Chris Nolan's Lost Howard Hughes Biopic, Starring... Jim Carrey?
Christopher Nolan once said that the “best script he’s ever written” was written not for any of his frequent collaborators like Christian Bale, Michael Caine or Hans Zimmer’s BWONGs, but for Jim Carrey. Turns out Spike Jonze isn't the only acclaimed director who desperately wanted to work with the star of Dumb and Dumber and Liar Liar (and, to be fair, The Majestic and The Truman Show).
The movie would have been about a rich and famous man who becomes a reclusive weirdo with an unhealthy attachment to his own urine and overgrown nails. The problem? Martin Scorsese was making that same movie, only with Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Carrey.
Yes, Nolan wanted Carrey to play eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, and he was really excited about the idea. In the early 2000s, Nolan spent a whole year writing the script with Carrey in mind, having already met with him and hearing his “fantastic ideas” about the part. In a 2002 interview, he said he’d “found the one guy, in the person of Jim Carrey, who can actually do what’s required by the part.”
Nolan just couldn’t get tired of singing Carrey’s praises, at least when it came to the specific subject of playing real-life eccentrics. In another 2002 interview, he said: “He is just perfect. He was born to play him. He just really is. ... When you have that, and you hear Jim’s take on the characterization, and you look at his extraordinary gift for channeling individuals, like in his portrayal of Andy Kaufman, you can see that Jim Carrey is a very unique talent. What I need is an individual who can play all the unique aspects of the character of Howard Hughes.”
Carrey himself even got philosophical about Hughes when talking to Entertainment Weekly: “In certain ways, I probably am him. I want to find out what personal chasm needed to be filled — his Rosebud. Hughes is like everyone else, trying to find that thing they’re missing, but it’s in the fire, and you have to let it go. And if you don’t, you don’t go on, and you don’t grow up.”
Nolan has said that when he heard about Scorsese directing DiCaprio as Hughes in The Aviator, his reaction was "F@#%!" However, it’s worth noting that the movies would have focused on different parts of Hughes’ life: While The Aviator showed his ascent in the worlds of aviation and filmmaking and slowly (perhaps too slowly) built up his mental health issues, Nolan reportedly wanted to dive headfirst into Hughes’ madness.
According to Vulture: “We’ll meet the Howard Hughes who spent much of 1948 sitting naked in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel with only a pink dinner napkin covering his genitals as he screened movies from his studio, RKO Pictures, and ran up an $11 million tab; the Hughes who — obsessed with food safety — once bought every franchise restaurant chain in his home state of Texas, and who was similarly so concerned about air quality that he installed an aircraft filtration system in his 1954 Chrysler New Yorker, taking up its entire trunk...”
Nolan pointed out in interviews that his movie was “not a biopic,” perhaps because he was basing it on a book that only covers the years Hughes spent locked up in his Vegas penthouse. Citizen Hughes: In His Own Words — How Howard Hughes Tried to Buy America (we’re assuming Nolan would have kept the full name but added The Movie at the end) was based on documents that were stolen from Hughes’ office in 1974 and tracked down by the author, who paints an unflattering but fascinating picture of Hughes. For starters, his attitude toward Black people stank about as much as his body odor:
Much of the book is about Hughes’ obsession with the amount of poop present in Las Vegas’ water and his fear that the radiation set off by the nearby nuclear tests might reach him. It also covers his ill-fated attempts to get involved in politics, with his paranoia leading him to do everything possible to buy out politicians, which only succeeded in making the Nixon administration paranoid, too. (You probably know how that turned out.)
In short, we see no reason why Nolan couldn’t have gone ahead with the movie anyway, resulting in an Armageddon/Deep Impact situation but with unhinged old racists instead of asteroids. Instead, Nolan decided to focus on a movie about a different billionaire with mental health issues, only this one works them out by dressing as a bat and beating up muggers as opposed to shooting up codeine and watching old movies in the nude.
Will Nolan ever get back to this project? He didn't rule it out when asked in 2014. If the movie does focus on Hughes' latter years, then Carrey's age shouldn't be an issue. In fact, we should consider the possibility that Nolan has simply been biding his time to save money on old man make-up.
Thumbnail: Miramax Films