'J. Edgar' is Best When It's Going Gay

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Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar Hoover biopic J. Edgar premiered last night in Los Angeles, which means the early reviews are in. How did the film's star, Leonardo DiCaprio, fare in his best chance for an Oscar since The Aviator? Well he apparently did well enough, but the rest of the movie not as much.

First up, Todd McCarthy, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, liked the gay (or gay-ish) stuff...

The truth about the domestic relationship is probably forever unknowable, but the way the homoerotic undertones and impulses are handled is one of the best things about the film; the emotional dynamics, given all the social and political factors at play, feel entirely credible, and the DiCaprio and [Armie] Hammer excel during the exchanges of innuendo, covert desire, recriminations and mutual understanding.

...but he didn't much care for "the script's tendency to tell rather than show."

Peter DeBruge at Variety also thinks the gay innuendo livens up what is otherwise "a mostly dry portrayal," but he does have praise to bestow upon DiCaprio, all while criticizing the film:

The opening reel establishes both the scope of the story, which ranges from Hoover's 20s to his final days overseeing the FBI at age 77, and DiCaprio's remarkable ability to play the character at any point along that timeline. Aided by a convincing combination of facial appliances, makeup and wigs, the thesp draws auds past that gimmick and into the character within a matter of a few scenes. There's an innate kindliness to DiCaprio that makes for a more likable protagonist than Hoover as the tempestuous monster so many biographers describe, which is good news for the film's commercial prospects but seemingly at odds with reality.

Kristopher Tapley agrees on HitFix that DiCaprio is "exceptional," but takes issue with Dustin Lance Black's script and Eastwood's politics:

The film itself, though, wasn't as impressive. The problems mostly stem from a somewhat lazy, arbitrarily structured "greatest hits" screenplay from Dustin Lance Black. It's clunky and labored, but it's really only part of the problem.

I appreciated that Eastwood and Black were attempting a balanced portrait, but there were moments that stuck out, usually directorially, as nearly propagandistic, little things that would just take me out of the film from time to time. And they probably would have done so even if I wasn't aware of Eastwood's conservative politics.

Lastly, David Poland of Movie City News offers a slightly contrary view of the film. Namely that the gay business wasn't handled well enough:

Really, what could be a more fascinating thing that an incredibly powerful man who all but lives with another man for 20+ years, but can never allow himself to believe he is gay or act on his sexual urges? But there are scenes missing if they really wanted to explore that. It’s there. The audience can project or extrapolate all day long. But it’s not in the movie. So when we get the 3 scenes of major sexual panic, they aren’t sad. They’re funny.

And honestly, I can’t say that the movie is clear on whether his closeted life drive his professional actions or not. If they didn’t, it’s too big a part of the film. And if they did, it’s too small a part of the film.

Oof, "funny" is not a word you want to read in a review of this particular movie.  But there you have it! It's not surprising that a director like Eastwood would shy away from gay speculation and couch it in preserving historical ambiguity. What is somewhat surprising, though, is that Dustin Lance Black, a vocal gay rights advocate, didn't insist that his script come to some sort of conclusion on the matter. Even if that conclusion was simply "It's a mystery." Instead, it sounds as though the ambiguity is more in the filmmaking than in the story.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.