Citizen J. Edgar?
A friend who knew that I saw a press screening of director Clint Eastwood's heavily-promoted new movie J. Edgar asked if it was worth seeing or politically skewed. I answered, "Both, unfortunately." The film opens today in a few major cities, and it will be released nationally on Friday.
J. Edgar Hoover's public image in media popular culture, unnaturally perfect from the 1930s through the 1950s when he put himself forward as the embodiment of the Bureau, has fallen precipitously since his death, under sustained attack by political and cultural foes. The new movie portrays him as neither a monster or a hero, but as a deeply flawed figure in American history. (See Elise Cooper's article, "The Real J. Edgar Hoover," for more on the film's skewing of Hoover's life.)
One of the principal focuses of Hoover's many enemies has been the innuendo that J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant for decades, Clyde Tolson, had some sort of homosexual relationship, even though there is no actual evidence of such. The biographical facts are clear, while the implications are less certain. Tolson worked as Hoover's closest assistant for decades, and the two men ate lunch together nearly every day and vacationed together, and when Hoover died, Tolson inherited his house. The two men are buried near each other, but not next to each other, in the Congressional Cemetery.
Quite clearly, they were good pals, enjoyed each others' company, and trusted few others as they did each other. That on its own does not necessarily make them homosexuals. There was a time, not all that distant in the past, when chastity was admired and assumed to be a possibility, even for a lifetime. This is, of course, unimaginable to those who live in the world of Hollywood or New York.
Director Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who wrote Milk) actually do leave open the faint possibility that Hoover was a chaste male of no particular sexual drive. In the film's portrayal, he clearly looks upon marriage as a useful life arrangement, not a romantic endeavor. Tolson, who is a dandy and who teaches Hoover to dress better, is much more strongly implied to be either an active or latent (as they used to say) homosexual, but even in his case, the possibility (however remote) of a nonsexual relationship is preserved.
The film never shows any homosexual activity between the two, but it does more than nod in that direction. In a very dramatic scene, when Hoover tells Tolson that he is thinking that it is time for the director of the FBI to get a wife for himself, Tolson goes crazy as if he were a rejected lover, and it gets violently physical between the two. This is entirely imaginary, though a key to understanding the mystery of the two men's relationship as the film would have it. In the modern mind, the repression of sexuality of any sort is held to be traumatic and a source of distortion and trouble -- a theme first propounded by anthropoligist Margaret Mead and seized upon by the libertine left as self-evident truth, despite the many grave errors in Mead's original research.
Furtheriung the image of a repressed homosexual, Hoover is depicted as a classic momma's boy, dominated by his widowed mother, with whom he in fact lived into adulthood in the family's D.C. house. Leonardo DiCaprio does a superb job in the title role and will almost certainly receive at least a nomination for an Academy AwardTM. Under current modish sexual assumptions, any adult male without a wife or history of girlfriends is presumed to be a homosexual. When a figure from the past is involved, nudges, winks, and snickers are deployed. That is certainly how the screening audience I sat with last Friday in San Francisco took the movie, guffawing and jeering at moments where the two men were framed tenderly, hinting, to those inclined to believe that adult sexual impulses are irresistible, at something more to follow in the bedroom that the filmmakers modestly omitted, much as they used to do in post-Production Code Hollywood. The person sitting next to me disappointedly remarked at the end, "No cavorting!" Indeed, the homosexuality was implied, but never stated.
One of the most notorious slurs against Hoover is that he was a crossdresser, an allegation that is based on the words of one woman quoted in a book -- slender basis for such an allegation. But this accustaion received enormous publicity when first aired in the early 1990s. The film does not go so far as to show Hoover out in public, but it does acknowledge the slur in a somewhat touching scene following his mother's death, when Hoover goes through her personal effects and holds a dress of hers up against his body.
Eastwood adopted the basic narrative structure of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, with the time frame jumping around the decades, portraying the life of his central character through a series of non-chronological vignettes. Instead of a reporter piecing together the story of a man recently deceased, J. Edgar begins late in Hoover's career, in the 1960s (as he bugs Martin Luther King, Jr.) and has the elderly Hoover dictate his memoirs to an FBI agent scribe. Both directors invented the inner lives of their characters. But of course, Eastwood keeps the name of his subject, while Welles, who faced a living William Randolph Hearst, delicately disguised his subject as Charles Foster Kane.
Among the other hits Hoover takes in the movie, his penchant for grabbing credit (of which he was guilty at times) is on display, as is his eagerness to know the intimate details of Martin Luther Kings's extracurricular sex life (which itself is portrayed in the movie, and for which the film gets points for honesty). The nature of the communist and anarchist threat to America following World War I is also dramatically displayed, launching Hoover's rise and justifying his lifelong antisubversive crusade.
I am certain that Eastwood and Black both believe that they have been fair to their subject and have drawn a portrait somewhere in the middle, between Hoover admirers' and Hoover haters' versions of the man. They will no doubt be attacked in predictable quarters for not portraying Hoover as more of a vicious monster or an active hypocritical homosexual, rather than as a flawed, but undeniably great man.
Technically, the film is excellent. The principal characters portrayed by DiCaprio, Naomi Watts (as Hoover's longtime secretary Helen Gandy), and Armie Hammer (as Tolson) are all done superbly. Hammer, who won much attention in the movie The Social Network portraying the unsympathetic Winkelvoss twins, is actually the great grandson of oilman, art collector, and Soviet agent Armand Hammer, himself the subject of considerable investigation by Hoover.
For better or (more likely) worse, high-budget biopics have the ability to define historic figures more powerfully than historians, at least in the short and medium terms. The portrait here of J. Edgar Hoover is far from cartoonish and contains enough balance that it is likely to be accepted as gospel by many people around the world for decades. It is therefore, like it or not, an important movie. It is also, artistically, quite a good movie as well, whatever injustice it may have done to the memory of its subject.
Picture © 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.