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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/7/03

The Amazing Howard Hughes
1977 (2002) - EMI/Studio Canal (Anchor Bay)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Amazing Howard Hughes Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C/C-

Specs and Features

123 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, keep case packaging, single-sided, single-layered, Spruce Goose Movietone newsreel, poster and still gallery, Tommy Lee Jones bio & filmography, film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (27 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none

Howard Hughes, aviation pioneer, filmmaker, poster boy for Eccentrics 'R Us, has been portrayed on film several times, most notably by Jason Robards in Melvin & Howard and Dean Stockwell in Tucker: The Man and His Dream. But as memorable as these appearances are, they're small, supporting roles, in and out in one, maybe two scenes. Hardly anyone has attempted to give Hughes the full-blown biopic treatment (although Martin Scorsese means to give it the old college try with The Aviator, now in pre-production with Leonardo DiCaprio slated to play Hughes). One of the few to date is the made-for-TV The Amazing Howard Hughes, recently issued on disc by Anchor Bay.

Despite its Marvel Comics Group title, The Amazing Howard Hughes is a remarkably straightforward effort. The film traces Hughes' life from an ambitious but spoiled rich kid in Texas to his final days sporting Fu Manchu fingernails and hotel-hopping from Vegas to Acapulco, trying to stay one step ahead of the microscopic germs he was so deathly afraid of. Along the way, we glimpse his attempts to build a steam-powered car, his dalliances with Hollywood movie stars, his productions of such films as Hell's Angels and The Outlaw, and his fight with the government over his aviation business.

And there's the problem with this movie. We glimpse these things. Originally a two-part TV-movie airing on CBS, Anchor Bay has released the edited, feature film version released theatrically overseas. The result of this editing is a narrative abruptness that introduces characters and incidents with little fanfare or warning, then abandons them without ever really resolving anything. Look at Hughes' relationships with women, for instance. In one scene, he meets and is smitten by Katharine Hepburn (imitated reasonably well by Tovah Feldshuh). In the next scene, they're riding horses on the beach, their relationship beginning to develop. Then Hepburn, aware of Hughes' reputation as a playboy, announces she's going home to Connecticut, partly to test Hughes and see who ends up missing whom. And that's the last we see or hear of Kate. If anything did or didn't become of their meeting, we don't find out and it certainly doesn't seem to have any demonstrable effect on Hughes. This lack of resolution makes the whole sequence utterly pointless.

While some of the film's flaws might be resolved in the full-length version, not all of them would be. Like a lot of TV-movies, the performances are wildly uneven. Tommy Lee Jones plays Hughes very well, showing subtle hints of his obsessive-compulsive behavior early on. Likewise, Ed Flanders is quite good as Hughes' business manager Noah Dietrich (whose book served as the basis for this screenplay). But many of the smaller roles are filled by actors delivering stiff, unnatural line readings. And while Jones does bear a striking physical similarity to Hughes for much of the film, the old age makeup he's forced to wear later turns his head into a wax sculpture. The final makeup appliance is best, but Jones' face is partially covered by an oxygen mask by this point so it doesn't have to bear the scrutiny that other, earlier appliances are subjected to.

Technically, Anchor Bay's presentation of The Amazing Howard Hughes is decent, no better or worse than the movie deserves. The print used is clean and the transfer, while soft and gauzy, is free of digital flaws. The mono sound is no more than you'd expect. It's flat and occasionally artificial sounding but, if nothing else, the dialogue is audible. Extras are slim but considering this is a movie virtually nobody was clamoring to see released on disc, they're fairly satisfying. A two-minute Movietone newsreel (narrated by a very young Mike Wallace) shows Hughes himself and his infamous "Spruce Goose". A poster and still gallery is comprised primarily of publicity photos and also includes the print ads used for the original CBS airing. Finally, Anchor Bay includes one of their typically in-depth biographies for Jones.

The Amazing Howard Hughes is an all-but-forgotten TV-movie with at least some mild curiosity value. Jones acquits himself well in the title role and interest in the movie may increase if Scorsese's Aviator ever gets off the ground. It's very possible that Hughes lived too much life for any one movie to convey. But it's difficult to tell from this truncated version, which is a lot less amazing than its subject deserves.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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