Pete Hammond

With its splashy world premiere as the opening-night film of AFI Fest on Thursday and a series of Q&As and receptions, Warner Bros’ campaign for J. Edgar — one of its big Oscar hopefuls — swung into high gear this week. In addition to the hoopla around the premiere, director Clint Eastwood did a DGA screening and discussion with Academy directing governor and fellow DGA and Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow on Tuesday night; stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer appeared for a Q&A in front of a packed-to-the-rafters SAG audience on Wednesday night (I moderated that one); and on Friday they all appeared for yet another screening, Q&A and reception at the LA County Art Museum. The latter was a prelude to Saturday night’s inaugural Art + Film gala, where Eastwood is being honored. Warners plans many more voter opps like these in the coming weeks.

First reviews of the film that opens next week are mixed to good depending on what you read and who you talk to (Rotten Tomatoes has it at 57% fresh, but only seven reviews are up so far). But it is done in classic and classy Eastwood style and, whatever the ultimate commercial and critical fate of the film, it is absolutely clear DiCaprio has a strong stake on a Best Actor Oscar nomination. As the complex and controversial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, DiCaprio ages from his 20s to late 70s with seeming ease and has some heavy dramatic scenes — including one in which he dons his dead mother’s dress and another fight/kiss encounter with Hammer, who expertly plays his constant companion Clyde Tolson (and could be a Supporting Actor contender himself). Older Academy voters who remember Hoover should particularly respond to this well-crafted look at his complicated personal and professional life.

At Friday’s LACMA reception, Eastwood was his usual cool self and very interested in the reactions the film is receiving. As I talked with him and producer Brian Grazer (Eastwood regular Robert Lorenz was the other producer on the film), he explained how the project came to him from Grazer, who initiated it and hired Milk Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black to write a script. “Brian had a deal with Universal, but it turned out they were not exactly too high on doing this story at that time, so I offered to take it over to Warner Bros, and about the same time Leo became involved so we were able to get it going,” he said. When I suggested that this is not the kind of heavy historical drama studios want to make anymore, Eastwood said they often don’t want things that later become popular with audiences. “I had a girl boxing drama and they weren’t high on that, but it worked out OK,”  he said with a laugh about 2004′s Million Dollar Baby, which won him another couple of Oscars including Best Picture. Because the start of his A Star Is Born remake has been delayed until summer due to the pregnancy of leading lady Beyonce, Eastwood has plans to first work in an acting gig in Trouble With The Curve (to be directed by Lorenz, as Deadline first reported). Even at 81, Clint keeps in constant motion and that’s a very good thing for movie lovers.

Hammer, who got a big taste of the awards-season Q&A circuit last year as a member of The Social Network cast (remember the Winklevoss twins?), said he actually enjoys doing the events now. “What actor doesn’t like talking about himself?” he asked.

Black, also at the reception, said that because Eastwood works so fast (the entire shoot for the period film was 39 days), he and Leo would spend weekends honing the script and working out scenes. Usually, Eastwood shoots scripts as they are, but Black says he is more comfortable working on changes during production havng spent a lot of time in TV doing just that, so it was a delicate balance. The structure of the script, going back and forth in time, is tricky, and much of the material regarding the closeted nature of Hoover’s personal life and relationship with Tolson is necessarily speculative but still convincing in the way it’s presented.

As for the scene in which Hoover puts on his mother’s dress and pearls, DiCaprio told me it was really in there as a kind of “wink wink” to the audience in order to take on the unsubstantiated rumors that Hoover was a cross-dresser. It plays now as more of a comment on Hoover’s incredibly dependent relationship on his mother (played superbly by Judi Dench). DiCaprio also talked about the extensive makeup he wears — not a process he loved. “It was difficult acting under all of that,”  he said. But based on the performance, he clearly found a way to get to the inside of the man he portrays, and that is what it’s all about.

I told DiCaprio I had seen the 18-minute presentation of Titanic‘s 3D conversion in advance of its April 6, 2012 re-release. He has not seen it but is obviously interested, particularly when I told him they only spent $18 million doing the transformation. “Eighteen million? That’s it? Wow. They are going to make a ton of money off it,” he said, adding that his deal for that movie was done in the years before he had the kind of profit participations he can get now. I told him someone involved with it thinks it could make another $400 million-$500 million. He laughed, saying, “I won’t be getting much of that.”

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