Howard Hughes, Swashbuckler
New topic 2019-01-09 20:07:02 description
The life of Howard Hughes is a 20th-century story; airplanes, money, movies, and sex. Itâ€™s usually presented as an enigmatic tragedy when it might play better as a rollicking Preston Sturges comedy. In her book â€œSeductionâ€ Karina Longworth finds her own unique purpose for Hughesâ€™s adventures: â€œItâ€™s time,â€ she writes, â€œto rethink stories that lionize playboysâ€ and â€œone way to beginâ€ is to study â€œa playboyâ€™s relationship with some of the women in his life from the perspective of those women.â€ 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 â€œYou Must Remember This,â€ for which she uses her prodigious research skills to present â€œthe secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywoodâ€™s first century.â€ 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 (â€œMelvin and Howardâ€) and Martin Scorsese (â€œThe Aviatorâ€), 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 freshestâ€”and most interestingâ€”parts of â€œSeductionâ€ are those where Ms. Longworth refutes the idea that there were no women working in key jobs in early Hollywood. She presents Hollywood â€œas a place where women could immigrate in search of legitimate work and do it without the help or chaperoning of men.â€ Sheâ€™s right. When the film was officially born in 1895, it wasnâ€™t a boy. Itâ€™s long past time for the history of the mediumâ€™s women pioneers to be written: This book isnâ€™t that, but Ms. Longworth could write it if someone would let her.
The author is a dedicated film historian, and in â€œSeductionâ€ her basic love for Hollywood and its motley crew of shysters and stars is on full display. She uses Hughesâ€™s entire lifeâ€”not just his relations with womenâ€”as a platform from which to jump off into areas of historical interest. A discussion of Hughesâ€™s magnum directorial opus, â€œHellâ€™s Angelsâ€ (1930), corrects the exaggerated idea that sound ruined the careers of most silent stars. His production of the violent â€œScarfaceâ€ (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 â€œKitty Foyleâ€ (1940), for which Rogers won an Oscar. Ms. Longworth says Rogers â€œis remembered as a trouperâ€ but also was a woman â€œwho believed in the ritual of marriageâ€ (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 â€œbox-office poisonâ€ label into accurate perspective, calling it â€œa work of hyperbolic propaganda.â€
Ms. Longworth makes a strong statement about not caring about the scandal from the past (â€œI donâ€™t think it mattersâ€), but she supplies plenty of it, some of which is connected to Hughes and some of which isnâ€™t. She is at her best writing about specific movie stars and specific films, such as the bizarro noir delight â€œHis Kind of Womanâ€ (1951), which she says Hughes â€œput his special touch onâ€ and boasted was his best picture. (Ms. Longworth says â€œthe boast was accurate.â€) She describes Jane Russell, a successful Hughes protÃ©gÃ©e and star of his controversial â€œThe Outlawâ€ (1943), as â€œa female Robert Mitchum,â€ saying the sultry and bosomy Russell was â€œHowardâ€™s idea of the girl next door.â€ She assesses Terry Moore, a second-string starlet who in the 1940s and â€™50s claimed to be Hughesâ€™s wife, as â€œuniquely talentless.â€ She even dares to criticize Americaâ€™s sacred cow, Hepburn herself, pointing out that Hepburn carved out her â€œlevel of liberation . . . thanks to her alliances with powerful men.â€ 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 Flynnâ€™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 familyâ€™s considerable wealth at age 18 and took it to Hollywood in 1925. Ms. Longworth calls him â€œa failure as both an artist and a mogul.â€ 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 twiceâ€”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.
As he aged, Hughes became known for â€œsponsoringâ€ 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 Hughesâ€™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 â€œpoor little Ava seemed to bounce up and down in her seat like a yo-yo.â€ (This surely has to be the only time anyone ever referred to Gardner as â€œpoor little Ava.â€) Domergueâ€”with a straight faceâ€”once said Hughes told her, â€œYou are the child I should have had.â€
Ms. Longworth does not ignore the serious accomplishments of Hughesâ€™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 pilotâ€™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.
â€œSeductionâ€ carefully traces the ups and downs of Hughesâ€™s career over decades that culminated in his personal decline. Ms. Longworth pinpoints 1942 as the year his workaholic habits began to become â€œunsustainable.â€ By late 1944, he began exhibiting â€œobsessive-compulsive tics.â€ Ms. Longworth pinpoints a July 1948 Time magazine cover story as the moment in which Hughes started to â€œlose control of his own story.â€ 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 â€œincreasingly eccentricâ€ mega-millionaire who had â€œbecome obsessed with eradicating Communists.â€ 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 â€œthe gap between perception and reality could be made to disappear.â€ As early as 1947 Time described Hughes as â€œthe Hollywood playboy and planemaker about whom the public has heard very much but actually knows very little.â€ Itâ€™s an evaluation thatâ€™s still valid.
â€”Ms. Basinger is chairwoman of the department of film studies at Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of â€œI Do and I Donâ€™t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.â€
Originally published: Wednesday, January 09, 2019; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2019