Friday, November 11, 2011

The Devil Likes to Cross-Dress: “J. Edgar”

Every so often, I watch a film not because it has a strong narrative, or outstanding production values, or the kind of visual power that holds one glued to one’s seat. In fact, sometimes the film in question has several glaring flaws but is made compelling through the sheer force and will of its lead actor’s central performance. Prime examples of not-so-great films boasting exceptional lead performances that rise above their material include James Woods in Salvador, Tilda Swinton in Julia, and now Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood’s latest prestige project, J. Edgar.

The film charts the course of J. Edgar Hoover’s long and controversial career at the FBI, from humble beginnings, and ends with his lasting legacy in the form of a strong government agency and the eternal condemnation of those he has destroyed to get there. J. Edgar charts American law and order in his half-century of influence, from the early Communist scare in the form of political radical Emma Goldman, and ending with the outset of the Watergate scandal. His life is influenced by three key figures in his life: his mother (Dame Judi Dench), his lifelong personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his right-hand man and rumoured lover, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer of The Social Network). We see the agency grow along with his power, and come to view his life’s work as a reflection of his own indomitable, unyielding personality. Directed by Eastwood with his usual deliberate pace and written by Milk’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the film adheres to Eastwood aesthetic and narrative speed so faithfully that the viewer doesn’t notice that a half-century has passed by, condensed into 137 minutes.

Clyde Tolson (Hammer) and J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio)
Here’s where the film can lose its audience. Eastwood’s unhurried style has worked well with intimate dramas such as Million Dollar Baby, Changeling and Letters from Iwo Jima (still, in my opinion, his magnum opus), but by following Hoover around for two and a quarter hours, with intensity and all of the attendant quirks of an unbalanced, repressed man, the effect is of finding oneself trapped in a corner of a house party with a guest who doesn’t understand that just because he’s talking at you, that doesn’t mean that you’re actually paying attention to anything he says. Thankfully, DiCaprio is absolutely compelling to watch as he ages along with the character and starts to look, in heavy makeup, like a strong cross between Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles towards the end of his life. Tom Cruise might have cornered the market on playing intensity, but DiCaprio seems to have taken over that specialty these days. Thankfully, he infuses Hoover with an indomitable steel will that allows him to suppress any true romantic feelings towards anyone (man or woman) to the point that it manifests in thinly veiled contempt for humanity and increasing paranoia. DiCaprio, sporting a 1920s Brahmin accent that becomes increasingly out of place as the twentieth century progresses, continues to demonstrate why he’s fast becoming one of our greatest actors. Otherwise, I’d have left the room long ago.

The film’s art direction and aesthetics arguably enhance and detract from the proceedings. This is a film taking place in endless series of corridors, long hallways and grim government offices, with little to no natural light seeping through the obfuscated windows. The effect is that Hoover was a man so egotistical, that he was so obsessed with legacy, that his entire life has been a big setup for his own death. In that case, to service and burnish his public image into immortality, it appears that he has busily commenced embalming himself early by deadening all of his natural proclivities and making his surroundings into a sarcophagus. It’s rather coincidental and unfortunate, then, that the film proceeds at a pace that would make a funeral march lively in comparison.

Mommy, dearest: J. Edgar and mother (Dench)
And oh, what curious proclivities Hoover had! Remarked upon by many in the film as impervious to the charms of the fairer sex, young Hoover hires a recent law school graduate – the well-bred, strapping, handsome, charming and ambitious Clyde Tolson – and makes him his second-in-command for life. In a time when no one was telling queer youth that “It Gets Better” and even Rock Hudson had a sham marriage, Hoover and Tolson were involved in what people of that age referred to as a “Boston marriage”, and simply let them be. Hammer plays Tolson as a man clearly in love with Hoover, loyal at best and obedient at worst, and one who consents to following Edgar around for the rest of his life. When Clyde agrees to work for Edgar, he has only one condition: that regardless of whether they were having a bad day or were at odds with each other at work, they never miss a lunch or dinner together for the rest of their lives. (Cut to sneak preview audience giggling at the preposterousness of the conversation and causing me to utter a knowing “uh-huh” to my friend next to me.) What’s not clear is why, exactly, Clyde would choose to stay with Edgar despite the fact that he never returns his affections. It’s reminiscent of a joke the late humourist Erma Bombeck used to tell: that she didn’t want to kiss the Blarney Stone when she went to Ireland “because it wouldn’t kiss me back”. It’s to Hammer’s and DiCaprio’s credit that they make the relationship believable as the characters age, to demonstrate that what binds them is not romance, but shared history and familiarity. I suppose it’s an indirect parallel between same-sex and opposite-sex marriage and a sad truth when, after a few years, it’s true that married people simply stop having sex.

Watts, as Helen Gandy
The women in Edgar’s lives figure predominantly as well. His mother is a domineering figure played by, appropriately, Dame Judi Dench, whose very presence elevates the proceedings. She makes her disdain for men with effeminate qualities clear in a pointed conversation with Edgar, and unambiguously states that she’d rather have a dead son than a gay one. I wonder if Hitchcock would recognize this mother figure. The other key figure is one who isn’t influential, but whose presence is indispensible. That would be Miss Helen Gandy, very subtly played by an unrecognizable Naomi Watts. Gandy was one of Edgar’s early dates, but who instead stuck around to become his lifelong assistant. Clyde might Edgar’s emotional support, but Helen is the one to fear: she not only knows where all the bodies are buried, but she knows where to hide the shovels. Watts isn’t given any showy speeches or big scenes here, but her support deflects some of the durm und strang of the proceedings when needed. (Even the one reference to his alleged cross-dressing is handled with grimness and a lot of hand-wringing that no self-respecting drag queen would ever do offstage.)

J. Edgar, ultimately, sinks under the weight of the assembled talent’s enormous pedigree, without a sense of humour to break up the grimness. Black’s script doesn’t have the same verve and political urgency of Milk, and Eastwood’s crafted a well-made picture that is the equivalent of an armoire from Pottery Barn: it’s handsome to look at, but it’s heavy and burdensome, even with the right centerpiece within it.

J. Edgar opens in North American theatres today.