Did Howard Hughes really wash his hands that much?

The scenes of Howard Hughes washing his hands are a memorable part of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Aviator, but how accurate are they?

In depicting the life of movie and aviation magnate Howard Hughes, among the most memorable scenes of the aviator are the cases where he washes his hands. Hughes is widely credited with having had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and the 2004 film pays attention to this aspect of his life in multiple scenes and nuances. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, but the film makes assumptions about the specific obsessive-compulsive behavior of Hughes himself.

The biopic, directed by Martin Scorsese, focuses primarily on Hughes’ endeavors in filmmaking and aircraft design, but some scenes directly explore Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive behaviors, including hand-washing. Entering a public restroom, Hughes pulls out a personal bar of soap from a small metal canister as if skeptical of unidentifiable soaps, or perhaps resisting the momentary grime of touching a soap dispenser. A man using crutches emerges from one of the stalls and begins to wash his hands, asking Hughes to help by passing him a towel. Still washing his hands, a sorry and visually pained Hughes refuses this request. The rather upset man manages to retrieve a towel himself, while Hughes looks weakened in a memorable aspect of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal. In another public restroom, Hughes pulls out his personal soap once again, this time washing his hands with excessive rigor. He looks at himself in the mirror with another pained expression, washing his hands so aggressively that he cracks his skin open. Then, after using all the towels to clean up, Hughes finds himself unable to get out of the toilet. Resistant to touching the doorknob and without a towel to avoid direct contact, Hughes waits for someone to enter so he can leave the room hygienically.


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The wide acknowledgment that Hughes had OCD and mysophobia, a fear of germs and contamination, serves to support the plausibility of such scenes in the film. The exact manifestation of Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive tendencies is not entirely determinable, however, particularly in the private setting. An imaginative realization, the aviator sometimes deviates from the true story on which it is based. Excessive hand washing is a common constraint for people with OCD. The open wound Hughes creates on his hand in the film is an unnecessary susceptibility to contamination, but the harsh washing that causes it is entirely obsessive-compulsive.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator

Raymond D. Fowler, PhD, conducted a psychological autopsy on Hughes, which is reported by the American Psychological Association (APA). Fowler noted Hughes “fear of germs” and the development of “obsessive-compulsive symptoms”. It is also explained that Hughes would require his staff to engage in behavior necessary for his fear-of-being compulsions. “contaminated from the outside”. This is depicted in the film as Hughes asks to be presented with a bag at a 45 degree angle so that he can remove the contents without touching the bag itself. Hughes’ complexities were immense; Scorsese wasn’t the only director interested in creating a biopic of his life, with Christopher Nolan penning an undirected screenplay.

The extent of Hughes’ handwashing in the aviator is plausible based on information gathered by Fowler from testimonies, transcripts and documents. Handwashing is certainly a behavior that should resonate in a cinematic depiction of OCD; the scenes are intended to imaginatively portray the manner of Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive behavior more than to depict Hughes’ life devoid of any fiction. the aviator sheds light on the form and duration of obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but the authenticity of its depiction regarding Hughes’ specific behavior is essentially indeterminable.

The scenes of Hughes washing his hands represent an activity readily associated by the viewer with obsessive-compulsive behavior. Viewers of the film are aware of occurrences of this type of behavior without any explicit pathological determination. The film’s depiction of Hughes washing his hands is a creative interpretation, but nonetheless plausible and useful in shedding light on the life of the eccentric Howard Hughes. As such, the aviator does not serve as documentary or diagnostic of Hughes; it depicts an interpretation of his life.

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