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November 11, 2011

Hoover Damned?

Leonardo DiCaprio Embodies the Complexities of J. Edgar

By Felicia Feaster

  • Images courtesy of Warner Brothers

Will Clint Eastwood clean up this awards season with his Hoover biopic? Who knows, but it’s a fascinating and surprise turn for this famously macho actor/director

Naomi Watts and Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar Naomi Watts and Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar

A fascinating portrait of an influential American, director Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar presents Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a flawed, but prescient figure whose public role building the FBI into an important institution is contrasted with a very colorful private life. A reputed cross-dresser and an epic mama’s boy (Judi Dench is both smothering and loving as his steely ma), Hoover was also, as Eastwood tells it, a closeted gay man devoted to his right hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who became Hoover’s work- and soul-mate.

Clint Eastwood and Judi Dench Clint Eastwood and Judi Dench

For the most part, Eastwood tends to soft pedal Hoover’s most malicious and damaging acts of wire-tapping and bad behavior, glossing over the fallout from his character assassination. Eastwood and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) prefer a more nuanced approach, crafting of Hoover into a tragic figure. J. Edgar begins with a gray-haired, dour and heavy set ’60s-era Hoover dictating a self-aggrandizing autobiography to a handsome underling. However, the movie also flashes back frequently to a spryer man, whose zeal for Commie hunting was formed in the anarchist movement of the post World War I era. Trained under fellow Red-hater and Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson), Hoover went on to advocate for increased power for the FBI, including the right to bear arms, and for those same powers to be afforded to the police force. While the rest of the Feds mock Hoover for his obsession with fingerprinting and deride his “science lab” inquiries into crime scene analysis, Eastwood gives Hoover his history book props. When the national celebrity and aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped from his New Jersey home, it was Hoover’s devotion to forensic science that helped catch perp Bruno Hauptmann—although speculation continued as to whether Hauptmann was the real, or sole, perpetrator.

But at other times, Hoover’s crime fighting zeal spilled over into power-mad mania. Hoover wanted to create an FBI fingerprint for every American and seemed to confuse the sexual indiscretions of Martin Luther King Jr. or JFK with political radicalism. Drawing a line in the sand between proper and improper behavior, Hoover clearly saw his own homosexual yearnings as permissible but the sex lives of others as national scandals. J. Edgar touches on Hoover’s often irrational tyranny, from the dismissal of agents with family ties or whose looks didn’t fit his image of a G-man to his loosey goosey approach to first amendment and due process rights. 

A longtime labor of love, Eastwood’s J. Edgar is probably not the film history buffs were anticipating, especially coming from one of the manliest directors in Hollywood. Instead, J. Edgar is humanizing and complex, and makes Hoover’s conflicted nature as a closeted gay man, more than his many FBI mistakes and triumphs, its linchpin. For those willing to go there, J. Edgar even hints at the damage that repression can do, when the shame reputedly stoked by Hoover’s mother flowers into fanaticism.

Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson

In so many of his previous roles DiCaprio practically levitates with the golden promise of youth. But in J. Edgar, he is as utterly earthbound as a lead balloon: weighed down by not just the sobriety of his job, but the baggage of his smothering mothering and repressed homosexuality. Looking portly and tortured by his feelings of self-doubt and need for approval, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a magnificent performance despite his uncanny resemblance, at various points in the film, to a late model Orson Welles.

Eastwood is having a very Brokeback moment here; offering a sensitive portrait of the brutality of remaining closeted and unable to express affection for two otherwise straight-laced men, Hoover and Tolson. At key moments, the film is a remarkable portrait of the carefully circumscribed life of gay men in another era. Hoover’s refusal to dance with a woman at a fancy nightclub is a clear sign to the women at the table that Hoover is gay, and in one fascinating scene where Hoover “interviews” Clyde Tolson for a job, Tolson’s gestures of straightening a mussed curtain and offering Hoover a handkerchief to wipe his sweaty brow become a kind of unspoken show of interest and caring that cements their lifelong relationship. A handkerchief passed between the men becomes a form of silent communication.

Eastwood could have chosen many directions for his film about the infamous Commie-hunter, but the fact that he choose to offer a compassionate and generous portrait of the internal conflicts of a closeted gay man as the film’s linchpin makes for a far more interesting and unexpected film. Eastwood has crafted a sensitive, even endearing portrait of a troubled man who wants to do good, but often does the worst.

J. Edgar Hoover opens Friday Nov. 11 at local theaters.