Looks like we won’t be seeing Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and Pete until 2012. While we wait to see our favorite ad man, I’ll be watching these films for my fill of 60’s fashion, social and abusive drinking, marital unrest, and the corporate rat race.
THE APARTMENT (1960)
Without Billy Wilder, there would be no MAD MEN. PERIOD. The opening shots of Sterling Cooper offices in the pilot are direct lifts from Wilder’s 1960 masterpiece. The film even gets named checked by Joan and Roger in Episode 10 “The Long Weekend.” Wilder’s snappy dialogue and vivid characters probably provided MAD MEN writers with inspiration as well. Wilder’s hero, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has ambitions for management and lets execs use his apartment for their dalliances. Once he realizes the murky machine he’s mixed up in through his relationship with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), he longs to be more than a corporate stooge and regains his dignity. How Wilder orchestrates tender moments with comedy and devastating drama is rarely out done on MAD MEN or anything else. Two episodes that come close for me are Episode 7 “Red in the Face” from season 1 and “The Suitcase’ from season 4.
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008)
Don and Betty’s fights on MAD MEN never came close to the fervent hatred trading between Frank and April Wheeler in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the Wheelers hope a whimsical move to Paris will save their doomed marriage. Like the Draper marriage, the union crumbles under the weight of a lie.
From his office, he could hear the distant hum of a crowd outside. Walking to the balcony, he gazed at the throngs of excited people standing along the motorcade. They were so close, it was almost as if they were cheering for him. He changed his inquisitive scowl to a slight grin, giving a small wave to the crowds below. Looking out again, he realized his silliness and stalked back into his office.
In “J Edgar” Clint Eastwood presents a sober biopic about the infamous FBI chief that tries to reason with his obsessions with secrecy and information. Through the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio, “J Edgar” dares audiences who knew this man as a villain to consider the character’s humanity. Written by “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, “J Edgar” tries to balance speculations about an extremely private man with Hoover’s public career. Narrated by DiCaprio as Hoover, the film feels quite insular and confined to how he sees himself and his place in history. Unlike many biopics that admire their subject, Eastwood keeps his opinion concealed leaving the final judgement of Hoover with the audience.
The film covers Hoover’s life from a young assistant in the Justice Department to his death in 1972. During the course of the piece, Leonardo DiCaprio ages over 50 years with prosthetics and makeup. Many have complained about the makeup, but on DiCaprio it never felt distracting. His booming, growling dialogue punches through, engaging you in the character. As the younger Hoover, he captures the awkwardness and formality of Hoover. DiCaprio’s past characters have always had a youthful energy and grace about them. As Hoover, DiCaprio looks stocky and moves at a deliberate pace. You get the sense of a person utterly uncomfortable in his own body. Yet, Hoover is acutely perceptive of the insecurities of others and enjoys making them squirm. He takes an extra beat in most interactions, letting his opposite consider his threats. DiCaprio excels throughout the film and may be even best in scenes as the older J. Edgar Hoover. This film may earn him the Oscar he so rightly deserves.
The film’s central question of Hoover is how a man who was so consumed with uncovering and holding the secrets of others felt about his own private details. In the film we see Hoover request his long time assistant Ms. Gandy (Naomi Watts) to create a separate, confidential file. In that he kept sensitive private information on the respective paramours of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The film speculates Hoover kept this information as both political insurance to retain his position and personal entertainment. He cackles in glee at knowing details about people that the wider public would be scandalized.
Here is where the film takes an unexpected route to Hoover’s psychology. Instead of casting his fascination with information as a quest for power, the film suggests his actions were motivated by his conflicting feelings around public admiration. As director of the FBI Hoover held a great deal of power, yet he was permanently subordinate to the Attorney General and never sought a higher post in politics. He seemed charmed, then puzzled, and later bitter that the American public would be so enamored of the people he disliked because of their private actions. Thinking of his own legacy, Hoover always tried to play up his efforts, taking a bit more credit for other people’s work. It’s a subtle character motivation that ultimately makes Hoover strangely relatable.
In Hoover’s private relationships, the film uses what it can prove or infer to let us into his emotions and regrets. Hoover’s mother played staunchly by Dame Judi Dench casts an intimidating figure over the man. Mrs. Hoover, whom he lived with through adulthood, held her son to the highest expectations and never hesitated to make her disappointments known. Under that kind of scrutiny, you feel pity for this otherwise enterprising young man. With his assistant Ms. Gandy, in her fierce loyalty to his privacy Watts is able to convey collegial affection for Hoover. A feeling which was probably shared by the people who knew him well.
In his bond with Clyde Tolson, the film leads us to really care for the central figure. Hammer and DiCaprio are able to show how these two men became close through mutual admiration. Tolson seems fascinated by Hoover’s determination and attention to detail. While Hoover enjoys Tolson’s wit and self-confidence. Tolson puts Hoover at ease and remains the only person who can challenge him. Not knowing the full extent of their relationship, the film suggests their strong bond in one emotionally charged and tragic scene. Whatever Hoover may have felt for Tolson, the actors convey a longing and companionship to satisfy both the story and the record. “J Edgar” shines a bit of light on Hoover and I commend Eastwood and DiCaprio for challenging us to feel compassion for this cloaked historical figure.