''The Majestic'' star explains why the eccentric billionaire's life story is a hot commodity

By Liane Bonin
Updated January 03, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Jim Carrey: Fitzroy Barrett/Globe Photos

Howard Hughes, the codeine-addicted billionaire who died alone with foot-long fingernails in 1976, is once again the hottest playboy in Hollywood. Warren Beatty and Ed Norton were the first to develop biopics (both projects eventually stalled); director Michael Mann (”Ali”) has signed on to direct an epic for New Line Cinema, with Leonardo DiCaprio tentatively attached to play Hughes; and Castle Rock Entertainment has bought the rights to Richard Hack’s biography ”Hughes: The Private Diaries, Letters and Memos.” Given Jim Carrey is confirmed to star in the latter project, and red hot director Christopher Nolan (”Momento”) has already signed on to direct, the Castle Rock pic will likely hit the big screen first.

The germ-phobic movie mogul has long been popular with Hollywood, showing up in 1991’s ”The Rocketeer,” 1998’s ”Tucker,” a 1977 TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones, and 1980’s Oscar winning ”Melvin and Howard.” But constructing a thorough portrait of Hughes’ life became more appealing in the ’90s, following the declassificaton of over 2,500 FBI and CIA documents about Hughes. Biographer Hack also gained access to over 100,000 previously sealed legal briefs, which unravel in detail the causes of Hughes’ quirks (a hysterical mother instigated his germ paranoia, further exacerbated by a 1941 bout of syphilis).

But Carrey says he’s drawn to the eccentric entrepreneur for personal reasons. ”In certain ways, I probably am him. I want to find out what personal chasm needed to be filled — his Rosebud,” says Carrey, referring to Orson Welles’ ”Citizen Kane.” ”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.”

Which begs the question, what is Carrey’s Rosebud? ”Probably my desire to be seen,” he says. ”I’ve created a lot of magic and sleight of hand because I felt I had to to convince everyone I’m magical.”