Want an Academy Award? It’s no secret — playing a real person is the surest way to find Oscar gold. Just ask Colin Firth, Sandra Bullock, Sean Penn, Helen Mirren, Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron, Forest Whitaker, Nicole Kidman, Jamie Foxx, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Marion Cotillard. (And that’s only from Best Actor/Actress categories in the last decade.) Every year, there are a number of prestige pictures with showy performers playing even showier personalities, all vying for Hollywood’s highest honor. It’s a nice club to be invited to — and often, it takes an actor quite some time to be deemed worthy.
Leonardo DiCaprio has yet to join the ranks of these elite, though he has made a few valiant attempts — you don’t played Howard Hughes in a Martin Scorsese picture for nothing. (Except, that’s what he got, acclaim-wise. A Golden Globe doesn’t count.) Perhaps he was hoping 2011 would be his year…
But it isn’t. Leo’s Oscar bid this season comes in the form of J. Edgar, in which he’s actually quite good as the controversial figure in question. J. Edgar Hoover was, of course, instrumental in the shaping of the FBI; he is notorious for a number of things, including wire-tapping the nation’s most powerful leaders and dressing in women’s clothing. How true this all is, perhaps we’ll never know, since his “private files” were destroyed just after his death, purportedly by his secretary. Edgar liked to keep his personal life under wraps.
A trio of figures who played crucial roles in Edgar’s personal life are depicted in the film. His mother, portrayed by Judi Dench, is loving but stern, and in one scene viciously tells Edgar she’d rather have a dead son than a “daffodil.” (A euphemism for “homosexual,” natch.) That’s all it takes to keep Edgar in the closet for the rest of his life, though the film never explicitly confirms nor denies his sexual orientation. There’s a hint of a Psycho-style mommy-worship; when Hoover becomes involved with the kidnapped of the Lindbergh baby, it’s suggested, for some reason, that he wants to solve the case primarily to please his mother.
This all remains subtext until Ms. Hoover dies, after which the Norman Bates subtext blares blatantly as Edgar tries on his mother’s pearls and dress shortly after her death. Truth be told, the scene is simultaneously fascinating and ridiculous; one feels that perhaps Clint Eastwood was not the director to handle these more delicate shades of Hoover’s life. The transvestism never comes up again, so the audience is left to wonder what, exactly, is going through Edgar’s mind. Nothing else in the movie suggests an interest in cross-dressing; even in his interactions with Clyde, he comes across as the less-effeminate of the two.
Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy, played by Naomi Watts, is the second key figure. Edgar proposes to her in awkward encounter after only three dates; she declares that she’s putting her career first and has no desire to marry. And she never does. (The film doesn’t wonder whether or not she and Edgar have similar reasons for not wanting to get hitched, but I do.) Instead, Ms. Gandy remains steadfastly loyal to Edgar throughout his life, and in the end, is probably the person who knew him best. Her final scenes, upon learning of Edgar’s death, are quietly riveting.
But paramount in this story is Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s lifelong “friend,” who may or may not have been his lover to boot. In J. Edgar, at least, it is suggested that both had feelings for the other, but it was never consummated (mostly thanks to Edgar), despite sharing adjoining rooms on vacation together. The film slowly builds the chemistry and sexual tension between them in scenes nicely played by both DiCaprio and Armie Hammer, who was similarly impressive as both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. It should come as no surprise that the romance between a man in power and a much less powerful (but prettier) guy is what works best in J. Edgar, given that it comes from the writer of Milk; the scenes between Sean Penn and James Franco were the highlight of that movie, too. DiCaprio and Hammer manage to make these smolder: forbidden love in the FBI. Black and Eastwood also do a nice job of not letting this relationship swallow the whole movie; there is one tense, dramatic fight between Clyde and Edgar that tells us everything we need to know about their dynamic, and the movie lets the rest of their relationship fly under the radar.
But overall, this is an overlong film that works in fits and starts; at some points, coming together with subtlety and grace, and the next, hitting us over the head with on-the-nose dialogue and an overdose of sentimentality. As in many of Eastwood’s films, the director has a tin ear when it comes to schmaltz — as well as his own piano score, ill-conceived here as it is in all his films. (For the love of God, Clint, just hire a composer!) J. Edgar would have been better served with more judicious editing to chop out some of the cornier moments, such as DiCaprio whispering “I love you, Clyde” under his breath after Tolson storms out on him, or the mawkish scenes played by Judi Dench’s deathbed. As in the less-successful portions of Milk, Black underscores the emotional undercurrent of such scenes with a thick black marker, not trusting the audience to pick up on what the actors have already done so well. It would appear that perhaps Black and Eastwood bring out the worst in each other.
And as in Milk, J. Edgar suffers from a tired structure, using the titular hero to narrate everything to us, once again stating the obvious far too often. Do we need all this voice over? (Some of it, maybe. Most of it? No.) Really, this seems an excuse to get Edgar in a room with a smattering of attractive young agents, resulting in a leaden performance from Gossip Girl‘s Ed Westwick, amongst others. But these scenes aren’t very interesting on their own, the way Harvey Milk speaking into a tape recorder felt too obviously like a way for him to conveniently explain everything to us (even if it was true). Historical events like the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping are curiously uninvolving, though the film spends a great deal of time on them — in part, because they are being narrated to us from the future, rather than just playing out. Edgar tells us something in voice over, then we see it happen, making the scenes themselves redundant.
This also means we need to see a lot more of Edgar as an old man than we might otherwise; too bad, since the movie’s makeup has been decried for looking too fake, and that’s true at times. It is jarring to see attractive people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, and Armie Hammer covered in wrinkles and liver spots for nearly half the movie; it’s distracting, through no fault of the actors.Will J. Edgar fare well at the Oscars? It’s hard to say. The picture got mixed reviews, as well it should have. I’d venture that DiCaprio’s performance is one of his best, but it doesn’t help that it’s buried under all that makeup. Black’s script is a likely candidate for a nomination, thanks to his win for Milk, but nearly everyone agrees that this one isn’t quite as successful. There are many as uncomfortably bad moments here as there are truly stellar ones. Most of the movie falls in between.
J. Edgar is at its best when studying the complexity of Edgar’s feelings about women and his “best friend,” along with his obsession with his work (clearly, the latter compensates for the former). Unfortunately it dilly-dallies in too many different eras, throwing us bones from the usual biopic checklist (look, it’s Shirley Temple! Bobby Kennedy! Ginger Rogers! Richard Nixon!), then hinting at a deeper story than the one we’re getting (let’s go back to those transvestite tendencies for a minute).
Oh, and then there’s that ending. Black goes for what we’ll call the “Atonement effect” — at the end of the film, we’re led to believe that what we just saw was Hoover’s version of how things played out, rather than the actual version. But there is an inherent flaw in that — because if this really were the movie Edgar wanted us to see, there would be none of that complex relationship with Clyde, nor would we see Edgar put on his mother’s pearls and sob. It’s an unfortunate finale that sours what came before. J. Edgar is, for the most part, a well-acted and engrossing picture, but so much of it leaves us feeling like there’s a more compelling study of this character to be found in an even better movie.