Documentaries briefly seemed the year’s big film-biz story, but 2004 turned out to be the year of the biopic. From legendary figures Jesus Christ and King Arthur to such diverse 20th-century agitators as Alfred Kinsey, Cole Porter, Ray Charles, and Che Guevara, this year’s cinematic worldview is that history is made by great men. (Not great women? Maybe next year.) Most of these films, however, have featured an essential secondary character: movies themselves.

Though a few directors aped recent hits—King Arthur redid the R-rated Braveheart with the benefit of looser standards for PG-13 gore—most of them turned to older models. Kinsey wittily evoked the snappy pictures of the late ’40s, the period in which its protagonist’s research first rocked American notions of normality. For all its contemporary touches, Alexander most often recalled the ’50s, that golden age of the sword-and-sandal epic. And The Passion of the Christ, despite brushing up on its Aramaic in the hope that it would be seen as “historical,” closely followed the example of early-’70s horror flicks. The year’s final pair of biopics, The Aviator and Beyond the Sea, needn’t struggle to locate their own cinematic angles: Although neither was primarily a filmmaker, both Howard Hughes and Bobby Darin were creatures of Hollywood.

Originally best known for scrappy intensity, Martin Scorsese has gradually revealed his inner movie buff. He loves old Hollywood, and The Aviator basks in the reflected glow of ’30s and ’40s tinsel. After opening with an Oedipal childhood moment between Hughes and his mom that foreshadows the tycoon’s ultimately paralyzing mysophobia, the film rockets directly into the production of Hell’s Angels, a 1930 dogfight picture in which Hughes invested three years and a then-unprecedented multi-million-dollar budget. Identifying with him more than a little, Scorsese savors the headstrong Hughes’ campaign to finish the movie, and Leonardo DiCaprio swaggeringly embodies the 20-something producer-director’s drive. But Hughes directed only one other film in his life, 1943’s The Outlaw, and his principal contribution to Hollywood lore was dating lots of actresses.

In fact, The Aviator divides into three acts: the cocky youngster, Katharine Hepburn, and the crackup. Scripted by John Logan, who wrote the reasonably clever but historically ludicrous The Last Samurai, the film covers an impressive amount of material in its 169 minutes, even though it skips the last 30 years of Hughes’ life. Hughes flitted in and out of the movie biz while bleeding the family drilling-tool business to support his aeronautic experiments. He served as his own test pilot, spectacularly crashing from time to time. (The last of these wrecks, according to this account, severed his tenuous link to sanity.) He became an airline mogul by buying TWA, faced charges of war profiteering, and bested Pan Am owner Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and his pet U.S. senator (Alan Alda) in a Capitol Hill hearing.

Baldwin, Alda, and John C. Reilly, who plays a faithful Hughes lieutenant, aren’t required to impersonate people whose faces and gestures are permanently preserved on celluloid, which is to their advantage. But their naturalistic performances clash with DiCaprio’s contrived Texas accent, bit player Ian Holm’s iffy German one, and Cate Blanchett’s arch impersonation of the arch Hepburn. In their cameos, Kate Beckinsale (Ava Gardner), Gwen Stefani (Jean Harlow), and the ubiquitous Jude Law (Errol Flynn) need only stay in iconic character for a scene or two. But Blanchett’s role is central to the tale, and it might be a deal-breaker for some Hepburn buffs.

Still, The Aviator is not an actor’s movie. Even if the film is structured as a DiCaprio one-man show, there are always plenty of distractions: Citizen Kane homages; three decades of American boom, bust, and bombast; and ironic cuts between Hughes’ various preoccupations. Occasional moments encapsulate character in simple gestures, such as the scene in which Hughes can’t bring himself to touch a men’s-room doorknob. Mostly, however, the film glories in artifice and excess: Both the curve of Hepburn’s back and the slope of Jane Russell’s breasts are visually correlated with airplane fuselages. In this vision of someone’s golden age, planes and bosoms aren’t the only things that are sleek, shimmering, and aerodynamic—so is the whole world.

That is, until Hepburn departs and Hughes burns his clothes, stops bathing, and turns from boyishly guzzling milk to lining up milk bottles full of his own urine. This is an emotional transition the film can’t navigate, although its failure to do so isn’t disastrous; there’s so much happening that The Aviator never stalls, even as its protagonist’s disposition slides from sketchy to inexplicable. Skimming this psychology-textbook case, Scorsese and Logan diagnose Hughes as a mama’s boy, suggesting that only an attractive woman or the thrill of flight—or both—could overcome his fear of contamination. In one perhaps telling moment, Hughes takes Hepburn for a spin above Beverly Hills and is so exhilarated that he lets her swig directly from his milk.

Such fleeting asides constitute the bulk of the movie’s inquiry into Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive behavior, which doesn’t exactly suit an epic hero. (Some have complained that Alexander rendered its namesake neurotic, but it didn’t show him washing his hands until they bled.) Jonathan Demme probably had it right when he gave Hughes second billing in 1980’s Melvin and Howard, casting Jason Robards as an enigmatic stranger who could never be understood. But the question remains: Aside from his money, was Howard Hughes actually interesting? Not uncompellingly, The Aviator answers, Hey, take a look at this plane crash!

After Beyond the Sea flops, do you suppose Kevin Spacey will begin accosting people on the street and begging them to listen to his Bobby Darin impression? Probably not—Spacey has a full-time gig running London’s Old Vic, after all, and has secured a string of nightclub bookings for his Darin act. Still, the film’s obsessiveness does verge on the desperate. Star, director, and co-writer Spacey wants to convince us of so much, yet he can’t explain why he cares intensely about Darin, let alone why anyone else should.

The film opens with finger-poppin’, the echo of a vanished era in cool. Darin rushes through a nightclub kitchen with his entourage, hits the stage, and begins “Mack the Knife,” the only No. 1 hit of the singer’s nine-year chart run. (The movie’s title song went to No. 6.) Suddenly, he sees a kid staring at him from backstage—himself as a boy. Startled, Darin stops the number, and the camera pulls back to reveal that the club is really a movie soundstage: Spacey-as-Darin is making a movie-within-a-movie about Darin, which allows him to employ such corny dramatic gambits as confronting his preadolescent self and then blame them on someone else’s flick. Also—and this is every bit as important—the film-within-a-film explains why the 45-year-old Spacey is playing the 20-something Darin during his brief period as a top nightclub draw: It’s not the older Spacey playing the younger Darin, but the older Darin playing the younger Darin—and he’s got a right. He’s Bobby Darin, dammit.

If that sounds absurdly conceptual, Beyond the Sea is in most ways quite ordinary. After the sorta-Brechtian setup, the film observes the usual conventions of a biopic, introducing the sickly young Bobby—boyhood rheumatic fever weakened the heart that stopped when Darin was 37—and his inspirational mother figure (Brenda Blethyn). Soon little Walden Robert Cassotto (William Ullrich) has his Bronx neighbors dancing in the street, in a number that launches a becoming-a-musician montage in which the kid is replaced by his adult counterpart. Then Darin acquires his stage name, an entourage (which includes Bob Hoskins and John Goodman), and his first hit, 1958’s “Splish Splash.” Next come nightclubs, a movie career, and marriage to teen screen princess Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth, who’s young and blond but otherwise wrong) over the objections of her harridan stage mother (Greta Scacchi, who in real life is actually a bit younger than the film’s overage auteur).

Idealism pulsing beneath his outsized ego, Darin insists that an African-American comedian open for him at the segregated Copacabana. He and Sandra have one baby, many fights, and even more martinis, and then Darin learns the big secret of his shrill sister Nina (Caroline Aaron). Rock, the music Darin abandoned for “grown-up” success, decimates his following. He dumps the tuxedos, writes anti-war songs, endorses RFK, and records “If I Were a Carpenter” (his last top-10 hit). Amid heart surgery and a briefly resurgent career, both Sandra and little Bobby offer compliments. His is so nutty that it would be unfair to reveal it; hers is “You’re always ahead of your time.”

In 1968, it would have been generous to tell Darin that he was ever ahead of his time. In 2004, it’s preposterous. “Splish Splash” was hardly a dispatch from the frontier, even if it was timelier than this indulgent tribute. But then, what keeps Beyond the Sea bizarrely interesting is not its subject. Spacey’s regard for Darin is manifest, and his impression of Darin’s singing style is credible. Yet the actor doesn’t exactly vanish into the role: Throughout this metamusical, the spotlight stays trained not on Bobby Darin, but on Kevin Spacey and his puzzling devotion to a marginal, largely forgotten entertainer.CP