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Earhart’s Mystique Takes Wing Again

FAME is fleeting, of course, but certain forms of it are stickier than others. More than seven decades after her death the aviatrix Amelia Earhart still fascinates. Called Lady Lindy for her willingness to attempt ill-advised, even foolhardy feats, she has been the subject of more than 100 books, and her name is plastered on bridges, Navy ships, museums and festivals throughout the United States and points beyond. Now she is the subject of a biopic, “Amelia,” directed by Mira Nair, starring Hilary Swank and opening Friday, which reverently portrays a celebrity who remained remarkably irreverent and curiously humble until her death while trying to circumnavigate the globe.

Her disappearance in 1937 and its attendant mystery account for some of the ongoing allure, but she endures because she was a pioneer whose adventures went beyond personal aggrandizement. Earhart took on the laws of nature (humans were not meant to fly) and the conventions of the time (adventure was a man’s business) and seemed to soar above both. “I want to do it because I want to do it,” she said, as a way to explain her desire to accomplish what no woman had.

Her pluck is a matter of record, but parts of her life remain tantalizingly out of reach. And that knowledge gap convinced a number of Amelia-philes — including Ted Waitt, the co-founder of the computer maker Gateway — that there were enough complications behind the legend to make for a motion picture. Earhart was her own thing, but she was also ripe for the projection of others — a goad not only to dream big, but to live large.

Ms. Nair, director of Indian-theme movies like “Salaam Bombay!,” “The Namesake,” and “Monsoon Wedding” (a story soon to be on Broadway), calls Earhart as America’s first modern celebrity. A hero of the protofeminist movement for her single-mindedness, Earhart was also commercially shrewd and aware that her fame had uses beyond her own gratification.

As her flying exploits mounted, bringing hope and adventure to the dreary decade of the 1930s, Earhart wrote books, magazine stories (she was a contributing editor at Cosmopolitan), starred in newsreels, endorsed numerous products and, yes, designed her own line of “active living” clothing. But what put her in the cockpit of all those endeavors in the first place was an ability and willingness to fly airplanes, often over long distances, at a time when flying was considered a sport, and a risky one at that.

“In the last week I have flown from Los Angeles to Italy, back to L.A., then a few days later I flew to Dubai, then Dubai to London, and in two days I will be flying back home,” said Ms. Swank, who won best actress Oscars for her performances in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby.” “We take all of that for granted, but people paid a price to make that a reality. Amelia Earhart found something that she loved, a passion, and went after it. All of us, especially women, are the better because of it.”

The magic of flying, the improbability of it, is restored in “Amelia,” which is kind of an origins story of how civil aviation came to be a commonplace part of American life. In the same way you can see the birth of modern media management as George Putman, who had published a successful book on Charles A. Lindbergh, asked Earhart, then obscure, to be part of a transatlantic flight attempt in 1928.

A former newspaper publisher, he had a book concept (Lindbergh in a skirt) in the works and more or less cast Earhart as the heroine. “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes,” she observed ruefully, but in 1932 she accomplished the feat on her own, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for her bravery. She and Mr. Putman were a powerful promotional team and eventually fell in love and married, but “Amelia” makes clear that she continued to navigate according to her own compass, striking up a separate romantic relationship with Gene Vidal, an aviation pioneer (and father of Gore Vidal).

Born in Atchison, Kan., in 1897, Earhart was the daughter of one of the first women to reach the summit of Pikes Peak, and her father, although crippled by alcoholism, was a lawyer and inventor. Earhart received her flying license in 1921, broke the women’s altitude record in 1922 and in 1928 flew as a passenger across the Atlantic, writing about it in “20 Hrs., 40 Min.,” which established her fame. After her solo flight across the Atlantic she became the first pilot to fly solo to California from Hawaii in 1934.

But if Earhart’s life was lived in a very bright light, her death remains a mystery that people still try to unravel. Celebrities who die today end up in a video on TMZ before their bodies are cold, but Earhart, who disappeared at 40 during a flight over the Pacific, has never been found.

Mr. Waitt, now retired from Gateway, is among the legions of people drawn to that mystery. Something of an adventurer himself, he has spent many hours and no small amount of money investigating her death. “Amelia,” with a budget of about $20 million, became the first feature film produced by Avalon Pictures, a subsidiary of Avalon Capital Group, a private investment company he runs.

“The more I researched her disappearance, the more fascinated I became by her life,” he said. “What she did at the time she did it is extraordinary. At the time flying was considered an extreme sport, and the risks that she faced took an incredible amount of guts. She was an amazing role model, and the more I learned, the more I thought this would make an incredible film.”

Mr. Waitt’s company bought the rights to two books about her life, Susan Butler’s “East to the Dawn” and Mary Lovell’s “Sound of Wings,” and hired Ron Bass (“Rain Man”) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (“Gorillas in the Mist”) to write the script. He retained Elgen M. Long, co-author of “Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved,” and his now-deceased wife, Marie K. Long, to serve as technical consultants.

Earhart’s life and death have attracted myriad collectors and history buffs, but Mr. Long may be among the most avid. A commercial pilot and experienced navigator, he lives in Reno, Nev., in a home that is partly a shrine to the young girl from Kansas who fell in love on her first flight and never let go of the stick. Mr. Long, 82, has thousands of pieces of memorabilia, including 145 of the original transcribed radio messages signed by the radio operator from her last flight, as well as letters, pictures, even her last will and testament.

“Amelia is responsible for so many things that we take for granted these days in terms of what has happened in aviation and in the rights of women,” Mr. Long said. “I was thrilled that Mira directed the film because she is something of a pioneer in a man’s field, and I think a lot of the insights into Amelia’s character came to her quite naturally.” He was especially pleased that Earhart’s actual radio transmissions narrate at the end of the film.

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from New Guinea, about 22,000 miles into their effort to circumnavigate the earth. They aimed for Howland Island, a sliver of an island 2,500 miles into the Pacific. Almost everyone, even today, is aware that they never made it; they most likely ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. The United States government spent $4 million (close to $60 million today) looking for her, the most it had ever spent on an air search and rescue, but the plane was never found.

For the producers and creative team behind “Amelia,” the forces that compelled Earhart to take those risks are common, even if hers led to uncommon ends.

“The more I read about her, the more I thought she is like I was,” said Ms. Nair, who comes from a small village in India. “Beyond the enigma of how she died, I’m hoping that people will see themselves in her decisions to set aside her fears and live her life to the fullest.”

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