J. Edgar frequently looks like a high school play wherein the kids have all dressed up in hand-me-down clothes, applied their own makeup, and started shuffling around on the stage, bobbling their heads in what they believe is an imitation of how old people move. It has an annoying — and needlessly distracting — chalky color palette, apparently meant to indicate that we’re in the past. And it has Leonardo DiCaprio acting his brains out without internalizing a thing: he seems incapable of portraying a man thinking.
DiCaprio’s best (in J. Edgar at least) when delivering well-prepped speeches and/or when directed to shout or scowl or to menace someone. But no matter what emotion DiCaprio is trying to convey, he can’t shake free the image of the little boy from Titanic, especially when directors, who’ve grossly overestimated his abilities, have him play against high-caliber actors like Robert DeNiro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kate Winslet, Jack Nicholson, and Naomi Watts. DiCaprio acts like a kid who doesn’t realize that all the grown ups are wise to his impression of an adult; the inability to shed his boyishness is the collateral damage that comes with any adult role he takes. If DiCaprio were self-aware or humble enough to realize this, he’d probably start reigning in his hysterical performances or stop reaching for roles that are outside of his range. It doesn’t help too that J. Edgar shows him in 10 pounds of old-man makeup for 15 minutes at a stretch.
Still, the fact that he isn’t humble, self-aware, or a particularly good actor could be exploited by a good director in the right situation: let DiCaprio play the role of an adult with a child’s sensibility, a character desperately trying to hide his naïveté from the world, and you may get something interesting out of the big star without him even knowing it.
Crazily, J. Edgar Hoover should have been the perfect role with which to coax DiCaprio into a great performance: here is an American figure who apparently spent his entire life hiding his insecurities behind a blustery subterfuge; in J. Edgar, he’s even portrayed as a damaged, feminine mother’s boy who would have rather died than admit his weaknesses. Clint Eastwood, another limited actor who has been put to great use by directors (Don Siegel, Sergio Leone) savvy enough to exploit his limitations, directed J. Edgar. Unlike his mentors, Eastwood isn’t sly enough to use his star’s weaknesses for the strength of his movie. He allows DiCaprio to play Hoover to the hilt, to slather the man’s emotions broadly across the screen, the only way DiCaprio knows how to act. Just after his beloved mother (Judi Dench) has finally died, DiCaprio is asked to convince us that Hoover put on the old lady’s pearls and nightgown by way of expressing the homosexuality he could never bring himself to directly admit to her. The scene had the potential for heartbreak, if only it had been underplayed. Eastwood allows DiCaprio to scream, rip the pearls from his neck, and fall to the floor crying, like a relatively sane Norman Bates.
It’s hard to imagine that Eastwood really wanted this kind of broad performance, since he’s shown, with his best movies (High Plains Drifter, White Hunter, Black Heart, Mystic River), that he’s smart enough to realize when a story hinges on the subtleties of a man who thrives on secrets. More likely, Eastwood settled for DiCaprio because he’s a star with big box-office clout. Hiring him for a major role assured Eastwood just about any budget he could have asked for. To get it, all he needed to do was convince himself that he could direct around DiCaprio’s weaknesses or that he’d given DiCaprio a role that didn’t require him to stretch. Eastwood most likely believed the former. That would explain his reliance on the distracting “old-timey” cinematography, his equally distracting insistence on having actors who look nothing like the well-known historical figures (Lindbergh, RFK, Nixon) they’re meant to portray, and, most problematically, his decision to edit the film at exactly the pace of the schematic script, rather than livening it up the way, say, Oliver Stone would have done.
If it seems unfair to focus so much of this critique on DiCaprio’s performance, note that it’s impossible to get at what Eastwood intended with this movie without first getting beyond the movie star, who is in every scene. I have nothing against DiCaprio as a star, and I like him when he’s in material that doesn’t challenge his limited abilities (Inception, Body of Lies). But that doesn’t make this untrue: he was horribly miscast as Hoover, and whatever qualities the movie may have beyond this mistake (there aren’t many) are completely dwarfed by it. In order to understand Eastwood’s take on J. Edgar Hoover, you’d have to forget that you’re watching Leonardo DiCaprio “act” and get lost in the character, which never happens.
But even minus DiCaprio, J. Edgar is a mess. Assume for a minute that Eastwood had gotten Ryan Gosling (with or without old man makeup) to play Hoover: he would have thereby sacrificed roughly half of his budget (even if you factor in the lower price tag that the immensely more talented Gosling would have come with) in exchange for a versatile actor who specializes in conveying the emotion beneath the surface of damaged men. If Eastwood had used Gosling, the mistakes of the script, by Milk writer Dustin Lance Black, would probably have been more apparent. Gosling would have disappeared into the role, allowing us to focus on the story, which reduces Hoover to simple explanations and A-B psychological conclusions (mother=homosexuality, homosexuality=loneliness, loneliness=bitterness, bitterness seeks power). Black’s script is never without a by-the-numbers little scene or anecdote to demonstrate the tortured soul of Hoover.
The usual wisdom about Eastwood is that he is exactly as good as his script, that he serves good writing extremely well but doesn’t have enough flare to elevate it when it sucks. If this wisdom is correct, and I think it is, then Eastwood matches up perfectly with DiCaprio: they’re two mediocre actors trying their hardest to turn simplified views of the world into art.