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The high fliers

Leonardo DiCaprio put old obsessions to good use in portraying a different king of the world, Howard Hughes, in 'The Aviator.'

December 12, 2004|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Perhaps it's the nature of our media-obsessed times that one of the most famous men of the '30s and '40s -- Howard Hughes -- is being played by one of the most famous men of our day, Leonardo DiCaprio. In the two decades covered by "The Aviator," Hughes produced scads of films, directed the most expensive movie of his day, set aviation records for the fastest trip across the country and fastest trip around the world, launched Hughes Aircraft (now part of Raytheon Co.), built the airline TWA and battled a Senate investigation into his role as a war contractor.

He was Bill Gates, Buzz Aldrin and Jerry Bruckheimer rolled into one, with the sexual voraciousness of Wilt Chamberlain.

It's Hughes' carnal appetite that makes DiCaprio sound a little giddy. In his prime, the mogul, who died a bedsore-ridden, codeine-addicted recluse, romanced seemingly every pretty girl in Hollywood, including Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth.

That was one facet of his character that DiCaprio wanted to make sure got into the biopic of Hughes' life, directed by the revered Martin Scorsese. DiCaprio even added an improvised scene in which Hughes picks up a cigarette girl at a nightclub with the kind of callow, but not uncharming, droit du seigneur taken by the young, the handsome and the exceedingly rich.

"I wanted to make it abundantly clear that he was not just a ladies' man, but the fearless ladies' man. He was the Casanova, the swashbuckler of the 20th century, unmatched, unrivaled. Girl, you know it's true!" DiCaprio says, laughing. He's been picking desultorily at a chopped salad at Dan Tana's, the unpretentious Italian joint that happens to be a Hollywood stalwart, when he suddenly perks up. "There are people that are in his category, but no one matches up to Howard Hughes. It's the quality of the women, and the quantity."

He sounds almost awestruck.

"It awes any man," he clarifies. "He had girls stashed away in bungalows in Bel-Air. He had every gorgeous starlet, and if he wasn't with her, he'd probably rejected [her]." He leans back to theatrically dispense a can-you-believe-it fact, hair falling across his forehead. "The rumor was that he rejected Marilyn Monroe. Didn't like her feet."

Of course, DiCaprio, who happens to be young, handsome and exceedingly rich knows nothing -- nothing -- about chasing beautiful women. This reporter once observed DiCaprio and other luminaries such as Jack Nicholson cutting a swath through a party thrown by the Ford modeling agency, obviously there to enjoy the conversation.

DiCaprio acknowledges there are parallels to today's Hollywood, that magnetic pull between powerful men and the model-actress-whatevers.

Still, it's one thing to be interested, another to be pathological.

"I would never dream of doing something like that myself," he says. (He's been off-and-on dating the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen for the last five years.) "He could be relentless with women. He committed a huge portion of his life to bedding as many beautiful women as he could. His perseverance! He wouldn't let up, just like he wouldn't give up with his planes or movies or anything. A man obsessed."

He pauses, thinks. He likes how it sounds. "That's a great thing that I'm going to keep saying." DiCaprio is beginning the kickoff of a global publicity blitz to promote "The Aviator," which opens this week, and is making mental notes about the part of his rap that he can reuse. "They're going to ask me about him, and I'm going to say quite simply, 'a man obsessed.' It simplifies things."

DiCaprio sounds like a politician honing his message, but in a sense his persona has become his message -- with the stunning success of "Titanic," the actor was transformed into an icon.

As is often the way of the very famous, DiCaprio is both affable and elusive. He is excitable and occasionally waggish when discussing Hughes and vague in discussing everything else. He's just turned 30, but he's still baby-faced and walks with the loping, slightly stooped grace of a teenager. He's wearing brown pants and a loose black sweater, although at one point he lifts up the sweater to rip out the label and reveals his Calvins in the process. Although it's lunchtime, he has that hazy just-woken-up look.

DiCaprio certainly didn't have to research Hughes' ambivalence toward the limelight.

Hughes' attitude was "Look at me! Look at me! Don't look at me! Don't look at me!" DiCaprio says, speaking in breathy bursts to convey the conflict between the need for attention and the need for privacy. "I'm just kidding," he adds almost reflexively. Actually he's not, but he's suddenly self-conscious about sounding too on-point about his own celebrity.

"I'm sure he loved all its advantages and detested all the disadvantages. He was very shrewd in knowing that the less he gave about himself the more people would want to know."

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