Coincidentally screened in the same week, during the ‘for your consideration’ awards season, both these biopics deal with right-wing demagogues whose names still chill the blood of people who were stuck on their enemies lists while inspiring a lasting devotion from those who feel they were bulwarks against the forces of Evil. Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar followed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover while Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady celebrates Margaret Thatcher. These lead roles require Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep to bury their faces in make-up (Streep has to work extra hard on that voice) and show off their acting chops representing these sacred monsters at different points in their careers.
Screenwriters Dustin Lane Black (whose previous CV includes Milk, with which J. Edgar oddly has a lot in common) and Abi Morgan (whose work this year has ranged from the excellent Shame to the clumsy The Hour) both try to warm up to controversial, seemingly cold characters by stressing their lone human connections – Hoover’s to Assistant Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and Thatcher’s to husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), though the extent (and degree of gayness) of the Hoover-Tolson relationship remains debatable and making Denis a puckish ghost who acts goonishly to bring Thatcher down to Earth feels more like Private Eye’s version of the Thatcher marriage than anything remotely credible. These are films which can’t get away from how audiences feel about their subjects, and the raw wounds left and it’ll be hard for those who lived through the Hoover Era or the Thatcher Years to care how personally unhappy these figures were. Lloyd, Morgan and Streep (the Mama Mia! Team) represent Margaret Thatcher as a heroine spurred by early scorn (three working class girls who laugh at the grocer’s daughter for acting above her station) to overcome entrenched, hidebound groups of men and succeed on her own terms, only to be betrayed and end up suffering from dementia (in comfortable circumstances – those three mean girls are probably having nightmarish old ages as a direct result of the policies Thatcher instituted) and conversing in her head with dear old Denis (all this is like some Dennis Potter play). Eastwood, Black and DiCaprio play Hoover as a deeply repressed gay, warned against showing ‘proclivities’ by his stern mama (Judi Dench) – in deference to long-standing rumours, he wears her dress at one point, but only after she’s dead in an expression of grief – and unable to connect with the man who devotedly loves and abets him over the decades.
Both films skim 20th Century history and touch on incidents which could probably sustain films by themselves: the Palmer Raids, the Lindbergh Kidnapping, the struggle to get forensic science taken seriously, the FBI’s war on the counterculture and dangerous figures like Martin Luther King; the collapse of the Heath government, Thatcher’s rise to party leader, IRA bomb strikes that took out key allies (Streep has a wildly inappropriate comedy double-take as Airey Neave is blown up offscreen by a car bomb – like a few too many things here, it could almost be a bit from Springtime for Hitler), the Falklands, the miner’s strike (these two appear out of order), the poll tax (seen as an early sign of dementia), the easing-out of a serving Prime Minister by lesser men, a lonely old age tended by devoted daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) but not absent beloved son Mark (who is, it is tactfully implied, not a nice person). Eastwood essentially remakes Larry Cohen’s still-underrated Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover – from which the screenplay by cops a few structural tricks and even some specific sequences (the famous files being snatched away after Hoover’s death before Nixon’s men can get hold of them) – with an added, and rather laboured emphasis on Hoover’s sexuality. For decades, sneers about Hoover’s private life have eclipsed serious assessment of his very real achievements in criminology and the astonishing amount of damage he did by deliberately refusing to accept the existence of organised crime and going after straw men who could be arrested, tried and sentenced – or shot dead – like the 1930s bank robbers or the ever-present communists.
It’s possible that The Iron Lady will do the same for Thatcher, by painting her as a pitiably distressed old lady (which, for all I know, she might actually be these days) while deliberately avoiding the many, many ways in which she made life in the UK worse. All opposition to Thatcher is represented by high-handed male cartels, whether unions or old-school Tories, or rioting thugs – where are those who monotonously soldiered on throughout the 1980s, trying to preserve humane values in the face of a sustained attack perpetrated by this woman. J. Edgar just pulls in the odd President, Attorney General or low-level crook as a footnote stick figure, and has only a tiny aside about Joe McCarthy – Cedric Belfrage said that America’s witch hunts wound up inaccurately labelled the McCarthy Era because the Senator’s power lasted only a few years whereas calling it the Hoover Era would have emphasised that it lasted from 1919 to 1971. In the end, Hoover was a political figure rather than a legal one, and steps were taken to ensure he never happened again: he was one of the most famous men in America, but you’d have to go to Wikipedia to find out who is currently the Director of the FBI. Thatcher was significant for all sorts of reasons her film biography simply isn’t interested in, and Streep’s congealed impersonation feels far less credible as a depiction of what she was like in office than her turn in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Both films offer plentiful cameo opportunities: J. Edgar goes mostly with character actors (though Jeffrey Donovan is a good ringer for Robert Kennedy) as the headline names (Gunner Wright as Eisenhower, David A. Cooper as Roosevelt, Jessica Hecht as Emma Goldman, Josh Lucas as Lindbergh, Lea Thompson as Ginger Rogers’ mother, Christopher Shyer as Nixon) while Hammer, Dench and Naomi Watts (as the woman who rejects Hoover’s half-hearted marriage proposal – seeing his true sexuality? – but becomes his lifelong secretary) are the lead’s only real foils; The Iron Lady offers Anthony Head (Geoffrey Howe), Richard E. Grant (Michael Heseltine), Iain Glen (Thatcher’s Dad), Julian Wadham (Frances Pym), Nicholas Farrell (Neave), Alexandra Roach (sort of a sexy Joyce Grenfell as Young Margaret Roberts), John Sessions (Edwad Heath), Michael Pennington (Michael Foot), Paul Bentley (Douglas Hurd), Roger Allam (Gordon Reece) but leaves out horror/comic figures like Norman Tebbit, Jeffrey Archer and Cecil Parkinson and can’t bear to bring Neil Kinnock, Ken Livingstone or Arthur Scargill onscreen.
It may be that there will be acting noms for both films, but they’re both curiously flat considering the talent involved – in fact, they aren’t even annoying enough.