I have yet to write about Madonna's W.E. because I've only seen it via test screenings, nothing official. But it's not the only biopic coming at year's end. In fact, there are so many similar pictures that W.E. is getting an awards-consideration release December 9 then not reappearing until February 3 so as to dodge the glut.
I had wildly different reactions to two of the other biographical films out there.
J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Dustin Lance Black and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Dame Judi Dench, is a film I was curious about in spite of its odious subject, longtime, iron-fisted FBI god-king J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio). The film covers Hoover's era-spanning career as the country's loved/hated A-list G-man, from the birth of the FBI through Hoover's death during the Nixon presidency. For a film attempting to cover so much, it winds up with surprisingly little to offer by way of honest insight.
DiCaprio's old-age makeup was quite distracting at first but was overall passable, particularly when compared to that used on Armie Hammer as Hoover's longtime companion Clyde Tolson. Somehow, Tolson starts out younger and cuter than Hoover and winds up looking like something out of a Saturday Night Live sketch; just unbearably bad work on the makeup. Watts looks too old to be a young secretary in the beginning of the movie, but way too young to be a senior citizen by film's end.
Superficialities aside, DiCaprio is admirably committed as Hoover, but I found him very actorly and at times hammy. He comes off, more often than not, as a boy pushing hard to seem like a man. Gorgeous Hammer exudes a knowing quality that Eastwood unfortunately does not reign in properly, leading to laugh-out-loud lines that shouldn't be. For example, it's pretty humorous when Hammer's Tolson fusses about the sartorial blunders of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and a side-splitter when he sniffs that Dorothy Lamour (pictured with Hoover in the '40s) is a bit "camp" for him. If he gets an Oscar nomination for this after not getting one for The Social Network, that would be a travesty.
Watts has nothing to do and does nothing for the film—she's sleepwalking.
In stark contrast, the usually flawless Dench is way over the top as Mama Hoover, a cardboard cut-out of a taciturn mother who's so pushy even Norman Bates wouldn't have traded for her.
I think the biggest problem with this film is the script. After deservedly winning an Oscar for Milk, Dustin Lance Black turns in a Razzie-worthy blueprint this time, structured around Hoover dictating his self-aggrandizing memoirs to a series of young secretaries (all dudes, nudge-nudge). This set-up allows for too much telling and not enough showing, and makes the film's focus drift disagreeably between Hoover's most famous case (the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby), his weirdly asexual yet romantic relationship with Tolson (there is an aborted kiss, but otherwise we're supposed to believe they were inseparable but never fucked) and the origins of his rabid anti-Communism.
I'm as liberal as it gets, and I like that there is goss out there that Hoover was gay and/or cross-dressed, but I strongly felt like the gay stuff in the film (a convenient story about a childhood acquaintance of Hoover's nicknamed "Daffy" for "daffodil" who was bullied and committed suicide feels very It Gets Better) was questionable, and the cross-dressing was one of the most embarrassing things I've seen in a high-profile drama in years.
I wish I liked this movie, but then again, screenplay be damned, maybe it would've helped if the main character were not so thoroughly contemptible from start to finish.
J. Edgar (Warner Bros.) is out now.
A far more likable VIP gets the biopic treatment in My Week With Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis and written by Adrian Hodges from the famous memoir by Colin Clark, who had the good fortune to be third director on The Prince and the Showgirl in the late '50s.
The story follows Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a upper-class English kid determined to break into the movie business thanks to his adoration of the silver screen. After occupying Sir Laurence Olivier's (Kenneth Branagh) production offices for weeks, he's grudgingly allowed in on The Sleeping Prince (the film's original title), which Olivier will direct and star in and which will co-star the legendary Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).
Over the course of the shoot, Clark witnesses Marilyn's erratic behavior but falls in love with her anyway, briefly becoming her confidante and a go-between on all matters when Olivier has had enough of the troubled star and her buttinsky acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). He juggles his awe of Marilyn with his schoolboy crush on a co-worker (Emma Watson) and must navigate the resentment of Marilyn's collaborator Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper).
Ultimately, My Week With Marilyn is a sweet, charming romance about the inner life of Marilyn Monroe and about a young man's coming of age. As such, it's nearly perfection, filled with heart and directed with a soft touch.
Michelle Williams is just brilliant as Marilyn (and I had been a big doubter), capturing her without ever becoming cartoonish. Some of her recreations of Marilyn's scenes in what was retitled as The Prince and the Showgirl are uncanny, but her scenes with Clark are when the (proposed) real Marilyn really comes (back) to life. Her Marilyn has wit but is paralyzed by self-doubt, surrounded by yes-men (and yes-women) and, more often than not, fighting for coherence through a haze of drugs. Yet still she has an innocence, just like the real deal.
Redmayne's Clark is adorable, a green kid who just wants to please everyone and prove himself. Branagh doesn't have as much to do with Olivier, whose jealousy of Marilyn is stated rather than acted, and he's upstaged every time Julia Ormond arrives as his mercurial wife, Vivien Leigh.
Interestingly, Dame Judi Dench is in this biopic, too, playing one of the film's co-stars, Dame Sybil Thorndike. In this case, she's delightful and does a wonderful job of keeping her character's demeanor wholly unexpected from scene to scene. She's terribly missed once she all but disappears.
There are a couple of things wrong with this thoroughly enjoyable movie—some of the scenes featuring characters raving about Marilyn's flawlessness fall flat when Williams isn't 100% on, Milton Greene is painted as quite the ogre and two songs Williams performs as bookends are awful and historically inaccurate—but overall, it's warm, thoughtful and moving, and is sure to net Williams another Oscar nomination.
My Week With Marilyn (The Weinstein Company) is out November 23.