Leonardo DiCaprio, caked underneath layers of makeup, looks the part of the controversial FBI director in the new film J. Edgar. But looks — and great acting — can deceive when the story isn’t quite right.
In telling J. Edgar Hoover’s story, director Clint Eastwood has lost his man. “He’s a mystery man,” Eastwood told the Washington Post at a screening of the film for Washington insiders last week. “I still don’t have all the answers on him.” Unfortunately, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, to whom Eastwood entrusted the script, believes he does have those answers: Hoover and Clyde Tolson, his longtime confidant and associate director of the FBI, were, as Black told a gay newspaper, “not straight.”
Hoover’s alleged homosexuality is news to the FBI agents who worked alongside him. And yet, Black, who grew up as a gay Mormon in Sacramento, considers it a fact. Black’s screenwriting credits read as you’d expect from someone who is an unabashed activist: He won an Oscar for Milk; there’s Pedro (2008) about a gay HIV activist from San Francisco who got on MTV’s Real World; and there’s The Journey of Jared Price (2000), a gay-teen romance. Black’s play, 8, tells the story of the Proposition 8 trial, a theme he returns to in his documentary, 8: The Mormon Proposition, which argues that those bigoted Mormons, not the voters of California, did in gay marriage. Eastwood must have known what kind of screenwriter he was getting in Black.
In describing Milk to the UCLA Daily Bruin, Black admitted, “I wanted to inspire the younger generation to start becoming activists in a grassroots way. There’s a lot of stuff that still needs changing — not just gay rights.” Film becomes yet another tool of agitprop. J. Edgar is “the mirror to Milk — a chance to examine the other side of being gay and history and what happens if you have extraordinary political power, which is the opposite of Milk, but you decide to deny yourself love and keep it closeted,” Black told the gay newspaper Windy City Times. Hoover was a “very, very, very troubled man,” not a “pure sociopath,” as Black sees it. Hoover’s success at the FBI owes much to his repressed sexuality. His desire to create the nation’s finest law-enforcement bureau was driven not by his love of country, but because he was “denied love” by his “time” and his over-controlling mother, well played by Judi Dench.
“That love that dare not speak its name,” as Black puts it, is Hoover’s closeness for his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson is portrayed as a dandy, whose well-tailored suits and mannerisms catch Hoover’s eye in a bar. Tolson accepts Hoover’s seemingly impromptu offer of the associate directorship of the FBI, on the condition that whatever happens, they must always dine together. The two, though they never move in together, are constant companions who vacation and frequent nightclubs together. “What really brings the film to life are the scenes that no one can prove happened,” Hammer told an interviewer. “Back then, to be publicly gay, you were done for.”
J. Edgar’s climax comes not from any action or controversial decision, but when Hoover tells Tolson he plans on getting married. Tolson grows irate and damages their shared hotel suite. He and Hoover wrestle, and Tolson kisses Hoover, only to have Hoover reject the advance. As Tolson storms out, Hoover is left pathetically telling Tolson not to leave him. He even says, “I love you.”