Plenty of films rely on great acting, stylistic directing, gorgeous cinematography or even giant explosions to make themselves great. Most rely on some combination of the aforementioned others might simply be visually stunning or have an incredible story. There are plenty of films like that. It is, however, a rare film that relies solely on one actor’s performance.
It’s such a risky endeavor to base an entire film around one actors performance that it almost never gets done. All I can think of off the top of my head is Tom Hanks in Castaway and whoever played Bernie in Weekend at Bernie’s. It’s so risky because even a great actor can ruin a performance with one bad scene in a film. Once bad line can taint everything, and so we rarely see movies that are truly all about a single great performance because there’s only a few actors who anyone would trust enough to deliver.
Leonardo DiCaprio is one of those actors you trust and his performance in J. Edgar is why you trust him.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Release Date: November 9, 2011
The Oscars, Hollywood and film critics along with plenty of movie goers get all randy for actors who tackle real life people. But there’s good reason for it. It’s hard to play as a public figure that everyone knows. In J. Edgar Leonardo DiCaprio tackles one of the most important people in American history and a person anyone worth talking to knows about. However, in case some of you don’t know J. Edgar Hoover was the the founder and head of the FBI for decades and one of the most powerful people in the world until his death. He was also an immensely driven individual, racked with paranoia and possibly a closeted homosexual. There’s a lot for a movie to work with here, especially since J. Edgar covers his entire career.
First and foremost, historical accuracy is far from the point of this film as Hoover’s personal life and drive unfold while the story of the FBI is told. The film takes plenty of liberties in telling Hoover’s story from outright confirming his homosexuality to showing his secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), destroying his infamous secret files after his death. This is definitely a dramatization of a very secretive and complicated man. It does, to its credit, present both Hoover at his best and his worst. And while it does clearly lean towards the “great man” side of the debate you won’t leave the theater feeling like you’ve just watched two hours of propaganda.
That being said it’s a bit odd that the film as a whole never really feels like it ramps up to anything much. It’s an interesting story that should have some incredibly high and low points, but the emotional scenes don’t hit like they should and the only time you really get a chance to start connecting with DiCaprio’s Hoover is near the end of the film. This is mostly director Clint Eastwood’s fault. The film jumps back and forth in time as Hoover narrates his story to a revolving door of writers who are supposed to be writing his memoirs. The jumps in time are often handled poorly though and you spend a large chunk of the beginning of the film just attempting to understand what decade you’re in. Add to this a lack of emphasis on the proper details in the film and a strange lack of focus on a single storyline from beginning to past and you’ve got a movie that just won’t let you get into it no matter how much you try.
And you will try, because not being deeply wrapped up in this movie is almost painful because DiCaprio is delivering such a stunning performance. Even with the film’s directorial issues DiCaprio pulls you in and won’t let you go. Both major scenes between Hoover and suspected lover Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) are practically saved by DiCaprio’s performances; one outraged and the other subdued. Once Eastwood stops jumping the film around so much and you actually get a chance to stay with an increasingly paranoid and disturbing Hoover its truly amazing to see how DiCaprio layers Hoovers paranoia and fear with humanity. There are definitely other actors in this movie, and they definitely do a good job, but DiCaprio blows them all out of the water.
He has some amazing make up help too. During Hoover’s younger years DiCaprio does all he can to work his face into Hoover’s and does a pretty decent job, but its when he’s playing old Hoover that the last remnants of the actor disappear. It is absolutely stunning how little DiCaprio looks like DiCaprio during Hoover’s late years, and while not a perfect copy of the man himself it is a stunning transformation none the less.
It should be noted that while Eastwood blunders through the overall structure of the film he, and the film’s screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, do pull of some things very well. The decision to not overuse Hoover’s suspected homosexuality is fantastic and that entire storyline is wonderfully executed, especially near the end of the film. The steady build to the final emotional scene between Hoover and Tolson is particularly well done and a relationship that could have felt like sensationalism and rumor mongering instead grows perfectly. It’s just too bad a lot of the other aspects of the film don’t develop as well as that one.
While I may not be giving J. Edgar the highest score I wouldn’t steer anyone away from seeing it simply to enjoy DiCaprio’s performance. It’s a singular performance that could have pulled even the worst film ever out of the doldrums and worth seeing so you can experience… and so you can know what all the buzz is about when Oscar season rolls around.