J. Edgar as the FBI’s gay G-man

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed as a deeply closeted homosexual in a new biopic

The gay G-man

Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Entertainment

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.”


J. Edgar as the FBI’s gay G-man

  1. It seems to me that this is all based on innuendo and selective interpretations, without true foundation in fact.

    “The film, in fact, shows him getting a big kick out of a lesbian love letter from Eleanor Roosevelt.”

      -in fact..? or rather…movie fiction

     “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.’ ”

      -could rather easily infer devotion to career…..

    “He (Eastwood) 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.”

       -understood?….seriously Clint, please give us more substance than mere innuendo.

  2. Historical fact? Give me a break most of this is innuendo and silliness, it is actually somewhat offensive how someone could spend $35 million rehashing old libelous claims which never had any basis in fact. The fact is Hoover was romantically linked with a number of women over the years, and the statements that he was a transvestite were no more than unsubstantiated rumours from people who disliked Hoover and who in some cases were also convicted perjurers. I would suggest that it is fundamentally wrong to twist the lives of real people in ways that they would have found deeply offensive without any solid evidence to back the allegations up just to make a buck or score some kind of political point.

    One of the major points of evidence presented here is that a boy wore a watch fob in a childhood school picture for goodness sake! After all a child’s clothes are often chosen by his mother and the claim that a bow tie is gay (was Lester B. Pearson gay?) strikes me as rather silly to be honest. I shall admit that I am ignorant as to just what a watch fob is and a Google search has not helped me either, as all I have got from that search is pocket watches. Assuming that a pocket watch is what a watch fob is I have to ask, since when are pocket watches gay? Prior to the Great War wrist watches were seen as being primarily for women (it was only because pocket watches were not handy in the trenches that men started to wear wrist watches), I am surprised that this article did not claim that Hoover worse pink gowns as a child and had long hair (which he quite possibly did, pink being seen as basically a pastel red at the time, and young boys often wearing what were basically gowns and having long hair).

    Macleans really should not just take everything that a producer says at face value, they should actually do some research every now and again, perhaps ask some hard questions. ‘Don’t let your children grow up to be Hoovers’, don’t let your children grow up to journalists more like it if this is what passes for hard hitting journalism these days. It is nonsense like this which is why I do not have a  subscription to Macleans.

  3. Saw “J. Edgar” today.  One of the best movies I have ever seen.  Eastwood and DiCaprio both deserve honors.  The story entwines two themes, the least of which is FBI intimidation and investigations.  It was tastefully and excitingly done…and in the end…it was a love story.  I give it 2 thumbs-up.

  4. Sick…a movie degrading an American icon by stretching he was gay….a movie put forth solely to promote the militant homsexual agenda of forced acceptance of an immoral lifestyle.

    • Get over yourself. Hoover was gay as a Sunday picnic.

  5. I’m curious to see this as I’ve read very mixed reviews. Some have said it’s brilliant, some have said DiCaprio’s acting is hammy and the aging-makeup is hilariously bad. I’ll reserve judgement. But I must also say to the above commenters, what’s with your desperate attempt to straight-wash Hoover? He and Tolson were more than just platonic friends and co-workers, that’s been known for years and years and years now.

  6. i dont know too much about the topic but this just sounds like a gay advocate guy with an agenda who doesnt care who or what he smears to make a point. Sad because this movie looks good in commercial, gonna be disappointing if its just gonna be 2 hours of gay conspiracies.

  7. What’s with the responses that think a portrayal of Hoover as gay as the man being tarnished. I don’t see that anything bad has happened here. Sounds like an interesting movie I’d like to watch.

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