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J. Edgar - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
J. Edgar
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Makeup: B

Can I be the only person who viewed J. Edgar as a gay love story? I've read a few other reviews, and although pretty much all of them make mention of Hoover's clear devotion to longtime colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), none make clear how central it is the story as director Clint Eastwood -- of all people -- presents it.

Now, to be fair, J. Edgar Hoover's latent homosexuality is not given more weight than other, equally important aspects of the man's personality: namely, his paranoia regarding Communism, and of course his shaping of the Bureau of Investigation (first started without "Federal" in the title). There's also the amount of his life spent living with his mother (Judi Dench), who, heartbreakingly, at one point says to him, "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil."

Maybe it's just because I myself am gay. A line like that will tend to stick with a person like me. But there's no denying the objective fact that when the emotional center of J. Edgar -- such as it is -- reaches its climax, it's a riveting scene between Edgar and Clyde. They go on vacation together, no women in tow; they get adjoining hotel rooms; they lounge together in bathrobes. But even here, to say there's a love that dare not speak its name would be a vast understatement, and it's only when Edgar announces it's "time for a Mrs. Hoover" that things get heated -- and violent. Their feelings for each other are brought open in a way never done before, and yet they get through the episode with an astounding amount of repression intact.

There are some who complain that there's an emotional emptiness to J. Edgar, and to a degree, there is. But so was there in Edgar himself, at least as this version tells it. It's a character study of a heavily guarded, paranoid man. One wonders if he would not have been so paranoid without the latent homosexuality. This guy kept private files on presidents and their wives -- including Elenor Roosevelt, with incriminating evidence of a relationship with another woman.

Leonardo DiCaprio turns in one of the best performances of his career. It's so good that it takes only a few minutes to get past the distracting age-makeup in the latter-years scenes, as the film constantly switches between the 1960s and the 1930s. This age-makeup is applied to several key characters, including Clyde and Edgar's longtime secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). There is clear talent in the application of this makeup, and yet it still stops short of inherent realism. It's especially evident on Armie Hammer, who is a thick, strapping young man, and his frame is retained in the 1960s sequences but with old-age makeup on. In real life, the man's body would have withered just a tad.

But, the distraction is short-lived, thanks to solid performances, particularly by DiCaprio, who manages to make a man as polarizing as J. Edgar Hoover, if not exactly sympathetic, then certainly fascinating. This is a man whose idea of a first date is to take a woman to the Library of Congress and show off the card catalog system he designed. This is where Helen Gandy tells him she's not interested in marriage (why? we never really find out), and so Edgar settles on making her his secretary for the rest of his life. He has clear affection for both her (though with her it's obviously more platonic) and for Clyde, and so he designs to have them both at his side every day.

From there he goes on to institute the system of fingerprinting to catch criminals, as well as preserving crime scenes (before him, police just washed all the evidence away), and beyond that he gets a bit slap-happy with the wiretapping. There is great truth in the saying "absolute power corrupts absolutely," and J. Edgar Hoover exemplifies it. His heart starts in the right place, but by his later years, he's asking his loyal associates to do things that have them giving him sideways glances.

And what of the rumored cross-dressing? Eastwood addresses even this, though not at all in the way you'd expect. Evidently Eastwood's take is that it was heavily tied up in Edgar's mamma's-boy issues. It's an interesting perspective, if nothing else -- and mercifully self-contained in a single scene. You have to hand it to Eastwood and his cast for taking an outside, ridiculously complicated personality and resisting the urge to sensationalize.

But in the end, I come back to how repression informs a person's actions, and permeates everything else in their life. That is what I took from J. Edgar, and honestly, that perspective elevates the story to something that was apparently more absorbing to me than a great many critics. This was no Brokeback Mountain, but from a certain perspective, it's just as tragic a love story between two men.

(L-R) Naiomi Watts, Armie Hammer and Leonardo DiCaprio form a strange triangle surrounding questionable surveillance practices in J. EDGAR.

Overall: B+
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