Leonardo DiCaprio’s Best Movie Is Underappreciated And Streaming On Netflix Right Now

Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Nathan Kamal | Updated

The Aviator

Leonardo DiCaprio’s career can be neatly divided into two distinct eras: his early years as an acting wunderkind and teen heartthrob and his latter-day persona as a grim, ultra-serious prestige drama actor. There are some exceptions to that (a Don’t Look Up here, a Wolf of Wall Street there), but only one film acts as the bridge between his two creative phases. That is The Aviator, the underappreciated 2004 Howard Hughes biopic that marks his full transition from Tiger Beat poster boy to an acclaimed actor, which is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Texan billionaire, business magnate, engineer, record-breaking pilot, film producer and director, celebrity playboy, and eventual mysterious recluse Howard Hughes. The film covers Hughes’ remarkable and troubled life from a brief glimpse of his childhood during a deadly cholera outbreak to his early years as a controversial filmmaker and man-about-town to his middle years fighting both a losing battle with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and a winning one against the United States government itself.

The Aviator

At the time of the film’s release, Howard Hughes had been dead for nearly 30 years and was reduced to a heavily-bearded, claw-nailed cartoon in public memory, sometimes literally. In adapting a biography by Charles Wigham, Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorsese, and screenwriter John Logan attempted to examine a more full picture of Hughes’ complex life and succeeded remarkably. 

The Aviator shows great sympathy for Howard Hughes’ still debated medical conditions, which reportedly included OCD and partial deafness (which the movie repeatedly shows him as ashamed to acknowledge). However, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the man also acknowledges how the illness of one person can have a destructive, alienating effect on the people around them. With his issues being combined and contrasted with Hughes’ immense wealth, personal ruthlessness and ego, and engineering brilliance, The Aviator is a harrowing, haunting tale of one man conquering the world but unable to defeat his own demons.

leonardo dicaprio

However, The Aviator is not a punishing slog through the struggles of mental health, or at least not entirely. Leonardo DiCaprio has been praised for his realistic portrayal of OCD, but the movie also shows how Howard Hughes could not be (and should not be) reduced to that one aspect of his life. Particularly in the first half of the film, we see Leonardo DiCaprio as a fixture of the party scene of the Golden Age of Hollywood and a dynamic, potent figure; the performance would later be echoed in his performance in The Great Gatsby and was no doubt familiar to DiCaprio from his own life at the time.

leonardo dicaprio

The true key to The Aviator is Leonardo DiCaprio utilizing both his own public image and his future aspirations in one performance. The first act of the film fully displays the actor at the height of his post-Titanic beauty and charisma, while the second shows his transitions into the kind of near-silent, physically transformative roles he would soon take on in Shutter Island and The Revenant. The Aviator stands on its own as a film, but it also acts as the perfect hinge of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career.

The Aviator was Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s second film together, following 2002’s Gangs of New York. However, DiCaprio’s performance in that film was vastly overshadowed by that of Daniel Day-Lewis, not to mention heavy criticism for his off-and-on 19th-century Irish-American accent. Since their Howard Hughes biopic, both star and director have received consistent acclaim for their work together on The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, and have a new project in production titled Killers of the Flower Moon.

leonardo dicaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio gave The Aviator perhaps his best and most nuanced performance to date, but he was well-supported by an incredible cast that included Cate Blanchett (in an Academy Award-winning performance as legendary actress Katherine Hepburn), Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Adam Scott, Jude Law, among many others. The film was nominated for a staggering 11 Academy Awards, eventually winning five (as well as three Golden Globe Awards). 

Since then, the film has somewhat become a footnote to Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese’s work together, as well as his long-in-coming Oscar win. But if you want to see the moment where Leo truly emerged as a mature actor, The Aviator is currently streaming on Netflix.