Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rants on J. Edgar

It's an odd sensation, walking out of a Clint Eastwood film thinking, "God, that was a queer film." But I suppose anything is possible after the strange, constantly evolving career he has had. A film about J. Edgar Hoover (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio), the notorious director of the FBI who fought for decades cleaning up crime while wielding considerable influence to "keep tabs" anyone he considered a potential enemy of America, sounds right up Eastwood's alley, particularly with his recent trend of historical-minded film such as Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and Invictus. But when you throw screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning writer of Van Sant's Milk, into the mix, things are bound to be shaken up. And boy are they ever, as J. Edgar, through its attempt to synthesize Eastwood's style with Black's queer theorizing, becomes something far more than its lousy trailer or a brief description of the film suggests.

Most of Eastwood's usual stylistic tics--muted color palette, heavy shadows, plinky piano score--appear in J. Edgar, but they take on a whole different meaning than they would in any other recent Eastwood picture. Black's screenplay covers a lot of issues and themes, but the one he is primarily focused on is the relationship between Hoover and his "number two man" Clyde Tolson (the dreamy Armie Hammer). The two were notoriously close, but it was only after their deaths that rumors started to swirl that they were lovers. No one knows the exact nature of their relationship, so Black is only able to speculate within J. Edgar, depicting Hoover and Tolson as would-be lovers whose sexuality is so repressed Ennis and Jack from Brokeback Mountain would find them odd. Eastwood's visual flourishes enforce this theme, shrouding Hoover and Tolson in shadows and darkness. Their environment is so dark and suffocating they can't express their true feelings for each other. Even in their final moments, when Clyde is led upstairs by Edgar's maid to see his dead body, Clyde grieving for the love of his life is shoved in the corner of the frame, hidden completely by a dressing screen.

Besides the sexuality of Hoover, J. Edgar also discusses the mythologizing of his legacy as the head of the FBI. Throughout the film, we are privy to scenes where Edgar recounts his life story to a slew of young writers compiling a history of the bureau. This is clearly where Eastwood and DiCaprio are the most comfortable exploring, and it's probably not a coincidence that this is what I was the least fascinated by in the film. Eastwood enjoys unraveling long-held myths, as Unforgiven proved so magnificently, but here it doesn't always work as well. Or maybe it works too well since Eastwood and Black seem positively riveted by Hoover as this monolithic figure, standing up for the America he believes it should be. They drink his Kool-Aid, so to speak, and barring one scene, they don't even begin to question his contradictions. This only makes his comeuppance at the very end that much more swift and tonally unexpected. DiCaprio certainly doesn't help in this regard, as he appears to be more interested in portraying the prestige of Hoover rather than any remotely human aspect of him. We can understand why someone in Edgar's position feels the need to make himself into a legend, but through DiCaprio, we don't understand why Edgar himself does it. Only when DiCaprio verges into the queerness of Black's script, such as the brief moment at a nightclub where he stammers in embarrassment when he is asked to dance by a woman, do we even start to see a real human instead of a ideological mouthpiece.

J. Edgar works best when it explores the queerness of Hoover's life. The way Black explores this reminded me, oddly enough, of Tom Kalin's Swoon. Not artistically or in the execution, mind you, but in the way Black twists rumors with facts to create a could-be version of what really happened. The two people who understand what Black is attempting better than anyone else are Hammer and Dame Judi Dench as Edgar's mother. Hammer plays Tolson like an unmistakable queen, the type of character you would read as gay in a 1950s film even if no one comes out and says it. From the way he gasps "No" when Edgar divulges a secret about Eleanor Roosevelt's personal life to the scene where he helps Edgar pick out a brand new suit and tie, Hammer certainly stands out amid the blandness of his surroundings. But it's an interesting way to play the character, especially one who is so completely repressed with his emotions as Clyde is. In a way, his queerness becomes an embarrassment to the straight-laced Edgar--it's not surprising that in an early scene depicting Edgar's later life we only see Clyde as a shadow hidden behind the door of Edgar's office, almost haunting him like a Ghost of Christmas Past.

Dench's entrance in J. Edgar provides one of the best and truest meetings between Eastwood's visual language and Black's themes. As Edgar enters his home, calling for his mother, we see Dench slowly emerge out of a shadow, in all of her Baby Jane glory, as Eastwood's plinking on the piano melodramatically underscores the danger that lies ahead for Edgar. It's a moment straight out of a Grand Dame Guignol film, which Dench brilliantly understands how to play without veering too far on the side of camp. Later on, when Dench's character is telling her son a story about a young homosexual who was tormented and then killed himself after his secret was discovered, she highlights the frightening coldness of the woman, even toward the son she has smothered with love for the last 90 or so minutes. She only has a few scenes, yet Dench brilliantly captures this woman's heart of darkness masked by motherly warmth.

J. Edgar is not a perfect film: the synthesizing of Eastwood, Black and the actors doesn't come together a good portion of the time and parts of the film are stuck in Biopic Cliché Hell. But this film has something to say, or at least presents certain viewpoints in ways that are fresh and intriguing. This isn't Clint in top form, but it sure as hell beats listening to Angelina Jolie scream, "I WANT MY SON!" for two and a half hours. B-

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