The Aviator is the story of Howard Hughes, a brilliant but afflicted filmmaker who fights Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) successfully to pursue his ambition of filmmaking and his passion for aviation. The movie starts with a young nine-year old Hughes being bathed by his mother, while being told that ‘he is not safe’ from outbreaks of flu, a line which seemingly becomes his leitmotif later in life.
At 22, Hughes inherits his family business of aviation tools and is directing his maiden film Hell’s Angels. It is perhaps an early influence of the onset of OCD that Hughes becomes obsessively compulsed with directing his film realistically, leading to huge cost and time overruns. His obsession with perfection is further proven when the indefatigable Hughes reshoots his film in sound when a rival filmmaker launches the first film with sound. Hell’s Angels proves to be a big hit at the box office. Hughes goes on to direct several more successful films such as Scarface and The Outlaw, while expanding his family aviation business and falling in love with actress Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett).
Hughes’ passion for aviation sees him complete the fastest flight in 1935 in the H-1 Racer plane, inciting the jealousy and ire of fellow aviation businessman Juan Trippe, owner of Pan American Airlines. Trippe tries to counter Hughes by first trying to buy off the latter’s aviation business and later accusing Hughes of wartime profiteering. Meanwhile, Hughes’ partner Hepburn falls in love with another actor and leaves Hughes even as his OCD symptoms worsen. Hughes finds refuge in another girl and finally in actress Ava Gardner who becomes his romantic interest and partner after Hepburn. Through this all, Hughes’ OCD worsens and he goes into depression following the protracted legal battle and off hand tactics employed by Trippe to monopolize aviation business.
It is when Ava Gardner returns and extends moral support to Hughes that he takes on Trippe and his cronies head-on in the legal battle and wins it, while also announcing to the world that he would test fly the H4 Hercules flying boat soon or leave the country.
Hughes successfully does this, but soon relapses into OCD after successfully surmounting all the challenges that life had presented him with.
Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo Dicaprio in The Aviator, is shown as an ambitious and intellectually-driven person but suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Hughes born in a wealthy family having an aviation tools business developed an early fancy for aviation leading him to promise his mother at the tender age of nine, that he would build the biggest and fastest plane in the world when he grows up.
It is Hughes’ immense drive to succeed, prodded perhaps by his compulsive behavior that helps him succeed at both film-making and aviation. He went on to become one of world’s wealthiest men, influential filmmaker and pioneering aviator.
In the process he was also successful in wooing several successful and beautiful women including actresses Katering Hepburn and Ava Gardner.
History of Hughes’ illness
Though the film does not make any direct reference to Hughes’ having inherited OCD directly from either of his parents, the opening scene of the movie might indirectly suggest so. The opening scene shows his mother bathing a 9-year old Hughes while telling him “you are not safe”, referring to the then Flu outbreak. This might be construed otherwise as an overcaring mother but in this context also suggests the possibility of a compulsive behavior, driven by fear of disease and germs, and caused by OCD.
There is reason for the maker of the film Scorcese to remain ambivalent on the issue as there is no conclusive scientific evidence to prove that OCD could be inherited.
The film also points towards the early onset of OCD in Hughes’ case which is manifested in his compulsively perfectionist disposition while shooting his maiden film Hell’s Angels.
Hughes had a long history of minor physical illnesses beginning in childhood. Driven by fear of developing life-threatening diseases, his mother frequently sought treatment for young Howard for colds and somatic complaints. At age 13, Hughes developed a medically unexplained paralysis that confined him to a wheelchair for 2 months. His parents believed that he had contracted polio, but the diagnosis was never confirmed. Later, in adulthood, Hughes developed chronic pains due to a series of plane accidents that rendered him dependent on or rather addicted to medication for pain relief.
Hughes was his parents’ only child and naturally had a close relationship with his parents. His mother died unexpectedly when he was 16 and two years later, his father died of a heart attack. Hughes mother was overprotective of her only child and was preoccupied with his physical and emotional condition. In the film, Hughes makes the observation that he had learned early in life that he could attract attention or avoid unpleasant situations by complaining of an illness. His father, on the other hand, was rather flamboyant and well known for his gregarious lifestyle.
Until his father’s death, hughes lived in California, where he engaged in a glamorous Hollywood lifestyle, often meeting with celebrities from the film industry.
Even though he never earned a high school diploma, Hughes’ influential father managed to have him admitted to Rice University. He later quit college and became the sole beneficiary of a very successful family-owned business.
Hughes’ himself had a turbulent life so far as relationships were concerned. He married early at the age of 19 but this marriage lasted only five years. He later had a string of relationships with successful and beautiful women but his OCD condition made him insecure and suspect their commitment towards him, leading to several break-ups.
Hughes’ medical condition of OCD manifested itself in his behavior right from young adulthood. His compulsion for perfection in film-making; going to extraordinary lengths to achieve realism, were all a manifestation of his compulsive behavior. He took huge risks in his aviation business as well, taking major financial decisions on impulse and flying previously untested aircraft, risking his life in the process. This impulsiveness is also attributed to his OCD.
Hughes’ OCD manifested itself in his relationships in the form of paranoia and the belief that his partners were unfaithful to him. It grew to such an extent that he began spying on Hepburn, his long-time partner, eventually leading to their break-up.
With growing age, his OCD symptoms also worsened, making him see everything as unclean and germ-infested. His aversion to dust or anything seemingly unclean grew to such proportions that he would lock himself in a supposedly ‘germ-free’ room for prolonged periods of time, refusing to touch food and other such things he believed might be ‘germ-infested’.
As Hughes’ OCD worsened, he believed every place to be contaminated and unhygienic, often muttering, ‘there is no safe place’.
All the symptoms displayed by Howard Hughes point towards a progressively deteriorating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). While the perfectionist aspect of Hughes, probably honed by OCD’s compulsive behavior, helped him succeed in film-making and aviation, the impulsive and risky behavior caused by it later also consumed his life.
The insecurity and paranoia resulting from OCD made him distrust his partners and loved-ones leading to destroyed relationships. The physiological harm caused later by his aversion to dust and seemingly contaminated places further aggravated his physical and mental condition as he confined himself to closed spaces and refused food.