[Editor's Note: Oscar Prospects is your weekly analysis of an awards contender and how it's likely to fare come Oscar nomination morning. The column is comprehensive, so beware of spoilers.]
It's extremely fitting that Clint Eastwood uses film in J. Edgar to illustrate changing public opinion, charting the evolution of America's view of law enforcement as it was reflected by Hollywood, with screenings of James Cagney's crime-denouncing G Men replacing those of its pro-gangster predecessor The Public Enemy. Such cinematic shifts in perspective are directly applicable to Eastwood's work, as the 81-year-old has had one of the more erratic late careers of any active filmmaker. The Oscar-favored Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby marked a marvelous artistic peak, and led to a wave of grand ambition and varying success. Good and bad were neatly juxtaposed with Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, while the appealingly self-reflective Gran Torino was followed by the insufferable Invictus and the listless Hereafter. Though already panned by some, J. Edgar is likely to readjust viewers' mindsets yet again, as it's Eastwood's most accomplished movie since 2004. All but gone is the palpable detriment of his hasty shooting style, which in recent years has yielded a great many subpar takes. And while there will be those who'll dismiss J. Edgar as textbook-ish, its adamant leafing through history proves increasingly fascinating, and for Eastwood, the film represents not a return to form, but a new horizon.
Still, that probably won't be enough to net many votes for Picture or Director. Despite its enveloping sweep, the movie has limited mass appeal, and what Eastwood brings this time out is more a deft shepherding of others' talents than a showcasing of his own. The sensitivities of both Leonardo DiCaprio and Dustin Lance Black are fortified by Eastwood's innate gruffness, a merger of the strong and the delicate that's also very present in DiCaprio's lead performance. A lock for a Best Actor nomination, DiCaprio inhabits J. Edgar Hoover in a manner that lets us witness the maturation of the man's confidence, which, as displayed here, required a kind of silent pep talk and a mental wrangling of private ideals and convictions that eventually allowed for the slamming of fists and the barking of orders. Much of this is simply seen in DiCaprio's face, which indicates a driven, yet underdeveloped, boy ever striving to keep himself ahead of his own limits (like Howard Hughes in The Aviator, Hoover—who stuttered, among other things—is a man of power with mental impediments he shields from public view). It's a role that surely speaks to DiCaprio's skill set, and while this isn't the actor's best performance (look to last year's Shutter Island for that), it serves as the movie's viewer magnet. Uneven accent be damned, DiCaprio keeps interest high even when the proceedings lag, which is no small statement considering he's in practically every scene.
Often by his side is Armie Hammer, who could certainly earn a Supporting Actor nomination for his turn as Clyde Tolson, Hoover's right-hand man in multiple ways. Offered nearly as strong and as wide a character arc as DiCaprio, Hammer gives a truly supporting performance, making himself memorable alongside one of the biggest stars on the planet, and playing a man who stands by the lead to the very end. Hammer has the afterglow of The Social Network on his side, and he makes good on all those "promising newcomer" citations, emitting great charm and star wattage but also exhibiting serious actorly pursuits. Tolson is a role that would normally go to someone with far more experience, and that Hammer tackles it with the command of a veteran won't go unnoticed.
Neither, by any means, will the efforts of the Makeup department, whose work in aging DiCaprio, Hammer and Naomi Watts (who plays Hoover's secretary, Helen Gandy) is initially alarming, continually convincing, and ultimately seamless. Even if you have an aversion to age makeup, the realism of the artistry by folks like Sian Grigg (Titanic) and Alessandro Bertolazzi (The Phantom of the Opera) is impossible to ignore, and if films like Barney's Version and Il Divo can land sole nominations in this category, the far more exposed J. Edgar shouldn't have much trouble at all (though it's somewhat possible, other visual disciplines like Cinematography, Editing and Costume Design aren't liable to fare as well).
Which leaves Dustin Lance Black's Original Screenplay, a smart and gentle, yet jumbled, amalgamation of a whole lot of recent contenders. As mentioned, The Aviator comes to mind almost instantly, as does Black's own Milk, which, apart from the plainly relevant homosexuality of an influential political figure, is evoked in small details like the rebellious rally cries of eventual deportee Emma Goldman. With J. Edgar, Black aims to parlay these elements into his own historically-slanted Brokeback Mountain, which is very much what this movie becomes. Though admirably continuing to carve out a distinctive screenwriting voice, Black is more adept at exploring sexual and psychological impulses than suavely advancing plot, which will hurt him in this race (to boot, the fire of novelty is no longer his). Nevertheless, his script is commendable for its just-right acknowledgment of the Hoover storylines deemed unpopular, and for its recurring instances of progress emerging only from terrible lows—something that may very well resonate with Eastwood.
Surest bets: Best Actor, Leonardo DiCaprio; Best Makeup.
Possibilities: Best Supporting Actor, Armie Hammer; Best Costume Design.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: Best Original Screenplay, Dustin Lance Black.