Do you hear that sound, like ice cracking in Antarctica? That’s the impact of Oscar hopes — for Warner Brothers, for Clint Eastwood, for Leonardo DiCaprio — being dashed on the shore of reality. Oscar insiders across the country have returned to their abacuses to rejigger the odds in the top five, as J. Edgar fails, albeit nobly, on the big screen at 137 minutes of wrong-choices and self-aggrandizement.
The opening scene, with Leo as ancient FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972) inspires snickers. I apologize to the man in the screening room who shushed me; I couldn’t help myself. The make-up is just that bad. Here’s a part that Jack Nicholson could play — or Eddie Murphy in the latex to transform him into an old white man from Coming to America. If that had been the movie’s only problem — is there a Razzie for worst make-up? — then the snickers in the theater would have quieted, and the snores that soon erupted from my neighbor’s gaping mouth would never have occurred.
The central flaw to this big budget “behind the music” style biopic is Milk Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black’s script. It tells every thing and nothing about the man. With an abundance of voiceover, it narrates the story, shows the story, explains the story as if it were a Weekly Reader expose.
Yes, it addresses Hoover’s homosexual tendencies, his rumored cross-dressing, but those scenes arrive late and are few and far between, and overwrought. Let the guy have a kiss, an urge, a spot of warmth — but, no, he’s given an overbearing mother (a frightfully underused Dame Judi Dench) who insists her son learn how to dance with girls. She promises exile if her Edgar ever becomes a “daffy,” her euphemism for effeminate boys from the pejorative “daffodil.” Hoover’s man-kiss with long-time companion Clyde Tolson (played as a dandy gay Winklevoss by Armie Hammer) unfolds almost like a parody of Women in Love, two men start with a fist-fight in pajamas and end….
This is not territory with which Director Eastwood is particularly comfortable. He’s a favorite of mine, so I hate to come down on him; let’s call it a case of smart men, stupid choices. It’s not that Eastwood’s judgmental, it’s just that the intimate scenes are staged in a rush, with operatic payoffs. Then he’s off to capture all the many, many scenes in Black’s episodic script. Black mistakes time-shifts for narrative motion as he hits the speed bumps of history — JFK cheating, Eleanor Roosevelt kissing a girl, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and on and on.
Certainly, it seems like the central issue is that here was a meaty subject, Leo wanted to play him, and Eastwood wanted to tell the story and work with Leo. It may have been — and I”m speculating — that they set the time out in their busy schedules and assumed that Oscar-winner Black’s script would be good to go. It isn’t. And it wasn’t. It needed a polish, a secret revision by the talented likes of a Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, The Painted Veil), credited or not.
The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover remains virtually untold in J. Edgar. It would have been better served by a smaller scale film like Bennett Miller’s Capote from a script by Dan Futterman, which revealed a man through intense selectivity of focus. And, so, I bid adieu to Leo, Clint, J. Edgar, Hammer and Black — this is not your year to triumph on the red carpet. And raise the question: if J. Edgar is no longer in the field, who benefits in the Oscar race?