What Mental Illness Did Howard Hughes Have: Critical Essay

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Cinema shows us the fragility of masculinity

Cinema is a platform on which many subjects, emotions, problems, and eras can be displayed. It is a creative output and lets us have a glimpse into the minds of great film directors and has done so for many decades. One such director is Martin Scorsese who has graced the world with his cinematic creations for over five decades and is continuing to do so with his latest film, The Irishman only having been released in late 2019. Scorsese is from an Italian – American family and was born in Queens in New York City, but later moved to the area known as Little Italy. As a child, he was aware that there were some tough characters in his area and this obviously made an impression on him as he uses similar tough Italian – Americans in many of his films, some of which include: Goodfellas and Casino “This was a terrifying experience because I was old enough to realize that there were some tough guys around” ( Martin Scorsese, 1989 ). New York City is also a repetitive setting and theme in Scorsese’s films, he has depicted the city through many decades such as Taxi Driver and Goodfellas in the seventies, The King of Comedy in the eighties, and The Wolf of Wall Street running from the late eighties into the mid-nineteen 90s. Scorsese is also incredibly well renowned for having his lead characters and storylines about men, so I think he and his films are the perfect topic to write about in this essay about the fragility of masculinity in cinema.

The male characters portrayed in Scorsese’s films are flawed in many ways, but the ones I will be choosing to write about in this essay will be Scorsese’s various portrayals of mental illness in his characters. Mental illness/health is a subject that needs to be handled carefully, and if portrayed wrong it can misinform or offend the film's audience, which can have dire effects. Scorsese handles the subject terrifically, however, by not only giving realistic depictions but also by “shining a light on issues which needed bringing to the fore.” ( Thom Denson, Dec 27, 2016 ). The idea of masculinity has evolved greatly in recent times and this along with other things could partly be to do with depictions of masculinity in films, such as Scorsese’s. His portrayals prove that even the smartest, most heroic, richest, everyday men can have mental health problems. The Films Scorsese I will be discussing in this essay, all of which have themes of mental illness, include The Aviator, Taxi Driver, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The King of Comedy, all of which are some of my favorite films of his, that have all left a great impression on me. These films I am choosing to write about not only share similar themes but also two actors who repeatedly play lead roles in multiple of his films, but always individually. These actors are Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio “Scorsese’s timeline as a filmmaker can be defined by the two eras in which he found muses in Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio; two of the most skilled actors of the last 50 years, both instilled with the same commitment and delicacy to craft as their director” ( Thom Denson, Dec 2016 ). These two actors have yet to co-star in any of Scorsese’s films, but have starred together in the early nineteen 90s in a drama / coming-of-age film titled ‘This Boy’s Life’.

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The first film of Scorsese’s I will be discussing is The Aviator. This was the first film of his I ever watched and it left a huge impact on me, due to me first watching it at a very young age. It also started my love for Scorsese’s filmography. The film is based on the life of Howard Hughes ( 1905 – 1976 ), who was an American aviator, film director, and much more, he was hugely successful in his life and set many aviation records, but also struggled with Obsessive-compulsive disorder ( OCD ) and other psychological issues throughout his lifetime. The story follows Hughes's life from the late nineteen 20s until the mid-nineteen 40s and he is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film does a terrific job of letting us see through the eyes of Hughes and to help us to better understand his condition, instead of letting us watch from an outside perspective. Scorsese does this through his unique camera work techniques. One such example of this is in a scene about halfway through the film, where Hughes is washing his hands in a public restroom, which is a place of huge anxiety for him due to restrooms being hot spots for germs. In the scene, Hughes is aggressively washing his hands, with soap he brought himself. The camera is from his point of view so we feel like we are in his shoes and feeling what he is feeling. The scene cuts from Hughes’ hands to his face in fast, frequent shots. As these shots speed up we feel the panic and anxiety he is feeling build up until the scene reaches its climax when he cuts his finger “When he leaves the sink and approaches the door we feel the significance of that moment because we have been watching this chain of events through Howard’s eyes” ( Sean Maymon, Mar 2017 ). Hughes’ OCD only worsens throughout the film until he becomes a complete social recluse locking himself away in his mansion. As we know the circumstances behind Howard's social reclusion, we understand it and sympathize with him instead of seeing him as crazy “Scorsese portrays mental illness and treats it not as a plot twist or a thing to fear but as something to be understood and explored ( Sean Maymon, Mar 2017 ). This film truly showcases that even the most successful, famous people can suffer from mental illness, but tragically in Howard Hughes's case he went many years undiagnosed with his OCD and because of this he became the recluse he was due to the lack of treatment he received for his illness. Socially isolated and rejected characters are very common in Scorsese’s films and one such character is seen in his 1976 film Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver is personally one of my all-time favorite movies, I think everything about it is hypnotizing especially the cinematography and the themes displayed in it. The film is about a man named Travis Bickle who is an honorably discharged ex–marine who served in Vietnam, he suffers from insomnia and decides to become a taxi driver in New York City “Exhausted, figuratively and literally, he rests his insomnia – riddled mind by taking up work as a taxi driver, working in the twilight of a city past midnight, bleary–eyed and disheveled, left in the maelstrom of his own reality.” ( Thom Denson, Dec 2017 ). Travis is played by Robert De Niro and he does a fantastic job of showcasing Travis’s mental state through his brilliant acting. Travis is isolated from society after coming back from Vietnam and this can be seen early on in the film in a scene where he is in a late-night diner with other taxi drivers. He is clearly physically and mentally distant from them and this can be seen through his body language, how he focuses on his drink instead of them, and through the camera work used in the scene. Scorsese shows this by focusing the camera on Travis’s point of view of his fizzing drink and slowly blocking out the conversation in the background, this is similar to the bathroom scene in The Aviator as we see Travis’s perspective of the world and feel like we are in his shoes, which helps us better understand him and empathize with him. Another common theme Taxi Driver has with The Aviator is Obsession. Howard Hughes was obsessed with things due to his OCD but Travis becomes obsessed and infatuated with two female characters in this film due to a need to try to fit in with society and to try to clear the streets of New York which he also becomes obsessed with. Travis hates and is disgusted by the people who are on the streets of New York and he wants to clear them “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain come and wash all this scum off the streets.” ( Taxi Driver, 1976 ). Travis thinks the people on the streets are scum, even though he frequently visits porn theatres and is constantly popping pills and drinking alcohol throughout the film. The two female characters Travis becomes obsessed with are Betsy, a woman he is attracted to who is involved with the campaign of presidential candidate Charles Palantine, and Iris who is a twelve-year-old prostitute. Travis at first starts watching Betsy from a distance, sitting in his Taxi outside where she works, just observing her live her everyday life. Eventually, he gets the courage to ask her out and she agrees, and she even comments on his odd personality saying “he’s a profit and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction” ( Taxi Driver, 1976 ). Travis is first introduced to Iris when she gets into his taxi and is then pulled back out by a man forcefully, then the man throws money at Travis telling him to forget about what he just saw. This obviously left Travis concerned and it left a huge impression on him as he then decides he wants to free Iris from her pimp ‘Sport’. Both females are hugely influenced/controlled by males, in Iris’s case it’s her pimp, and in Betsy’s, it's Charles Palantine. Travis then decides he wants to kill all the pimps and assassinate Charles Palantine, this is all caused by his worsening mental state throughout the film and how emotionally unstable he is. Even though Travis fails to assassinate Palantine and does murder all the pimps, his actions are almost dignified from a moral point of view. Some have even labeled him “The Perfect Anti–Hero” ( CinemaWizardBoy, Aug 2017 ) due to him seemingly doing the right thing from an outsider's perspective and helping to free Iris and clear some of the streets of New York City. His actions are justified and he gets away with it even though he committed murder, he even gets Betsy’s approval at the end, in a scene where some believe it’s a dream sequence even though Scorsese himself says it is not and that it is real. Characters in a few of Scorsese’s films get away with crimes they committed at the end of the film, one such character is Rupert Pupkin from Scorsese’s 1982 film The King of Comedy.

The King of Comedy is an under-appreciated masterpiece in my opinion. The film is about a man named Rupert Pupkin ( played by Robert De Niro ), who has ambitions to become a stand-up comedian and is totally obsessed with a talk show host called Jerry Langford. Once again obsession is a key theme in this film just like the two I discussed above. At the start of the film, Pumpkin isn't initially obsessed with Jerry Langford, he only starts to become obsessed after jumping into Jerry’s limousine and thinking that Jerry will be his shot to stardom.

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