When I think of the male performances of the year I think there is Leonardo DiCaprio and everyone else. Setting aside Michael Fassbender, for the moment, Michael Shannon, Gary Oldman and Woody Harrelson – those actors who transformed themselves into wholly other people, I am still left with what Leo did with J. Edgar Hoover. I know that it isn’t the popular choice right now for one of the best performances of 2011, but I do know it’s one I can’t forget.

The scene that stays with me most is the one between DiCaprio and Judi Dench. She creepily tells him about a young boy they both knew who was ridiculed for being a “daffodil.” “I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.” The statement so final, so cold, so terrifying cemented any potential openings for Hoover to have lived outside of a lie. As his mother took him in his arms and vows to teach him “how to dance,” so does Hoover know then that he’ll be “dancing” for the rest of his life. Whatever he did behind closed doors was and remains a secret. But dancing doesn’t require anything more than putting on a show.

Even those who are taken aback by DiCaprio’s makeup and odd vocal patterns in the beginning eventually must admit that, at some point during the movie, he becomes compelling, believable, and heartbreakingly altered. DiCaprio’s J. Edgar is one of his best.

The Best Actor race this year appears to be filled with likable heroes. The darker portrayals aren’t going to be embraced as much, for whatever reason. Perhaps in times of strife – economic and otherwise – the Oscar race forms around more soothing films. DiCaprio in J. Edgar is similar to Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. Both Hoover and Margaret Thatcher were complex, not well liked people in real life. The trick to playing them, therefore, was to find and reveal their vulnerabilities.

It becomes difficult to decide how to feel about them by the end because neither performance gives you an easy interpretation of whom the actors believed their characters to be. I guess what we always look for is some kind of sweeping judgment: good or bad. It isn’t that simple, as it turns out. Both actors are heavily ladened with makeup and both characters require a love story to pull focus from their own daily political decisions. Since both films are told from the main character’s point of view, the films aren’t really required to take a position so much. They’re attempting to earn our compassion, to erase our preconceived notion of who they are in order to see them from a different perspective.

It was recently discussed on NPR as to whether he portrayed Hoover correctly, and apparently what he captured best was how fast Hoover talked. It’s not often you get an actor in any year working that hard to build a character.  While Streep is earning praise for having done a similar thing, DiCaprio, I feel, has not.  I can’t speak to whether or not J. Edgar was an accurate portrayal of Hoover. Nor can I speak to whether DiCaprio ultimately captured him. But what I do know is that DiCaprio’s acting was deeply realized. He showed a side of him he’s never revealed before now.

Here is some praise for his performance:

Ebert:
This man was closed down, his face a slab of petulance. He was so uncharismatic that it’s possible to miss the brilliance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in “J. Edgar.” It is a fully realized, subtle, persuasive performance, not least in his scenes with Armie Hammer as Tolson. In my reading of the film, they were both repressed homosexuals, Hoover more than Tolson, but after love at first sight and a short but heady early courtship, they veered away from sex and began their lives as Longtime Companions. The rewards for arguably not being gay were too tempting for both men, who were wined and dined by Hollywood, Broadway, Washington and Wall Street. It was Hoover’s militant anti-gay position that served as their beard.

J Hoberman:
Hoover has already been splendidly embodied by Broderick Crawford in Larry Cohen’s 1977 pulp masterpiece, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. But with prosthetics simulating Hoover’s bulldog look, the better to enact the FBI man’s bulldog tenacity, Leonardo DiCaprio turns out to have been a quite canny casting move. With his own celebrity presence, DiCaprio successfully promotes the movie’s idea of Hoover as a star (rather than the squat balding troll familiar to anyone who grew up in the ’60s), even as he makes convincing the sexual ambiguity crucial to the Hoover conceived by Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.