J. Edgar Hoover was the most powerful man in America for almost half a century. The first director of the FBI, he held the post until his death in 1972, serving the bureau and its predecessor under eight U.S. presidents, from FDR to Richard Nixon. No one dared fire him: he was the Man Who Knew Too Much. When Robert F. Kennedy was his boss, Hoover not only bugged his private elevator but slowed it down to make the conversations last longer. He spied on the extramarital affairs of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and for conspiracy theorists connecting the dots between their assassinations, he was the ultimate bogeyman. Yet Hoover, who pioneered fingerprint databases and modern forensics, was also America’s prototypical crime fighter, the original poster boy for Hollywood’s macho legend of the G-man.
But in J. Edgar, a biopic directed by Clint Eastwood, the “G” could stand for gay. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hoover as a deeply closeted homosexual. It’s a fact that he was a lifelong bachelor who lived with his mother, and that Clyde Tolson, his associate director at the FBI, was his closest companion—they shared everything, from daily lunches and dinners to vacations, until the day Hoover died. Yet almost four decades later, the FBI still denies its founding father was gay, and the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation begged Eastwood not to portray him as such. Clint didn’t listen. But then Hollywood’s most iconic tough guy was directing a script by gay rights crusader Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar for Milk, and was on a mission to drag Hoover out of the closet.
“I certainly concluded he was not straight,” says Black, who conducted exhaustive research. “There are first-hand accounts from women who were very interested in him, the stars of the day,” he told Maclean’s, citing Dorothy Lamour and Ginger Rogers, who are both portrayed in the film. “If he tried to perform sexually, it did not go well. And Hoover’s collection of photos of Clyde sleeping rings a bit gay to me. We know that they showed up to work together in the morning and went home together in the evening. This was long before carpooling was in fashion.”
The camera never shows Hoover engaged in a sexual act. But Tolson (Armie Hammer) does force a savage kiss on him during a physical fight on a hotel room floor. And while the film doesn’t depict Hoover as a flamboyant cross-dresser, after the death of his domineering mother (Judi Dench) we see him alone in her bedroom, slipping on one of her dresses—a moment of secret reverie that carries a faint frisson of Psycho.
“He was certainly not flamboyant,” says Black, “and if you look into the cross-dressing claims, they fall apart very quickly.” Asked if he thinks Hoover and Tolson actually had sex, the writer says, “I’m not sure. I debated this for some time. But to me, it didn’t matter. For today’s generation, being gay isn’t a sexual act. It’s part of your nature. If I went further, it would be conjecture.” What intrigued Black is how Hoover’s ambition replaced a love he was afraid to acknowledge. “He understood the power of secrets. He knew his secret would ruin him. So he collected secrets on other people, including gays and lesbians.” The film, in fact, shows him getting a big kick out of a lesbian love letter from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Black says Eastwood didn’t want to change a word of his script. “But he asked me hundreds and hundreds of questions. He’d be up in Carmel and he’d catch me in L.A., driving around. He wanted to make sure everything was based in fact, and sourced. But he never asked about the love story. To him, that was just understood.”
Tolson’s character is clearly more open about his sexuality, an attitude that Hammer portrays less with words than with a sly look, from the moment of his initial job interview in Hoover’s office. “He even put on his application to the FBI: ‘I’m not interested in women.’ That’s as bold as you could be in the 1920s,” Hammer told Maclean’s. “It’s pretty much code for ‘I’m gay.’ ” I found a third grade yearbook photo of him wearing a bow tie, pocket square and watch fob. This guy knew from day one! J. Edgar was much more conflicted.”
The film shows Hoover under intense pressure to keep his sexuality under wraps. It all seems to stem from his mother, portrayed by Dench as a kind of Lady Macbeth, who grooms him to be important, famous—and straight. “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son,” she says with withering disdain. Hoover pursues power and celebrity via a contrived persona that would shatter if his secret ever got out. He would brandish a machine gun for a photo op at a gangster’s arrest, stealing the credit from his FBI agents who nabbed the culprit. And, waging a war for hearts and minds, he forces Hollywood studios to stop glamorizing crime bosses like John Dillinger and make heroes of G-men instead. His picture lands on cereal boxes.
Tolson comes across as a devoted yet unrequited lover. In that sense, J. Edgar is like a sexless Brokeback Mountain. Although Tolson and Hoover share adjoining hotel rooms rather than a tent, like Brokeback’s cowboys they quarrel over the closeted partner’s failure to commit, until they’re wrestling in a blue rage. Hammer recalls that Eastwood, 81, actually got down on the floor to demonstrate: “He put on a faux fight with Buddy Van Horn, his stunt guy who has been with him since Rawhide. Those two guys had a full-on, knock-down drag-em-out to show what he wanted.”
Most of the time, however, Eastwood would sit back and let the actors figure out their scenes, says Hammer. “You’d say, ‘Where do you want us to stand?’ He’d say, ‘Anywhere you like.’ He wouldn’t say anything about the characters or the acting. But there was one scene we did twice and the third time Clint said, ‘Alright we’re getting a little gay-eyed. Let’s back up the looks and try this again.’ ” Hammer says Eastwood’s laid-back style is “diametrically opposed” to that of David Fincher, who directed him in The Social Network. Fincher is notorious for his endless takes, and “it’s gruelling because you have to keep up with him,” says Hammer, “whereas with Clint, he’s so good at what he does and he’s been doing it for so long, he’s been able to simplify it. It’s effortless excellence.”
But Eastwood’s unassuming style also mutes the tone of the film, and softens the drama. There’s a pedestrian efficiency to J. Edgar, which does not quite measure up to the epic dimensions of its subject, despite a powerful performance by DiCaprio (a clear Oscar contender) and some finely nuanced work from Hammer. The women don’t fare as well. Dench’s icy matriarch is a mere sketch. And Naomi Watts is stuck in a starchy role as thankless as that of her character, Hoover’s devoted lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy, who spins an unsuccessful date with Hoover into a career.
With a relatively lean budget of US$35 million—DiCaprio took just 10 per cent of his usual $20-million fee—J. Edgar strains to cover a lot of ground, using a flashback structure to frame his entire career. Mountains of latex are required to age the characters. While skimming through Hoover’s G-man publicity stunts, his anti-Communist witch hunt, and his persecution of King, Black chose to hinge the narrative on Hoover’s handling of the famous Lindbergh case—the 1932 abduction and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son.
An apolitical crime that serves to enhance the nascent heroism of the young bureau director, it’s an odd choice. When you combine that with the film’s sensitivity to a man estranged from his sexuality and terrorized by his mother, what emerges is a surprisingly empathetic portrait. So did Black not worry the film might soften the image of a man who instigated the Red Scare, trampled civil rights, blackmailed Martin Luther King, Jr., and conducted surveillance as if he were running a police state?
“Yes, I did worry about that,” says the 37-year-old screenwriter. “And I wanted to make sure I held him accountable for some of the heinous things he did. But some of the biographies I read were purely negative. You never understand him; he’s just a monster, and it’s not helpful. How do we prevent a promising young man from becoming this dark figure obsessed with fame and admiration and power? In this day and age, if you ask people what they want to do, their number one answer is to be famous. That was Hoover’s number one answer.” Then Black adds: “I hope this is a cautionary tale that says: don’t let your kids grow up to be Hoovers. If they happen to love someone of the same sex, don’t beat them down and leave their heart empty.”