American Faust

He flew too high, made too much money, lost the plot and became a byword for 20th-century hubris. But Howard Hughes was not alone. He was just one overreaching mogul among many to crash, burn and be consumed in the flames of mythology - and then to become the subject of art. As Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes climbs into the cockpit for Martin Scorsese, Kevin Jackson explains how and why 'The Overreacher' is the quintessential American theme
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The Independent Culture

Martin Scorsese's portrait of Howard Hughes in his glory years, The Aviator, may be the most extravagant, the most ballyhooed and by far the most costly artistic treatment of its protagonist's life, but it is by no means the first.

Item: Jonathan Demme's amiable road movie Melvin and Howard, in which a milkman forms a brief, implausible friendship with Hughes, by now an elderly recluse (played with curmudgeonly charm by Jason Robards), after giving him a lift through the Nevada desert, and eight years later unexpectedly finds himself among the moguls' heirs. Item: a giant, gaudy canvas by the American Pop painter Red Grooms, showing Hughes in the Las Vegas-hotel room Hell of his anchorite last years, a grim space festooned with the tissues he used to wipe his shuttered environment free of imaginary germs. Item: Ed Dorn's epic poem of the 1960s counter-culture, Gunslinger, in which various druggy oddballs and a talking horse go off on a metaphysical search for Hughes.

There are many qualities which help make Hughes such an appealing figure for artists, not least the fact that he was something of an artist himself, both as movie director (Hell's Angels) and producer (Scarface) of considerable moment. (Hughes's remarkable business empire began in 1924 when, at the age of 19, he became the CEO of his father's highly profitable business, Hughes Tool Company; by his early forties he had acquired Transcontinental & West Airline, RKO and a mania for aviation.) Probably the most potent of these attractions is that the contours of Hughes's life may be mapped, with delicious exactness, onto a quintessentially American myth, that of the Overreacher: the tough, lonely, perfectionist hero-villain-martyr who dares much, achieves much and, prevailing over timid and earthbound friends as well as sworn enemies, eventually attains to glory - glory which is almost always short-lived, occasionally corrupt, and often sabotaged by some inner demon.

Unlike the major European legend of overreaching, common to Marlowe and Goethe, this myth doesn't always include a literal or metaphorical pact with the Devil (though it may); but in most other respects it is plainly a democratic, New World version of a tragic narrative born in the feudal Old World. It may take many forms, and appear in many unlikely locales, but at heart it is always the same old story of the American Faust. You can find the figure in that nation's public life as well as its high and popular arts.

For example: ask a reasonably literate acquaintance to name, off the top of their head, a "great" American novel. Unless they are unusually original or perverse, they will probably cite either Moby-Dick or The Great Gatsby. Which is to say, they are recalling either Captain Ahab, the over-reaching King of the Pequod, "Faust of the quarter-deck" (in the phrase of the Melville scholar Harold Beaver), ultimately destroyed by his mania for revenge; or Jay Gatsby, the self-created plutocrat, his past a haze of tawdry rumour and fakery, destroyed in a squalid accident as if being punished for his presumption towards the gods of Old Money.

The great American film? Critics have almost always plumped for Citizen Kane, a movie about a Faustian newspaper owner, Charles Foster Kane, loosely based on a real-life Faustian magnate, William Randolph Hearst, co-written and produced and directed and performed by the most gloriously overreaching - and later the most bathetically under-achieving - of all American film directors, Orson Welles, who created an unrivalled, world-historical masterpiece in his mid-twenties, yet ended up as a grotesquely obese peddler of sherry.

The universal appeal of the Faust myth hardly begs for explanation, though its peculiar appeal in America may ask for a little additional scrutiny. One of the oldest definitions of tragedy is that it depicts the fall of a great man, usually thanks to some single moral flaw. (In the new Scorsese film, the tragic flaw is identified, perhaps too patly, as Hughes's notorious Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.) Every Western society - and plenty of non-Western ones, come to that - has needed to evolve some prevailing mode of tragic narrative, so it is small wonder that the European settlements across the Atlantic would have soon come up with one of their own.

Some of the distinctive features of the American Faust myth are due to the simple consideration that America has no monarchy. In a kingdom, the only way a peasant or yeoman can become a monarch is in dreams or fairy-tales - kill the monster, marry the princess. By contrast, kingless America tacitly promises boundless opportunity to all. In the case of a driven and fascinating (and Faustian?) man like Abraham Lincoln, it actually made good the folkloric promise that the road from log cabin to White House remains perpetually open to those with the stamina and vision for the long walk. Or, should that ambitious cabin-boy prefer the eternally reliable power of money to the fickle power of politics, he can always hope to become, at the very least, a tycoon or robber baron, along the lines of a Vanderbilt, or Frick... or Hearst, or Hughes.

In principle, men like these ought to be unambiguous culture heroes, living proof of the unlimited potential offered by America's material abundance nature and untramelled society. America's official ideology has always been optimistic, expansionist, cheerful, go-getting, gung-ho. Its pop-art heroes, from the kindly millionaire Daddy Warbucks in the Little Orphan Annie comics to the uniquely American fantasy-compensation figure of Superman (Jewish comic-strip writers having their revenge on Nietzsche and his Übermensch? A baby boy from the planet Krypton as the ultimate immigrant made good?), have typically thrilled youngsters with dreams of unbridled potency, from muscle to megabucks. No other culture has ever rivalled America in the proliferation and raw charm of these brightly-coloured fables.

And some of America's serious artists, like Whitman, have agreed, or at times seemed to agree, with this euphoric spirit. But others, probably the majority of others, have begged to differ, from Poe and Hawthorne and Melville onwards. Not necessarily prophets of doom, but certainly of melancholia, disillusion, second thought. An influential literary study of that founding trio of American letters, by the Harvard critic Harry Levin (1958), was aptly entitled The Power of Blackness: "Wanting to believe in a national credo, we have found ourselves declining to accept one that seems more and more self-evidently composed of eupeptic half-truths. Consequently, our most perceptive minds have distinguished themselves from the popular spokesmen by concentrating on the dark other half of the situation, and their distinctive attitude has been introspection, dissent, or irony. Where the voice of the majority is by definition affirmative, the spirit of independence is likeliest to manifest itself by employing the negative: by saying no in thunder - as Melville wrote to Hawthorne - though bidden by the devil himself to say yes." (Note how Satan, the tempter, puts in an appearance even in Levin's urbane prose. It is worth noting that one of Levin's other major books was a study of Marlowe's tragedies, entitled The Overreacher.)

One of the most commonly heard and enduring slurs on the American national character is that the citizens of the United States are every bit as arrogant, as boastful, as pig-headedly incurious about cultural difference as their worst governments can be. Applied to individuals, the charge is frequently unfair, and founded in a misreading of a different cultural style; which is not to say that there is never any kernel of truth in it. Harry Levin, again: "The rhetoric of the Everlasting Yea, the rhapsody of the eagle-screaming orator, and the note of self-praise have clangorously predominated, affecting the mood of attempts to interpret our culture and aggravating the suspicions of our foreign critics."

If it is true that the deadliest American sin is Pride, then the American Faust story serves to perpetuate the immemorial folk truth that pride comes before a fall, as well as the Christian truth that the most abject of failures is the man who, gaining the world, loses his soul. These unremarkable propositions are the roots of many remarkable works of art: some of America's finest.

Where the exuberant yarns of pop culture preach cheery admiration for the rich and powerful, the more mandarin arts rejoice in scepticism and ambiguity. Certainly they may admire, even celebrate the vaunting accomplishments of rugged individualists, but they will also cast a cold eye.

They may ask, for example, whether the high-handed conduct and lust for control of a Hughes or a Hearst - which the immature part of us wants to cheer for its guts and raw energy - are actually compatible with the best interests of a democracy. (In a highly politicised age, such as the late 1930s and early 1940s, such works might go so far as to ask whether these men are not, in fact, potential fascist leaders.) Still more painfully, they may turn their enquiring gaze back on the spectator - and not the American spectator alone - to ask how much our fondness for rule-busting heroes is a dangerous drug, a narcotic for the pains of living in the sort of meritocratic society in which to fail (or even not quite fully to triumph) can be seen as nobody's fault but ours. Citizen Kane has been condemned by a few stringent critics as shallow, and yet it is hard to think of another Hollywood film which entertains - and entertains us with - so many of these conflicting attitudes to the idea of the great man.

In his recent, brilliantly original study Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life, the critic Peter Conrad devotes a lengthy chapter to various avatars of the Faust myth across Welles's long career - in Kane, obviously, but also in much less celebrated and darker forms. Welles's very first Broadway appearance was as Doctor Faustus in his own production of Marlowe's tragedy (1937 - Citizen Kane just four years in the future), and he repeated the role in 1950 in a tour through the ruins of Germany, which had just paid the price for its own pact with the Devil. (On which point, see Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus, first published the year before Welles's tour.) Welles played both Marlowe straight and Marlowe compounded with Milton, Dante and Duke Ellington: the title of Welles's devilish confection, Time Runs, comes from a late moment in Doctor Faustus: "The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike/ The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd."

As Conrad rightly notes, the idea of a man who sells his soul for greatness haunted Welles throughout his adult life. "All the characters I've played... are versions of Faust," he told some French interviewers in 1958; and as late as 1982, he admitted to a BBC interviewer that "I would have sold my soul to the Devil to play the Godfather." Like Marlowe's protagonist, Welles was, of course, also a magician: "Nothing so sweet as magic is to him/ Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss." The identification was deep and complex, even if Welles once insisted to the French film guru Andre Bazin that "I'm against every Faust" and said that the Truly Great Man always deferred to some power higher than himself, be it the Law, or God, or Art.

Few readers of Conrad's fascinating essay could fail to be convinced that the (American) Faust myth was an essential part of Welles's career, or that his career was essential to the propagation and deepening of that myth in the 20th century. Look at the films again, and all of the Wellesian rogues, frauds and giants, from Macbeth and Othello and Quinlan in his own films, to the roles of Harry Lime in The Third Man to Cagliostro in the all-but-forgotten Black Magic (1947)... yes, Welles wasn't exaggerating. All of them bear the Faustian stigmata, and none more ostentatiously than Charles Foster Kane.

After the flood of impassioned critical writing, from Bazin to Bogdanovich,there may well be nothing new to be said about Kane, or at any rate nothing of great moment - but perhaps Kane can still be enticed into saying new things to us. Whether or not you accept its canonical status as the high water mark of the American cinema, or find it gaudy, gimcrack and irredeemably middle-brow, you would have to be a monster of petulance to deny the force of its reputation or its unrivalled presence in cinematic culture. (Even the little kids in Charles Schultz's Peanuts strip are fans of Kane - and the older ones once spoiled it for the younger ones by letting it slip that "Rosebud" was little Charlie Kane's abandoned sled.

As David Thomson has elucidated in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, Kane, despite an almost unanimous torrent of rave reviews on its initial release, was a commercial flop - Hearst's assorted henchmen made sure of that. The film only began to take on its classic stature for audiences after about 1955, when the passage of time had leached away a little of its silliness, made visible some of its more telling associations with real events and interestingly obscured other aspects which would have been obvious to the general public of 1941 - such as the fact that Hearst was as heartily loathsome a hate figure to liberal Americans as, say, Donald Rumsfeld is to their grandchildren. The melodramatic element of the film was one of the things Pauline Kael was keen to identify in her 1971 essay "Raising Kane", which - to simplify - attempted to take much of the credit for the film's accomplishments away from Welles and put them in the hands of his co-screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz.

Kael pointed out how just much of this revolutionary, mould-breaking work drew on a load of old hokum. She reminded her readers that an all-but-universal convention of the silent cinema was that the rich were inevitably lonely and miserable, denied the one thing which would give relish to their material abundance - the one thing that money reputedly cannot buy you, but is alleged to exist among the poor by the bucketful: love. The sparklingly literate comedies of the 1930s took a far blither and more knockabout approach to wealth, and rich people in the funny films of that decade could be allowed to be lovably goofy. But Mankiewicz re-embraced the old pop wisdom about America's emotionally deprived plutocracy with unembarrassed gusto, seasoned it with a little cod-Freudianism about childhood trauma, and made poor Charlie Kane an orphan, perpetually denied his mother's love and so doomed to an insatiable quest for other gratifications.

Nor had the cinema of the 1930s thrown melodrama out entirely. It was in that decade that Hollywood also produced a slew of biopics devoted to the lives of tycoons and robber barons, all of them responding to the agonies and scandals of the Depression, all of them solemnly rehearsing the bromide that riches will never bring happiness. Most of these pictures are now forgotten save by historians, including one which may well be a direct source for Citizen Kane, a film called The Power and the Glory (no connection with the Graham Greene novel) which made Spencer Tracy a star and which was acclaimed in the same sort of terms that were later applied to the Mankiewicz/Welles collaboration. Scripted by, of all people, the comic genius Preston Sturges, The Power and the Glory was about a railway baron, vastly successful in business, wretched in his private life, and it took the form of flashbacks from the hero's funeral. "Its subject," declaimed one critic, "is the great American Myth, and its theme is futility."

Why does Citizen Kane survive when all those other productions, including one created by Preston Sturges, have crumbled in the vaults? The facile answer - which may also, properly unpacked, be the best one - is genius. A slower answer is that the true richness of the film only became apparent when viewers stopped treating it mainly as a kind of cinematic journalism - a gleeful, muck-raking contemporary satire - and regarded it instead as a Gothic poem, shot through with eccentric comedy, which draws its power from many and complex sources. "We feel now," says David Thomson, "how far its study of the flawed tycoon embraces Gatsby, Howard Hughes and the American recipe of public charm and actual demagoguery." As almost everyone who now watches the film can easily spot, Kane reaches out towards national history, but it also turns witheringly inwards on Welles himself: a comic but none the less potentially dismaying portrait of the artist as an old man, composed when the artist was still in his first years of young manhood. Faust on the brink of damnation, as prophesied by Faust in the full flower of his devilish gifts.

Two other Wellesian Fausts are missing from our resonant short list of avatars: Mr Kurtz, and Captain Ahab. It might at first seem odd to put Kurtz on the list, since he began life as a corroded Belgian übermensch, as imagined by a Polish-British novelist; consider Kurtz's spectral presence across Welles's oeuvre, though, and his status as naturalised American becomes indisputable. Welles first played the role on radio (generously allowing another actor, Ray Collins, to take the part of Conrad's narrator Marlow, though Welles gave himself a big helping of introductory narration), and when he went to Hollywood in 1939, Heart of Darkness was at the top of the list of films he wanted to make. His idea was to play both major roles, with Marlow, heard but glimpsed only in odd reflections, functioning as a sort of camera-I. RKO cancelled the project, but - again, Peter Conrad is quite brilliant on this point - Welles went on to smuggle slices of the abandoned project into many of his subsequent films...

And, one might add, some of those slices were later picked up and reconfigured when Francis Ford Coppola, the great Faustian overreacher of modern Hollywood, went on to make his own version of Heart of Darkness as Apocalypse Now. Marlon Brando, who had acted for Coppola the part of Don Corleone (the one, recall, for which Welles would have sold his soul to the Devil), now took over the part that Welles had craved for his cinematic debut, of a man who had sold his soul to devils. If Conrad's Mr Kurtz is a Faust in the classic European tradition, then Coppola's Colonel Kurtz is the most terrifying incarnation of the American Faust.

Once again, the mythic potency of such a character owes much to a secret identification between artist and creation - not that Coppola is a mass murderer, but that his temperament responds to the illicit grandeur of a man who throws off all restraints, and becomes not merely a local warrior king but a form of criminal God. The NBC show Saturday Night Live, in the far-off days when it was actually funny, had a shrewdly witty sketch in which Martin Sheen played a studio henchman, despatched to the Philippines to terminate Coppola's shoot with Extreme Prejudice. No surprise, then, that Coppola, in the days when he still wrote and directed blazingly good movies, essayed other significant incarnations of the American Faust: General Patton in his screenplay for Patton: Lust for Glory, the idiosyncratic car tycoon Tucker...

As for Melville's Captain Ahab, perhaps the first of the long line, Welles found it hard to leave that role alone, too; though when John Huston finally made the film of Moby-Dick, he cast Gregory Peck as the Captain and relegated Welles to the considerably smaller part of Father Mapple. Just as with Kurtz, Ahab was a character Welles had originally played on the radio, in 1946, and a year later he began to collaborate with the composer Bernard Herrmann and others on an oratorio version of the story. He went on to write Moby-Dick - Rehearsed, a play about a group of actors staging a play of Melville's novel, and brought it to London's West End in 1953; and 20 years later - a sad coda - paid out of his own pocket for a small film crew to shoot sequences of him reading key passages from Melville's book, which he had come to regard as an almost supernatural work, crammed with strange coded messages he needed to interpret.

No other American artist has so far rivalled Welles for the scope and protean variety of his treatment, and personal acting out, of the grand Overreacher theme - though for a while, in the 1970s, it looked as though Coppola might be shaping up as his true heir.

Admirers of F Scott Fitzgerald might want to argue that The Great Gatsby is subtler and more uncomfortably searching than anything Welles ever produced; admirers of Ayn Rand would almost certainly argue that her novel about a visionary architect, The Fountainhead, is the noblest version of the theme, with its story of an architectural genius who ultimately triumphs over mass hysteria, the yellow press and herd mentality in general. (Gary Cooper played the lead role of Howard Roark in the 1949 film version, directed by King Vidor. Revealing trivia note: Michael Cimino, who destroyed an entire studio with his overreaching fiasco Heaven's Gate, long nursed a desire to direct a remake of The Fountainhead.) But then, most Rand fans would probably get quite a boot out of The Triumph of the Will. No, Orson Welles remains the outstanding, the irreplaceable limner of the American Faust myth, in many, many guises - so many that it may seem surprising that it was not Welles, but Scorsese, who came to produce what will, for good or ill, be the definitive film portrait of Howard Hughes.

He came tantalisingly close. Plenty of people know that Howard Hughes was one of the indirect real-life inspirations for Charles Foster Kane; far fewer that Welles made a couple of attempts to tackle Hughes head-on. At the end of his spoof-documentary-essay F for Fake, Welles can be seen staring up towards the penthouse of the Las Vegas hotel into which Hughes has made his retreat, "as if peering through the fence at Xanadu at his unseen double" (Peter Conrad.) By the early 1970s, his sense of identification with Hughes had grown powerful: he told one interviewer, in so many words, that he had become "the Howard Hughes of cinema." (Curious phrase, since Hughes was already the Hughes of cinema - and had bought RKO, the studio that gave Welles his incomparable break.)

Welles had approached the tycoon by more indirect passages as early as the 1940s, when he had proposed adapting an English thriller, The Smiler with the Knife - by Nicholas Blake, aka the poet C Day Lewis - to an American setting. He took the character of Lord Chilton Canteloe - "a self-deceiver on the heroic scale, and of that stuff dictators are made" - and remodelled him in the image of Hughes, circumnavigator of the earth. Unlike Hughes, the figure of Canteloe stayed at the drawing-board stage.

This is not the place to enter judgements about the worth of Scorsese's new film (see page 18 for review) - though it does seem permissible to note that, by ending the drama at the time when Hughes made his one and only triumphant flight in the flying boat "Spruce Goose", Scorsese is doing the equivalent of concluding a five-act tragedy somewhere around act three and a half (or does he give us the credit of assuming that we will supply those missing acts from our own collective knowledge of Hughes's pitiful collapse?). No matter: Hughes's life story has the chastening perfection of a true myth, even if this biopic version is ultimately judged to be more of a rollicking entertainment than a tragedy. And we may confidently expect that American artists - mature, developing or as yet unborn - will continue to be drawn to the great theme, just as they have been drawn since the times of Hawthorne, Melville and Poe. Earlier this year, for example, David Mamet - by most reckonings America's outstanding contemporary playwright - staged an unusual two-act play at the Magic Theatre, San Francisco. I have the text in front of me as I write. Its title? Faustus.