So, Ben, J. Edgar turned out to be a lot more interesting than I initially expected. For an hour or so I was thinking, "this is the Oscarbaitiest piece of shit I ever sat through," but then I realized Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black were up to something kinda interesting. Structurally, their film is as tricky and sophisticated as The Social Network, I think, blending a present-day narrative with two flashback storylines from different points of view; Black ups the ante by having the same character enunciate both of them: Hoover (Leonard DiCaprio) reliving private memories regarding his mother (Judi Dench) and his chastely homosexual relationship with associate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer); and Hoover the unreliable narrator revising his own professional history. (We observe the sad, sad process of a bitter, broken man trying to invent for himself a heroic arc.) I thought it was interesting how Black and Eastwood try to subvert, or at least complicate, the old-fashioned, law-and-order, silver screen-style archetype Hoover embodies—and Eastwood used to embody—by suggesting he was a mincing mary behind closed doors; at the same time, Eastwood's grasp of gayness sometimes struck me as unduly flamboyant. (Like, that cross dressing scene is a doozy of high camp.) What did you think of the film's handling of homosexuality, Ben?
Well sure, Henry, Eastwood and Black rely a little heavily on easily legible signifiers of queerness, from Edgar and Clyde's trip to the tailor where the fashion-forward young man chooses ties for his new boss, to their catty gossiping, adjoining hotel rooms, the aforementioned cross-dressing scene and, of course, the Brokebackian fight-cum-embrace. But there are also some heartbreakingly inventive moments in the portrayal of their relationship, like when Edgar's closely guarded letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to a lesbian lover becomes an expression of his physical attraction to Clyde on which he could never act. However reliant on stereotypes, J. Edgar's gays are also subjected to some very contemporary shamings, as when proto-cyberbully Anna Marie Hoover (Dench) tells her son that she'd rather he commit suicide than come out. But then that's another of Eastwood and Black's queer clichés, Henry, Edgar's discomforting closeness to his domineering mother.
Yes, his Bates-ish, dare I say Voorhies-ish relationship to his mother was a bit pat. As David Edelstein pointed out, "direction this ponderous exposes all the contrivances in Black’s script." But I'm not going to criticize Black's depiction of the deep shame felt by closeted gays in the mid-20th century—or even Eastwood's maudlin realization of it. J. Edgar might turn into a sappy portrait of a few old homos, but America's still homophobic enough to need its weepie, Brokeback-style romances. We should get one every awards season! Less concerned with history than the personal, the filmmakers humanize, if make pathetic, Hoover, even though he was a real sonofabitch—a man so desperately hiding his own sexual secrets that he collected others' to exploit for power. With such an obsession over privacy, Ben (again, making for interesting comparison to The Social Network), are the filmmakers also talking about our post-Patriot Act present? Isn't a lot of the movie a clumsy attempt to make history feel contemporary—to make it "relevant"?
I don't think J. Edgar's always clumsy in its attempts to retrofit contemporary issues into its historical narrative. Yes, the montage of social movements that flickers over the screen as Edgar watches Nixon's inauguration motorcade passing under his window on television functions as a convenient catchall for whatever present-day protests you please. Today's Occupy Wall Street movement is just like the civil rights demonstrations and protests against the Vietnam conflict of Edgar's era! On the other hand, Black and Eastwood do a good job of laying out without over-determining the ways in which Edgar's paranoid and duplicitous approach to law enforcement shaped America's past half-century, and especially its last decade. Just take their script, replace every instance of "communist" or "Bolshevik" with "Muslim extremist" and you've got a movie about Dick Cheney and the Department of Homeland Security. More generally, Eastwood tracks the souring of America's post-war optimism into a culture of suspicion, fear and surveillance, which, along with closeted period queerness, is just about the most Oscar-baity theme imaginable.