Few, if any, actors have undergone a more remarkable metamorphosis than Leonardo DiCaprio. His part in “Titanic” just about ruined the movie for me because I simply could not fathom that a woman like Kate Winslet’s character would be attracted to a baby-faced little squirt like Jack Dawson played by DeCaprio.
Since that time, however, DeCaprio has matured in both his looks and as an actor, and his work in such films as “Inception,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Aviator,” “Blood Diamond,” and “Shutter Island” has been nothing short of superb. He already has earned three Academy Award nominations, but this may the year he finally takes that coveted gold statuette home for his incredible portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover in the film “J. Edgar,” directed by Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood. DeCaprio’s performance in this film is beyond brilliant.
As the film begins, we find Hoover in the twilight of his years railing against communism to one of his colleagues.
“Communism is not a political party. It is a disease that corrupts the soul turning even the gentlest of men into vicious, evil tyrants. What we are seeing is a pervasive contempt for law and order. Crime rates are soaring. There is widespread open defiance of our authority. Mark my words. If this goes unchecked, it will once again plunge our nation into the depths of anarchy.”
Although the film opens in the early 1970s, when Hoover has decided to dictate his memoirs, it quickly flashes back to 1919, when he first became a part of what was then as simply the Bureau of Investigation, and it moves back and forth between the past and 1972, when Hoover died at the age of 77. The constant changing timelines are effective in the film because they provide an interesting insight into Hoover’s development as the director of the FBI.
As Hoover’s life and career unfold on the screen, the focus mainly is on his relationship with the three most important people in his life: his mother (Judi Dench), his devoted secretary and personal assistant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and his colleague, constant companion (and quite possibly his lover) Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). These three people were fiercely loyal to him throughout his lifetime, and the superb performances by Dench, Watts, and Hammer are vital to the film’s overall effectiveness.
Whether people liked him or hated him, there was no dispute that Hoover was a fascinating person, and it was no secret that he would stop at nothing to protect the United States from anything or anyone that he perceived to threaten it. Indeed he was not above resorting blackmail and wire-tapping if they served his purpose.
One of the aspects of the film that I found most fascinating was the FBI’s investigation of the famous Lindbergh kidnapping case. In Hopewell, N.J., on the evening of March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the 18-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, was abducted from his home. The infant’s body was discovered less than five miles from the Lindbergh home two months later, and although he maintained his innocence to the time his death, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was electrocuted for the murder and kidnapping on April 3, 1936.
Watching the FBI become involved with the investigation was both intriguing and informative, but after reading some accounts of the case, I think that Hollywood may have embellished Hoover’s actual role in the whole thing. Nevertheless, it was riveting.
Another good thing about this film is its general look. It captures the time period beautifully with outstanding costumes, sets, and other props. I’ve always enjoyed period films, and this one is truly exceptional, and it’s highly entertaining to watch the aura of the G-men come to life on the silver screen. Special recognition goes to costume designer Deborah Hopper (“Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino”), who had the challenge of dressing the actors in clothing representative of the early 1900s all the way up to 1972. To achieve the necessary authenticity in dress, DeCapiro changed costumes about 80 times.
All of the aforementioned elements combine to make “J. Edgar” an excellent film, but it’s DeCaprio’s amazing performance that really makes it as effective as it is. Whether he’s portraying the young or the old Hoover, DeCaprio slips easily into either part, and, with the help of some marvelous makeup, his transformation into the older Hoover is nothing short of astounding. His speech inflection and his body language are remarkable, and in the film’s production notes, the actor offered some interesting insight into playing such an iconic figure.
“I think what allowed me to really get a real sense of this man I was portraying was that, at its heart, ours is a story about the person inside. Lots of stories have been told about Hoover, but I feel that his relationships with Clyde Tolson, Helen Gandy, and his mother really forged who he was for the entirety of his life and career. That was what compelled me to go to work every day, and it’s what I hope will intrigue people as they watch the movie.”
DeCaprio also provided some pertinent character analysis.
“Hoover was incredibly ambitious as a young man. He was highly motivated to succeed in Washington, primarily due to his mother’s expectations of him. His father had failed to become a major political figure, and Annie wanted her son to carry the family name to great fame and fortune, with little or no regard for what else Edgar might have needed for himself. He became this stoic, bulldog enforcer who had to keep his personal life very personal. He became all about secrets.
“It was a terrific challenge to breathe life into this person, because he was such a mystery. I did find that he was very manipulative and very charming; he could charm anyone in the room but at the same time intimidate them. He liked the spotlight, but he concentrated so much on work that it defined much of who he was, his morals, the decisions that he made on really every level. I hesitate to use the word priest because J. Edgar Hoover was no priest, but he certainly looked at the FBI as his church.”
I realize that no film can treat every aspect of a man’s life in depth, but I was a bit disappointed that “J. Edgar” (Give it a final score of eight.) did not go into a little more detail about Hoover’s strained relationship with the Kennedys and particularly Bobby. We get just a glimpse of it in the movie, but because of my interest in the Kennedys I would like to have had more about this.
Nevertheless, when the Academy Award nominations are handed out for this year’s films, I fully expect DeCaprio to be among the nominees for best actor. And based upon the performances I’ve seen so far, I’d bet my house on him to win.