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'The Aviator' Soars

'The Aviator' | Dan Rather

Exclusive First Review of Scorsese's 'The Aviator'

Harvey Weinstein's long-abiding passion to get Martin Scorsese an Oscar is finally going to pay off.

Their new movie about the life of Howard Hughes, "The Aviator," is an action-packed, stylish epic that is easily the most involving motion picture of 2004.

After seeing the gorgeously realized biopic yesterday morning, my guess is that it will not only be nominated for the Academy Award, but that it will win without too much trouble.

That would place the almost three-hour-long "Aviator" in good company with another Miramax movie, "Finding Neverland," as well as with "Ray," "Hotel Rwanda," "Sideways" and possibly Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."

Other films in contention, and not to be discounted, are "Kinsey," "House of Flying Daggers," "Being Julia," "Bad Education," "The Sea Inside," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "The Terminal," "Baadasssss" and — possibly for technical awards — "The Phantom of the Opera."

"The Aviator" comes as a little bit of a surprise, seeing that Miramax has kept its enthusiasm for it on the down-low.

Maybe after seeing the big build-up for Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" detonate in the wrong direction two years ago, Miramax decided to play its cards close to the vest.

Rather than club the press over the head in advance, Miramax has simply let "The Aviator" happen on its own. It's a wise decision.

Almost nothing Leonardo DiCaprio has done prepares you for how good he is as eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan concentrate on Hughes' active middle years as an innovative aviation expert, filmmaker and playboy, rather than on his later years as a crazy recluse with a poor public image.

There is enough intimation of things to come — his deafness, an allusion to a strange mother, and what would now be described as obsessive-compulsive disorder — to paint a picture of Hughes' mentally troubled future. DiCaprio is mesmerizing as the vital, energetic man who was probably an unappreciated genius.

There are layers and layers to "The Aviator," which would fall into Scorsese's oeuvre more with films like "The Age of Innocence" than with the likes of "Raging Bull."

This is a finely realized piece of work, with much attention to detail, fabulous sets, terrific costumes and a screenplay that almost never flags as it lays out Hughes' relationships with Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and a devious politician who plots his demise.

The Hepburn story, with Cate Blanchett in a surely award-winning star turn as the late, great actress, is probably the most fun and developed of all the plots in the film.

Hepburn, rightly so, is portrayed as the great love of Hughes' life. Blanchett is frighteningly good, keeping away from too much impersonation and really fleshing out her character.

I remember when Blanchett was heading off to shoot this part and Lauren Bacall — as readers of this column know — gave her advice about Hepburn. I can only assume she took it.

"She wore her hair up," Bacall told Blanchett following the premiere of the latter's "Veronica Guerin" in September of 2003. "And she was very athletic. She had only a trace of a Hartford accent, so don't worry about that."

Indeed, one of the great set pieces in "The Aviator" occurs when Hepburn takes Hughes home to the family estate in Connecticut.

The Hepburns — especially "Six Feet Under" star Frances Conroy as Katherine's hilarious mother — and their WASP lunacy are depicted as stand-ins for the family in Frank Capra's classic "You Can't Take It With You." They almost seem to be responsible for catalyzing Hughes's madness.

The other main thread of "The Aviator" concerns Alan Alda as Maine Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster, determined to destroy Hughes and his TWA airline in its fight for world domination against Pan Am. How ironic that both airlines are now things of the past.

Alda is sensational and should get his own nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And that's really saying something for Alda and Blanchett, considering the number of lovely cameos in "The Aviator," including those by Alec Baldwin, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Edward Herrmann and singing performances by Martha and Rufus Wainwright.

The long opening story in "The Aviator" is all about Hughes' determination to make what turned out to be a $4 million movie, "Hell's Angels."

This theme of determination is carried all the way through the movie, and like it or not, some comparisons can be made with Miramax's own Weinstein. His difficulties with Disney have stemmed largely from his insistence on trying to make big-budget epics, something Disney's Michael Eisner has resisted.

Weinstein has triumphed with "The Aviator" after a couple of stumbles with "The Shipping News," "Cold Mountain" and "All the Pretty Horses." How strange would it be if Weinstein accepts an Academy Award for this film, with his tenure as the head of Miramax already finished?

There's only one more Oscar-buzz film to see, Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."

Otherwise, it seems like we have five nominees from a slightly larger field, and a front-runner in "The Aviator" that combines the spirit of Scorsese's lamented classic "New York, New York" with the movie-making of "GoodFellas."

You can't ask for more than that. This is the movie everyone's waited for from DiCaprio. Watching him command a Southern accent, I almost thought he was copying Bill Clinton's cadences to get Hughes right.

Would CBS Rather Sawyer?

Dan Rather's big announcement yesterday that he's leaving the "CBS Evening News" prompted some interesting observations from a longtime veteran of the show.

"They only want Diane Sawyer for the show now. It doesn't matter that she's a woman; [CBS News President] Andrew Heyward would give her a blank check," my source said. "Only ABC would fight tooth and nail to keep her on 'Good Morning America.'"

Sawyer gave up her duties on ABC's "Prime Time Live" last year, and now the show is said to be flailing and failing.

Former Canadian VJ John Roberts won't be too thrilled to hear he could be passed over for the Rather spot. He considered himself the heir apparent.

"Oh really?" my source said. "Roger Mudd thought the same thing when [Walter] Cronkite left"

If you're in New York or Los Angeles this weekend, catch the phenomenally moving new documentary "Paper Clips," about a Tennessee school's project to understand the gravitas of the Holocaust. It's the most inspirational film of the holiday season and one that every schoolchild should see.

James Toback, director of "When Will I Be Loved," "Fingers" and "Black and White," celebrated his birthday uptown at Elaine's last night, while downtown, at the Cutting Room, emissaries from Sony Music, Blue Note Records, Atlantic Records and Artemis all piled in to hear new singing sensation Jessica Domain of Detroit.

Rock legends Bebe Buell — wearing all-Isaac Mizrahi and looking like a million bucks — and John Lennon's ex-girlfriend May Pang were in attendance.