Anchor Bay // 1977 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // January 25th, 2003
The "slightly abridged" version of the famous millionaire's eccentric life
At the time of his death in 1976, Howard Hughes was one of the most famous and enigmatic figures in American business and celebrity. Taking over the family's prosperous tool company when he was just eighteen (his father having passed away suddenly) Hughes found himself with the money to indulge his still maturing and ambitious whims. From producing movies in Hollywood to designing and building experimental aircraft and automobiles, he strove for perfection and approached all projects with a cockeyed optimism. Eventually forming Hughes Aircraft and creating national and international commercial air travel as we know it today, the latter part of his life was filled with scandal, government investigations and a growing mental illness. When he finally died at age seventy, he had become the source of oddball speculation and public fascination. Rumor had it he was a sickly loner, living life in a bathrobe and Kleenex box slippers, endlessly watching Ice Station Zebra (his favorite film). Others felt he was simply using his shadowy image to move beyond the public spotlight (which had never been kind to him) and into a secluded realm of personal privacy and happiness. In 1977, the television mini-series The Amazing Howard Hughes attempted to address the conjecture, the sensationalism and the truth behind this eccentric entrepreneur.
For anyone living in the late '60s and early '70s, the mysterious life of rich industrialist Howard Hughes, his seclusion from the real world, and hermitic existence complete with bizarre rumors of germ phobia, bodily function collection, and obsessive-compulsive behavior was awash in the intrigue of urban legend, the fodder for cocktail party discussions and tabloid stories. Like Michael Jackson throughout the '80s and '90s, this "King of Prop" generated an unbelievable level of hearsay, the "why" of his current living arrangements as important as the "where" and "how." Major news organizations spent cover stories trying to get the definitive bit of investigative journalism and con artists looking to cash in began taking advantage of the man in his absence. Typical of such individuals was Melvin Dummar. Upon Hughes' death, the Nevada gas station owner produced a "Mormon" will, supposedly executed by Hughes (and later rejected by the court system) leaving him $156 million of the reclusive millionaire's estate. Dummar swore that this act of generosity resulted from a late night drive across the Southwestern desert, where he picked up a hitchhiking Hughes and befriended him. Jonathan Demme would later milk this incident for all its darkly comic undertones, creating the wildly inventive Melvin and Howard. As outlandish as it was, Dummar's story seemed to make sense in light of the weird gossip and what little was really known about Hughes.
Too bad we experience none of that here in The Amazing Howard Hughes. Originally conceived as a multi-night "event" for CBS, and coming just one year after Hughes' death (1977), the initial running time for this biographical film was over three hours. Anchor Bay's folly, in releasing this DVD, is that it provides a truncated version, which completely destroys the performances, the drama, and (most importantly) Hughes' life story. All we are left with in this DVD version are underdeveloped subplots, absent character development, and zero depth. We never learn how Hughes got involved in movies. We never learn about his personal life, although he "seems" to date several famous women (Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Russell). And his famous transition from powerful businessman into wildly psychotic recluse comes virtually out of the blue. One moment he's testifying before Congress. The next he is wiping germs off everything he comes in contact with and looking like Cha-Ka from Land of the Lost. Considering this DVD is probably a "theatrical" version of the film (the European distribution credits hint at a big screen release across the Atlantic), it is still antithetical to the notion of presenting a detailed biography on Hughes, since the shorter running time treats the events of his life like skips of a stone cast across a lake, barely skimming the surface. In many ways, it does as great a disservice to Hughes as the now infamous, fraudulent Clifford Irving book did.
About the only thing The Amazing Howard Hughes has going for it is the acting. And even then characters are minimized or completely missing from the movie, thanks to the shortened running time. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly fine, able to assay the tricky transition from youthful to mature Hughes with body language and vocal modulation. You never really believe he is Howard Hughes, since he is a much meatier, physical presence. But he does a good job of suggesting Hughes' charm, enthusiasm, and adventurous spirit. But everyone else in this chopped up television show should sue. Morgan Brittany played one of Hughes' wives. Her performance is completely removed here. Tovah Feldshuh does a fine Katharine Hepburn impersonation. But what the famous actress and Hughes meant to each other is never explained, thanks once again to hideous editing. Famous faces like Ed Harris (Apollo 13) and Howard Hesseman appear in single scenes for about thirty seconds total. And Marla Carlis just gets to sit around looking like Jane Russell (kinda) since any dialogue or scenes that the character may have had were, again, vivisected out via this DVD. It's not just the characters that get shortchanged. Major events in Hughes' life (the founding of Hughes Aircraft, his battles with Hollywood censors, dealings with the government and involvement in World War II) are completely glossed over. It's sad when a two-minute extra about his legendary wooden airplane, the Spruce Goose, tells us more about why the Senate was holding hearings into Hughes' business dealings than the film proper does.
The only question one can ask Anchor Bay is why? Why release this simplistic, detail free set of weak cinematic Cliff's Notes? It's not like the extra space was used to gussy up the print, since The Amazing Howard Hughes is a true visual mess. Cropped to create a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, there is important top and bottom information lost (people's heads, buildings, etcetera) to recreate a letterbox look and feel. It doesn't work. And the additional disc room was not utilized in the overall mastering. The print is atrocious and the transfer is a compression nightmare of snow-filled night scenes, fuzzy details, and massive artifacting. In some cases it renders the film unwatchable. The sound is nice, but by this point who really cares? Aside from the aforementioned newsreel footage, there is a poster and still gallery (all publicity puke) and a pseudo-interesting Tommy Lee Jones biography. But none of this comes close to making up for what is a standard made-for-television biography eviscerated by massive, inexcusable bowdlerization. Rumor has it that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio want to take on the Hughes legend in a new, updated biographical film. At any length, it would have to be infinitely better than the condensed crap that Anchor Bay is trying to pawn off here. When The Rocketeer offers a more tantalizing portrayal of the elusive millionaire than The Amazing Howard Hughes, something is just not right.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Spruce Goose Newsreel
* Poster and Still Gallery
* Tommy Lee Jones Bio