For all the talk of foot-long fingernails, shower-avoidance, Kleenex boxes for shoes, the multiple viewings of Ice Station Zebra, his decades-long addiction to painkillers and a Citizen Kane-sized persona, Howard Hughes did manage early in his career to make a sizeable dent in movie history. As a producer he backed Howard Hawks’s landmark, censor-baiting, gangster classic Scarface, as well as that marvel of logistics and barminess, Hell’s Angels. Since Hughes stopped making movies himself, other people have started making movies about Hughes, especially since his mysterious death in 1976.
Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty’s first big-screen appearance in 16 years, is the latest in a growing gallery of portraits of the tycoon, and even sports a degree of cross-pollination within the mini-genre of Hughes biopics. Here, for instance, Hughes’s vampirish CEO Robert Maheu is played by Alec Baldwin, who also took on the role of aviation pioneer and Hughes rival, Pan Am chief Juan Trippe, in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. Beatty co-wrote the screenplay with Bo Goldman, who won an Oscar in 1980 for Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard.
Watch the trailer to Rules Don’t Apply.
Powerful and mysterious as he was, Hughes was dead before anyone dared depict him on screen. Firstly, in the excellent 1977 TV movie The Amazing Howard Hughes, in which he was ably played by Tommy Lee Jones, a barnstorming role that raised the actor’s profile immensely. Young Jones was followed by old Jason Robards in Melvin and Howard, in an extended cameo as an injured biker who says he’s Hughes and is rescued by milkman Melvin Dummar. With only about 10 minutes of screen time, Robards invests this lonely old figure with more pathos and depth than poor Leonardo DiCaprio was able to summon in the entirety of the lavishly appointed but somehow thinly drawn The Aviator, playing Hughes when he was still young and beautiful.
In Rules Don’t Apply, Beatty has a different problem, starring as the 52-year-old Hughes despite recently turning 80 himself. That being said, his Hughes is a marvellous creation: sly, paranoid but wistful and romantic, and still capable of dreaming big. But there’s just not enough of him to rescue a movie whose main romantic narrative thread is deeply uninvolving. One wonders if – given his glacial work rate – this will be Beatty’s last movie. I’m confident, however, that Howard Hughes will be returning soon enough.
Rules Don’t Apply is in cinemas from Friday 21 April