Howard Hughes and the Bizarre True Story Behind Rules Don’t Apply

5 minute read

Warren Beatty’s first movie in 15 years, Rules Don’t Apply, begins with a quote from its subject, Howard Hughes, whom Beatty plays: “Never check an interesting fact.” The film, out Nov. 23, spins a fictional yarn, and one which Beatty—who had been chewing on the idea for decades and also wrote, directed and produced it—has repeatedly insisted is not a biopic of the eccentric aviator, entrepreneur and filmmaker. But for all the insistence that audiences accept it as a fantasy, Beatty’s depiction of an aging, outlandishly idiosyncratic Hughes all but begs a revisiting of the subject’s behavior during his later years—which was often so strange it sounds fictional itself.

Rules Don’t Apply is less about Hughes than it is about two young people in his employ: a naive starlet named Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), newly arrived in Los Angeles following a chaste Baptist upbringing in Virginia, and Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver with entrepreneurial aspirations and a similarly uncorrupted youth. This being the sexually repressed Hollywood of the 1950s, their boss forbids romantic relationships among his employees. This being a Hollywood movie, they immediately fall in love.

As Marla and Frank’s forbidden affair percolates, Hughes is at once an unwelcome obstruction and the gatekeeper of their professional aspirations, a fairy godfather with the power to bless or bankrupt their dreams. At times, his concerns—such as Congressional hearings related to his aeronautical innovations—seem a distraction from the central narrative, but they paint a picture, and by all accounts a fairly meticulous one, of a man who continues to fascinate 40 years after his death.

As far as Hughes’ life story, Rules Don’t Apply picks up roughly where The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s 2004 drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio, leaves off, though it fudges the timeline a bit (lest we forget, this is a work of fiction). When Beatty’s Hughes enters, he’s a man in his 50s, decades removed from inheriting his family’s fortune, earned in the oil tool business, at age 18. He has already produced many successful movies, set air-speed records with his ever more advanced aircraft and developed a reputation as a Casanova with such famous paramours as Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Ginger Rogers.

But Beatty’s Hughes is somewhere in the early stages of a long decline, the more advanced degrees of which we see in flash-forwards set in the 1960s. The billionaire spent the final decades of his life as an increasingly agoraphobic recluse, fueled in large part by obsessive compulsive disorder and chronic pain caused by a near-fatal airplane wreck in the mid-40s (the movie pushes this event back by a decade). When he appears, in the film’s opening and closing moments, bedridden and disheveled in an Acapulco hotel, his appearance is indeed drawn from the real Hughes’ regular refusal to trim his hair or fingernails.

Many of the peculiarities the movie’s Hughes exhibits are borrowed from real-life anecdotes. He did once halt production on a movie because he disliked the shape of an actress’ brassiere (Jane Russell, The Outlaw, 1943). He did, despite his wealth and access, prefer TV dinners over posh restaurants. He did send his staff into a frenzy, demanding that they procure banana nut ice cream despite the fact that Baskin Robbins had discontinued the flavor and would only sell the remaining barrels in bulk—only to find that their boss’ capricious cravings had already moved on to a new flavor.

Hughes also did, as in the film, hole up in the movie theater of a Las Vegas hotel he bought (he had a penchant for buying up hotels, restaurants and airports for his exclusive use) on a continuous loop for days, never leaving to eat or relieve himself. A dependence on painkillers often left him incoherent as his OCD left him almost paralyzingly germophobic. His body wasted away in accordance with his mind.

When Hughes died in 1976—on an airplane, as befits a word-class aviator—he left no will designating his wishes for a multibillion-dollar estate. A protracted legal battle would ensue over the decade to follow, and a yearlong posthumous psychological autopsy commissioned by the estate would find that his health issues, as well as his tendency to withdraw during times of anxiety, stemmed from an isolated childhood under the care of a mother who feared intensely that her son would contract polio.

As these tangled matters began to surface, late in 1976 TIME correctly predicted an ongoing fascination with the recently deceased tycoon, the mysterious nature of whom would no doubt lend itself to many artistic interpretations:

Whatever the outcome of the legal proceedings, Hughes will be one of the hottest show-biz properties of 1977. People the world over will be seeing and reading more about Howard Hughes next year than at any time since he was setting new air records and squiring numerous beautiful women in the 1940s and ’50s. Warner Bros, is planning to make The Howard Hughes Story, possibly starring Warren Beatty.

Fancy that—it took four decades, but Beatty’s Hughes has finally landed.

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