21 December 2009

The Aviatrix

When I visited the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC in 2007 I was particularly pleased to see Amelia Earhart’s bright red Lockheed Vega amongst the many other historic aircraft on display.  The Irish farmer who saw it rolling up to his farmhouse must’ve got quite a shock!  In addition to the trans-Atlantic flight mentioned above, in August 1932 Earhart also used the Vega to make the first non-stop solo flight by a woman across the United States. 

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Hilary Swank’s new movie Amelia, released in October, tells the story of the pioneering female aviator and her determined quest to break into and excel in the then new, exciting and entirely male-dominated realm of flight.  Earhart, a role model to generations of young women both in the field of aviation and in the broader sense of female empowerment through success in traditionally male professions, attained lasting fame not only because of her exciting achievements.  She is also still remembered in the 21st century because of the lingering resonance of her mysterious disappearance and death whilst flying across the Pacific in 1937, thwarting what would have been a career-capping triumph.

AESwank presumably lent her showbiz heft to get the project underway; she has an executive producer credit and US$40 million films with female leads but no major doses of sex and/or violence tend not to get made in Hollywood these days.  Swank’s Hollywood aura still retains the glimmer of her Oscar-winning performances in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), and recent modest successes in trifling fare like Freedom Writers and P.S. I Love You (both 2007) may well indicate to studio backers that there’s still both box-office and award-winning potential in her acting ability.  Amelia was more expensive to make than either of the latter two films, and would not have been an easy film to shoot, either; anything involving vintage aircraft flying in multiple countries (the African shots were filmed in South Africa) is bound to drive up production costs, and the services of its main cast members - Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor - aren’t exactly inexpensive.   

Swank’s performance in the title role is perfectly agreeable.  Emphasising her slightly angular features, she inhabits the body of this determined and rather gauche woman from Kansas who just wants to fly despite all the obstacles placed in her way.  However, in the quest for a box-office cash injection Earhart’s romantic foil, her publisher and husband George Putnam, is played by Richard Gere, who is a full 25 years older than Swank (although Putnam was admittedly 10 years older than Earhart).  Gere’s facial features have seemingly been stunned into botox rigor mortis for many years, rendering his performances unconvincing.  Ewan McGregor also appears as aviation industry innovator and Earhart-romancing Gene Vidal, presumably in an attempt to jazz up the cast listing.  His performance is passable, but he is given little to work with. 

(Incidentally, Gene Vidal’s son Gore is given a couple of scenes with Earhart and it took me a few minutes longer than I’d like to admit to work out that this was included in the script because he later became a renowned author.  I’m a bit slow on the uptake sometimes).  

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The broad scope of critical reception has not been particularly kind to Amelia, which is a pity considering the potential for great story-telling in Earhart’s real-life exploits.  Variety’s Justin Chang argues:

…the character's passion hasn't been sufficiently dramatized (this Amelia likes to fly planes because the script says so), and every effort to transform Swank -- the close-cropped blonde hair, the '30s costumes designed by Kasia Walicka Maimone, the actress' wobbly Kansas accent -- ends up feeling like one fussy affectation on top of another.

Similarly, Nair, who has made fine films that stayed close to her Indian roots, seems completely beholden to biopic formulas here. Slathered in banal voiceover narration and Gabriel Yared's hyperactive score, the pic gets a lot of mileage out of Stuart Dryburgh's f/x-enhanced aerial lensing (largely captured over South Africa). But the footage is postcard-pretty without being psychologically revealing; Imax documentaries and theme-park attractions offer comparable pleasures at a fraction of the length. Intermittent black-and-white newsreel footage of Earhart adds some interest but also feels like a nervous bid for authenticity.

He’s certainly right about the newsreel footage: the headlines are awkward and feel anachronistic.  The New Yorker’s David Denby also pointed out that ‘the accumulated personal and social detail in the middle of the movie lacks any great interest, and Nair’s direction is rhythmless and placid’. 

Director Mira Nair had previously created the lively, exuberant confection of Monsoon Wedding (2001) and had gone on to be entrusted with the Reese Witherspoon-starring screen adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (2004).  Just as in Vanity Fair, Amelia presented Nair with the opportunity to portray a strong female lead of iconic proportions, but real instead of fictitious.  The responsibility of bringing such an important character to the screen must have been daunting.

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There can have been relatively little clamour for an Earhart biopic given the innate conservatism of the Hollywood system.  The last big-budget attempt to tap into the golden age of flight was Leonardo diCaprio’s venture into Howard Hughes’ tortured psyche in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which benefitted from a striking performance by Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, but despite winning five Oscars (four for production and one for Blanchett) it ultimately failed to achieve blockbuster status.      

Amelia is a serviceable telling of the Earhart tale, but serviceable is insufficient when $40 million has been stumped up for its production.  There are plenty of problems visible onscreen.  Chief among these is the film’s failure to convey a consistent sense of excitement and drama at the world-changing exploits of Earhart from the time of her June 1928 flight across the Atlantic (the first trans-Atlantic flight by a woman – albeit as a passenger) until her disappearance in July 1937.  Despite the dangers of aviation at the time and the numerous brushes with death experienced by Earhart, Amelia never sets the pulse jumping. 

There are also a few moments that seem to indicate a poorly thought-out film.  Early on, when Earhart meets Vidal for the first time, there’s a noticeably ungainly exchange on a staircase involving repeated back-and-forth headshots cobbled together in the editing suite.  The young aspiring pilot Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikoswka) is injected into a couple of scenes with little purpose other than to illustrate Putnam’s dedication to Earhart by surreptitiously (and unbeknownst to Earhart) ensuring that Smith is unable to compete.  But the scenes are so sketchy that there is little scope for the young actress. 

A later scene with Earhart and Vidal sees Earhart almost dreamily admiring the shapely legs of a couple of dames in a cocktail bar.  Vidal enthuses that it’s grand to be with a gal who feels comfortable sharing such thoughts, but the film-maker’s unsubtle hint of lesbian tendencies is not sufficiently undercut with the more mundane explanation that Earhart in real life was deeply embarrassed about her gangly legs.  (Along with the practical requirements of cockpit mobility, this explains all those trousers she wore).  Sure, Vidal mentions her self-doubt, but modern audiences may well leap to what it presumably the wrong conclusion.  Or at least a conclusion that cannot be substantiated; Judith Thurman of the New Yorker sets out what we know of her image and portrayal:

As far as one knows, Earhart’s secret erotic life was heterosexual. Gender, however, is a bell curve, and on that curve she is an epicene, at least in the grammatical sense of the word: that of a noun that has one form to denote either sex (“doctor” or “friend,” as opposed to “heroine” or “aviatrix”). Unlike the cross-dressing sexual rebels of the Belle Époque, whose intention was to be outrageous, Earhart—whose intention was to stay aloft both as a pilot and as a celebrity—projected a confusing mixture of traits with such an aura of virtue and assurance that she disarmed received ideas about femininity, even those of conservatives.

Whatever the accuracy of its depiction of Earhart’s sexual orientation, Amelia seems likely to be remembered as a vanity project or an ultimately failed attempt to produce an Oscar-worthy biographical drama.  Unfortunately it had considerably less commercial success than The Aviator, only taking US$14 million in America.  Even if international revenue, rental and DVD sales boost this total, it has to be regarded as a major commercial setback for its backers.  

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This is a pity, of course, because Amelia Earhart’s legacy still endures, both as one of the pre-eminent pioneer aviators of the inter-war years, and as a bona fide celebrity.  Her public appearances and commercial endorsements helped to sell her books and raise funds for further flying exploits during the Great Depression’s economic hardship.  Here’s case in point from 1932, just after her groundbreaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland in a bright red Lockheed Vega 5b monoplane.  The clip is a brief, stilted interview for English audiences, yet it provides a glimpse of the real Amelia for posterity.

Further reading

Disappearance: What happened to Amelia Earhart?

USCGC Itasca: The US Coast Guard cutter on station when Earhart disappeared in 1937

Correspondence: Amelia’s unsent ‘popping off’ letter to her mother (written in case her trans-Atlantic flight ended in her death, 20 May 1928)

Earhart archives: Putnam Collection at Purdue University

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