his years as head of RKO, the movie studio he purchased in 1948 and sold in 1955; he became an “increasingly eccentric” mega-millionaire who had “become obsessed with eradicating Communists.” After his sale of RKO, Hughes receded from the public eye, and Ms. Longworth makes clear why she thinks he withdrew: a decline in both physical and mental health; head injuries suffered in plane crashes, especially the near-fatal one in 1946; the loss of his identity as a lone wolf after he married Peters; and the 1957 business resignation of Noah Dietrich, his reliable friend and business sidekick since 1925.

Ms. Longworth sheds as much light on Hughes as probably can be shed. She shrewdly calls him a man who knew that “the gap between perception and reality could be made to disappear.” As early as 1947 Time described Hughes as “the Hollywood playboy and planemaker about whom the public has heard very much but actually knows very little.” It’s an evaluation that’s still valid.

—Ms. Basinger is chairwoman of the department of film studies at Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.”

Originally published: Wednesday, January 09, 2019; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2019