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Sunday, November 20, 2011

J. Edgar

Saw Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort, J. Edgar, last night. Not bad, but not great either.

The movie came across more as documentary than as drama. Eastwood tried to hit all the highlights (and lowlights) of the FBI director's career. The movie briefly touches on Hoover's role in centralizing a fingerprint database, on his role in apprehending the most famous criminals of his era, and on his relationships with various Presidents, without delving too deeply into any of them. 

The movie tries too hard to be even-handed about the question of Hoover's sexuality, in the end leaving it unresolved. Clyde Tolson, Hoover's longtime companion, is portrayed as unquestionably homosexual. But Hoover is portrayed as someone who on the one hand proposes marriage early on to a woman, and who claims to have gotten "physical" with actress Dorothy Lamour, yet on the other as a man who dressed up in his mother's clothes on the occasion of her death and constantly dined with and vacationed with his companion Tolson, to whom he eventually left his entire estate. Eastwood's refusal to extrapolate from the documented facts of Hoover's life comes across less as scrupulousness than as an abdication of a moviemaker's responsibility to take a stance. C'mon, Clint: was he or wasn't he?

The third possibility is that both Hoover and Tolson were simply repressed homosexuals who had a homoerotic relationship but who never consummated their relationship that way. If that was the case, then the movie was an accurate portrayal. But the young Tolson was portrayed as a tall, good-looking, well-dressed, self-confident young man. The idea that such a man would be satisfied for his entire life with this one never-consummated relationship just doesn't ring true.

DiCaprio did a workmanlike job in evoking Hoover. DiCaprio may be a great actor, but playing a stiff like Hoover takes less chops than other roles.

Armie Hammer, great grandson of billionaire Bolshevik Armand Hammer, demonstrated his familial loyalty by playing Clyde Tolson, Hoover's longtime companion. (What better way to strike back at the ferociously anti-Communist, wannabe he-man Hoover than to play his closest friend as a flamer? Armand would have been pleased.)

Judi Dench plays J. Edgar's mother, who tells him at one point that she would rather have a dead son than one who was a daffodil (read: gay). Her forbidding performance is not too far in spirit from the one she gives as M, James Bond's boss.

Naomi Watts, one of the few actresses who has managed to be both siren and serious actress, plays Helen Gandy, Hoover's longtime secretary. Watts gamely lets herself be gradually aged for her role. Her performance is so good -- and unobtrusive -- it never occurs to you you're looking at the same woman King Kong fell so hard for.

Jeffrey Donovan, star of television's Burn Notice, takes a turn as Robert F. Kennedy. He seems to have been cast more on the basis of buck teeth than acting ability. His Boston accent is too broad, and even his bushy wig lacks subtlety.

Steve Sailer's review of the movie mentions that J. Edgar may have been a mulatto, from a family which passed. (Look closely at the picture above.) If that was the case, then Hoover, as both a gay man pretending to be straight and a black man pretending to be white, was certainly well suited for his job of catching criminals who essentially led secret lives.

Surprisingly, given all its other faults, the movie was actually sort of touching as a love story. Any long relationship where there is still visible affection at the end is moving, and the odds against such a relationship make it even more so.

Eastwood is arguably our second best film director, after Martin Scorcese. He's brought us Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Father, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino, and Hereafter, among others. But this latest effort will not further his case for overtaking Scorcese.


Anonymous said...

What did you think of A Perfect World? I liked it but I think it didn't get much notice at the time.

John Craig said...

I liked it a lot, which is why I listed it along with those other seven though it did pretty much sink without a trace. It's on TV every now and then, I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

Anonymous said...

You could have been a movie reviewer! This is a movie that I'll try and find, watching it. I've known two women who worked for the FBI (employed as secretaries) during the time when J. Edgar Hoover was in charge. They both described him as having a somewhat unpleasant personality.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Thank you. As I said at the beginning of the post, the movie wasn't bad, but it wasn't great, either. But if you have a more personal reason to see it based on your acquaintance with two women who actually knew him, then go for it.