Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Dermot Mulroney, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Lucas, Naomi Watts, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, and Judi Dench
Dustin Lance Black
Warner Brothers Pictures
The whole gay thing started in my early teens courtesy of a curious neighbor who spotted me in the midst of some sort of "inappropriate tryst" with an older neighbor boy on his apartment patio. This neighbor felt compelled to call my religiously conservative mother who, in turn, called the leaders of even more conservative church.
The truth is that on this particular occasion I was in the midst of being taken from behind while tied to the fence while my perpetrator, an older neighborhood boy with a penchant for younger neighborhood boys, held a lighter against my thighs that he would laughingly flick on anytime I would resist. It was one of quite a few childhood experiences that left me with exceedingly awkward social skills and a rather skewed sense of self.
It did not, however, "turn me gay" despite the proclamations from the aforementioned church that kicked me out of ministry school after reaching such a conclusion. It certainly did negatively impact my social skills, relationship building skills and relationship with my own body.
The whole gay thing kicked into high gear again as I entered college, majored in theater (Gasp!) and became close friends with Victor who was, in fact, gay (Again, Gasp!). It was around the age of 20 that my father first accused me of "being gay," mostly because of my extraordinarily close friendship with Victor and the amount of time we spent together. It was that same year that my father first used me of smoking marijuana, an experience that I only enjoyed after finally tiring of his repeated accusations.
For the record, I did inhale.
I'm now over 40-years-old with a tragically failed marriage to my credit along with two short-lived engagements, though I've remained single and seldom dated since the age of 30. Victor and I are still close friends, though we don't spend nearly as much time together. There are times my parents still hint at the whole gay thing, though much like my childhood sexual abuse it's a topic we generally avoid.
Had director Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black, who penned the Oscar-winning Milk, chosen to be as up front and hardcore about the truth of J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar as I have been in the first few paragraphs of this review of the biopic, then it's entirely likely that the film would have ended up being one of 2011's cinematic highlights. Instead, however, Eastwood and Black weave together an almost reverent biopic about the man who practically defined the concept of "Big Brother" during his nearly 50 years heading up the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Hoover even added the word "Federal" to the organization's name in 1935).
One of the key ways that Eastwood and Black wimp out with J. Edgar is in refusing to to truly delve deeper into the mysteries, controversies and known dark sides of J. Edgar Hoover. For most of the younger generation of folks who are aware of J. Edgar Hoover, it's his caricature that has become his calling card. Hoover has become known as the man who potentially loved to wear dresses (an unsubstantiated allegation), while also being a man long rumored to be gay (also an unsubstantiated allegation). While it was certainly not necessary for Eastwood to take sides on either of these issues, it's lacking in authenticity for the film to not genuinely explore these issues in a way that is faithful to the complex nature of Hoover's story.
Eastwood and Black do respectfully dance around the subjects in a way that seems to imply, maybe even strongly imply, that Hoover was a repressed but celibate gay whose militant anti-homosexual sentiment may very well have masked his own militant self-judgment that was also fueled by a mother (played incredibly well by Judi Dench) who referred to such men as "dandelions" and who long made it well known she'd rather have a dead child than a gay one. Hoover lived with his mother his entire life until her death and, almost as long, maintained a sort of companionship relationship with the handsome Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who also inherited the majority of Hoover's estate upon his death. While J. Edgar brings up these subjects, it never really goes anywhere of substance with them.
The fact that Leonardo DiCaprio will receive an Oscar nomination for his performance here is practically a foregone conclusion and, truthfully, despite the film's substantial weaknesses a nomination is easily warranted as DiCaprio stretches himself considerably here and plays Hoover throughout his entire adult life. DiCaprio's performance is an understated yet masterful performance emphasizing discipline and nuance over emotional force and power (though, on a side note, if any award recognition comes for the film's make-up I will be completely appalled).
Armie Hammer also convinces as Tolson, a deputy director of the FBI and Hoover's longtime companion. The quality of Hammer's performance really can't be overstated, perfectly nuanced with that of DiCaprio while also managing to add an extra dimension to that DiCaprio's. It's not so much that Hammer humanizes nor makes him particularly sympathetic as he simply fleshes out Hoover and adds layers of complexity through his own surprisingly touching intimacy with him.
Naomi Watts is fine as Helen Gandy, Hoover's practically lifelong secretary who maintained his confidence and his legendary secret files until his death in 1972. Watts isn't really given a whole lot to do here, but you can always tell the gifted actresses because they manage to find substantive ways to add depth to even the most primitively drawn characters as Watts does here.
This wouldn't be a Hoover biopic without a historical survey of the many big names and big incidents that were defined by Hoover's involvement ranging from his anti-communist efforts in the late 20's and early 30's to Dillinger to the Lindbergh kidnapping and all the way through to the Kennedy's, MLK and much, much more. Eastwood mostly casts these mostly secondary parts quite nicely, though Black doesn't always script them fully enough to allow them to move beyond pop culture caricatures. Those who are particularly effective are Josh Lucas as Charles Lindbergh, Christopher Shyer as good ole' Richard Nixon and Emily Alyn Lind as Shirley Temple.
The film is shot with the same sort of desaturated decolorization as was Eastwood's Changeling, with D.P. Tom Stern's camera work capturing the film's multiple decades quite seamlessly. The same is true for the film's production design and virtually every other technical detail with the exception of the film's make-up design, which either wasn't blended well in the editing process or simply is a weakness in an otherwise well constructed film.
J. Edgar isn't quite the masterpiece that one would hope given the wealth of material from which to work and layers upon layers of Hoover's persona through which to explore. While it's not a masterpiece, J. Edgar is a well done biopic featuring a couple of fine performances from DiCaprio and Hammer that are likely to be mentioned quite often throughout awards season.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic