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Knight at the Movies: J. Edgar; Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-11-09

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The idea of a collaboration between director-actor Clint Eastwood (maker of a series of "weighty," epic-sized historical movies now entering his eighth decade, and a longtime force in the Hollywood establishment) and out screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (the movie star-handsome Oscar winner for his script for 2008's Milk and a tireless activist for gay rights) is a bit of a head-scratcher. J. Edgar, their two-and-a-half-hour film about the life of the longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that stars Leonardo DiCaprio, is as uneasy a cohabitation of the talents of Eastwood and Black as that of the movie's depiction of the relationship between Hoover and his longtime worker and private companion, Clyde Tolson.

Eastwood's saga is part biography of both Hoover and the FBI agency he headed for 48 years, through its infancy and dual rise to unrivaled power and part quasi-love story between Hoover and Tolson. The first is as dull and emotionally bland as the color scheme—dark blue, black and deep brown. The latter, which doesn't kick in until nearly the one-hour mark, at least offers a bit of juice and intermittent flavor to this otherwise "tasteful" (read: dry-as-toast) enterprise. Up to that point you keep wondering why anyone would bother with this spotty history lesson viewed through the distorted lens of such a despotic character and, much worse for dramatic purposes, apparently such a boring one.

Like Milk, Black's screenplay uses the flashback device in which the protagonist dictates his memoirs in the present as a way to explore his past. As the aging Hoover, DiCaprio in his old man make-up resembles an elderly Jon Voight—complete with liver spots—and spends a lot of time obsessing over his enemies (real and imagined) while tersely justifying his ethical and legal breeches (which only Tolson, played with delicate finesse by Armie Hammer, seems brave enough to point out to him). None of the career highlights that Hoover recalls, however, as he dictates to a couple of different cutie-pie male typists, is particularly involving. Also, the sections about Hoover's infamous secret files—filled with dirt on everyone (including Eleanor Roosevelt via a love letter to her from purported female lover Lorena Hickok)—merely add to the man's reprehensible character and aren't really explored.

All these sequences become time-stoppers while we wait to get back to Hoover and his dragon lady of a mother (played with typical expertise by Judi Dench), and Hoover and Tolson—both of which attempt to rip back the curtain covering Hoover's homosexuality. Relying on conjecture, arrived at through historical and anecdotal research, Black imagines scenes that suggest Hoover's personal anguish at being gay and, at last, DiCaprio can give this flinty, petty bore some complexity. "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil," mommy dearest tells him at one point after reminding him of what happened to a gay male adolescent companion of J. Edgar who committed suicide; DiCaprio's face answers this with a myriad of anguished emotions. There's a real Norman Bates/Mrs. Bates tinge to the relationship between mother and son that is amplified when a sobbing, bereft Hoover puts on her dressing gown and jewelry after she dies. By this point, he doesn't seem far from a sociopath—mixed up over his "base," violent urges.

Hoover's forbidden desires for his own kind are somewhat answered, as the movie has it, by his rather chaste relationship with Tolson. (It's so coded that when Edgar offers Clyde the number-two spot in the organization we immediately understand its really a proposal of marriage.) The "close friendship" between the two—filled with talk of fashion and gossip amidst visits to the racetrack—is okay with Hoover as long as it's kept out of the public eye. However, things erupt when Hoover (the implicit top to Clyde's acquiescent bottom) casually mentions in passing that he wants to marry (for appearances) movie star Dorothy Lamour, and Tolson goes nuts. A slugfest leads to a kiss on the mouth from Tolson, which leads to a bloody lip—the physical intimacy apparently being too much for Hoover.

This scene is the emotional peak of the dolorous movie, and here Eastwood and Black do seem to share the same point of view—compassion for their closeted antihero. However, will the audience—especially those who remember a man who used his powers to shield his personal proclivities while destroying the lives of his own kind in his quest for power—share that view? Perhaps the more relevant question would be: Will they really care?

In Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, Whitney Sudler-Smith, nascent documentary filmmaker and son of socialite Patricia Altschul, announces that he wants to find out the real story of what happened to the gay fashion icon whose excessive, Studio 54-party lifestyle epitomized the '70s disco era. However, what emerges is less a portrait of its ostensible subject than that of his times, and the film suffers from yet another examination of the disco era. Adding insult to injury is Sudler-Smith's jokey tone (dressing in a series of '70s get-ups, tooling around Manhattan in a gleaming Trans Am) and amateurish interview skills (not bothering, apparently, to do research and, at one point, daring to ask fashion guru Andre Leon Talley who Diana Vreeland was). Worst, he inserts himself a la Michael Moore into nearly every scene in the movie, overshadowing his subject (who would've dismissed Sudler-Smith, one suspects, with a swat of his hand) and sidetracking the film every time it gets going with each personal digression (of which there are a lot).

The movie is saved by a treasure trove of retro footage; the interview subjects (including Liza Minnelli, Dianne Von Furstenberg, Anjelica Huston, Bob Colacello, Ming Vauze and Chris Makos) who put up with Sudler-Smith's soft-pedal questions (just barely); a slick editor who seamlessly drops in the archival material; and the music supervisor who knows just where to place the high-profile music tracks.

In an ironic twist, Halston's fate in real life—being shunted aside when corporations took over his label and his designer name—is mirrored by Sudler-Smith's movie, which purports to give us the real story behind Roy Halston Frowick, the simple country boy from Iowa whose fashion sense took the world by storm. However, the film gets sidetracked by a fascination by the excesses that apparently also befell Halston himself.

The movie is being shown exclusively at the Landmark Century Centre Cinemas as part of the American Express Tribeca Film Festival on the Road, a Nov. 11-13 mini-fest celebrating the main Manhattan-based event. Five other indie films—Janie Jones, the Chicago-based and filmed Last Rites of Joe May, The Man on the Train, Northeast and Don't Go In the Woods—will be screened (many with cast and crew members in attendance at screenings). Visit http://www.tribecafilm.com/amex.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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