National Library of New Zealand
Harvested by the National Library of New Zealand on: Nov 12 2016 at 15:17:05 GMT
Search boxes and external links may not function. Having trouble viewing this page? Click here
Close Minimize Help
Wayback Machine
GayNZ Logo & Link
Sunday 13 November 2016

Movie review: J Edgar... a gay love story

Posted in: Movies
By Jay Bennie - 10th February 2012

J Edgar
Dir: Clint Eastwood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer & Judy Dench

Settling in to watch J Edgar a number of compelling questions resist being pushed to the back of the mind.

How far will the moviemakers go into the behind closed doors 'secrets' that Hoover valiantly hid from public view? Will Hoover be presented as ogre or human?
Why on earth cast pretty boy Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role as Hoover? What will director Clint Eastwood make of it all? And will it be worth the $16.20 price of a seat.

The 'secrets' of course really means just one secret, that the powerful and increasingly tyranical first director of the USA's FBI was in all probability gay.

It's a revelation that went mainstream in a series of biographies from the early 1990s onwards. Sensational claims based on some astute peering through the very few cracks in Hoover's public facade and fleshed out mostly by informed implication. But given the life-long closeness Hoover had with his FBI deputy Clyde Tolson and that they were inseparable in their private lives as well as in the workplace - to the point that Tolson was nicknamed 'Mother Tolson' by FBI staff behind the pair's backs - it increasingly seems Hoover's homosexuality is a given.

Eastwood and the makers of this movie throw aside all coyness and go for it. Homosexuality is at the core of J Edgar from start to finish. How far do they go? Well, they stop outside the bedroom door. But from the moment Tolson, beautifully portrayed by Armie Hammer, matter of factly adjusts a curtain and passes a handkerchief to Hoover during his job interview, to the emotional climax of the movie, Eastwood and his team get it just right. The
interplay and balance between the uptight and conservative Hoover and the more moral and emotional Tolson is delicately balanced and feels just right. This is definitely the way it could have been for the pair.

Slowly we come to understand how and why, apart from the repressive social climate of the era, Hoover might have repressed his sexuality and thus ultimately his humanity. Clue: his mother, played by Judi Dench - few other actresses could have fleshed out the little known about Hoover's mother into such a strangely compelling persona, is a huge influence. I'll leave it to Sigmund Freud and the movie to illuminate that creepiness.

The tricks and personality distortions Hoover might have adopted to fit into straight-laced macho America of the '30s through to the '60s, when he was programmed from conception to be a 'misfit', become clear and quite credible. Because so much of the accompanying biographical and historical content of J Edgar is based on well documented facts it is easy to forget that the core of this movie is conjecture. But it's responsible conjecture and everything feels quite credible.

As for those other questions, why DiCaprio as the pug-faced, nitpicking and humourless Hoover? Because he's box office and because he pulls it off rather well. Ogre or hero? Both, in equal measure. And a cowardly, bullying tyrant to boot. But this portrayal is softened as the movie progresses by the moviemakers' injection of a little humanity. Not much but enough.

How does Eastwood blend the panoramic sweep of early 20th century American history and social change with the public face and private passion of Hoover? This is where I am uncomfortable. The movie leaps back and forth from era to era. Sometimes we're in Hoover's early twenties, then his 70s, then his 50s then 70s again then 30-ish and so forth.

It's hard to get a clear sense of progression. The script gives few clues, the furniture, fittings and fashions of the USA's conservative high-level bureaucrats and their well-placed associates don't change all that much to our contemporary eyes. So the only clues to quickly grasp where we are in his life at various points in the movie are the ages portrayed on the actors' faces. The saving grace of Eastwood's risky structure are the stunning make-up and masterly portrayals of the characters' varying ages. From mid-20s to sometimes death they are remarkable. But by forcing us to peer at the faces of the leads to ascertain their supposed ages it's too easy to be transfixed by the artifice at the expense of the story.

One other tiny quibble, although a number of the noteable political and show business figures of his day are represented it is not always clear who they are. I all but missed recognising Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and others in their fleeting portrayals.

Worth the $16.20 admission? For me it was, until near the movie's climax when some bastard three empty seats along from me slipped out his cellphone with its lighthouse-bright screen and started replying to a txt or email or something. J Edgar has had only a short time at the multiplexes and unfortunately already seems to be fast disappearing into the purgatory of daytime screenings but it's worth viewing (and cellphone-free DVD release can't be far away).

This is, surprisingly, a tender and believable love story about an aggressively gruff, bastard of a man and his forbearing, attentive partner that may quietly break your heart.

Jay Bennie - 10th February 2012

   Bookmark and Share