In a memorable scene from J Edgar, Clint Eastwood's new biopic of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's first director, the young J. Edgar Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is entertaining actress Ginger Rogers at the Stork Club and gets invited to dance with the Hollywood hoofer. Immediately Hoover declines, gets nervous, says that he does not know how to dance and perspiring he excuses himself from the premises taking along with him his assistant Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer). Later that night at his home, which he shares with his mother, Mrs. Hoover (Judi Dench) wonders what people will think of her son if he refuses to dance with women and is constantly seen with his male assistant. She tells him that she'd rather have a dead son than a "daffodil." That night, J. Edgar Hoover gets his first dancing lessons, with his mom leading.
In 1995, three years before the titanic turn that turned him into "Leo," DiCaprio showed that he could portray sexually ambivalent characters convincingly. In Total Eclipse, he played the young French poet Arthur Rimbaud, a performance soaked in absinthe and featuring a torrid and graphic lust affair with older poet Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). It was the first and last time that we would see DiCaprio having sex with a man on screen. After Titanic the very thought of it seemed ludicrous. Now, In J. Edgar, DiCaprio once again plays a character awash with feelings for a man, but whereas his Rimbaud was a sexual animal on the prowl, the extent to which his Hoover shows affection does not go beyond a momentary touch of Clyde Tolson's hand. As played by Mr. Hammer, Tolson is just as sexually inept as his boss, and this leads to quite a memorable scene in a hotel room.
Aside from spying upon J. Edgar Hoover's sexual peccadilloes, the film largely focuses on delineating the beginnings and growth of the FBI, while portraying Hoover as a monster who seeks the limelight at any cost and who keeps secret files on everyone. Clint Eastwood relishes the chance to do early 20th century period once again as in his Changeling back in 2008. The color palette provided by cinematographer Tom Stern (who also shot Changeling) captures well the 1930s as well as the 1970s, the two decades which the movie explores.
Any film that covers half a century for its character is going to need old age makeup, and as usual, this is where today's films always falter. The glory days of Citizen Kane, where with simple theatrical makeup Orson Welles was able to transform himself into an old man, have disappeared. The credits to this film lists twenty makeup artists, and the results are mediocre. The film features liberal use of prosthetics in well-lit scenes: never a good combination. For example, one daylight exterior scene at the racetrack reduces Armie Hammer's face to that of an immobile waxen dummy. Somehow, DiCaprio pushes his performance through the latex and in the struggle with makeup he manages to survive. Naomi Watts, who plays Helen Gandi, Hoover's longtime secretary, ends up looking creepy.
If you can get through the makeup I am sure that you will enjoy J. Edgar. It is the kind of well-made, well-paced film that Hollywood tends to favor around Oscar time. Already, the buzz is on for DiCaprio. This is the closest he has come in his career to making us forget that he is Leo and making us believe that he is the character. Maybe it's the make-up, after all, adding gravitas to his performance. Perhaps this year the Academy will honor his efforts.