J. Edgar

February 11, 2012
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Spare a thought for Leonardo DiCaprio. He gives a stellar performance as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s bio pic of the infamous FBI chief, and doesn’t even score a best actor nomination at the Oscars. The problem, quite simply, is that Hoover – stitched-up, paranoid, obsessive and megalomaniac – is not what might be called a sympathetic character.

Yes, but how about Meryl Streep in her lavishly-praised portrayal of that old dragon, Maggie Thatcher? In The Iron Lady there were at least a few opportunities to feel sorry for the great lady in her dotage, but Hoover is a reptile from start to finish. While Eastwood helps us to understand Hoover’s psychology, it would be beyond any director to make him even vaguely likeable.

The irony of J.Edgar’s life is that even though he created the FBI, becoming one of the most powerful men in the United States, he is viewed nowadays as a rather ludicrous figure. Mention John Ruskin, the most influential art critic of the nineteenth century, and the only thing most people know about is the debacle of his wedding night. Mention Hoover, and the only thing everyone knows is that he used to wear a dress.

Ruskin’s nuptials may have been a non-event, but we are sketchy on the details. Hoover’s transvestism is almost certainly an invention. The claims were made in a 1993 book by Anthony Summers, who quoted an extremely unreliable source. The story spread rapidly because it appealed to so many who loathed Hoover, and enjoyed the idea of him being a hypocrite – and, to use the vernacular – a pansy. Truman Capote, for instance, said he didn’t care whether the story was true or false, he just loved the fact that it made Hoover look bad.

When a man is inextricably linked to such a story it creates a problem for the director who aims to bring that character to life on screen. Eastwood’s solution is ingenious. He doesn’t ignore the dress altogether, but links it to Hoover’s lifelong worship of his domineering mother, played by Judi Dench.

Frock or no frock, Hoover was most certainly homosexual, although it would be wrong to call him “gay”. In the early days of his directorship he appointed Clyde Tolson as his deputy, and the two men soon became inseparable. They shared lunch and dinner on a daily basis, and even went on holidays together. When Hoover died he left his estate to Tolson (played by Armie Hammer). Once again, we have no way of knowing the true nature of this relationship. There is even a body of opinion that Hoover and Tolson loved each other in a “brotherly” way.

Eastwood had to walk a tightrope in deciding how to portray the duo, who were known to their FBI colleagues as “J. Edna and Mother Tolson”. He manages to work the story into the greater saga of Hoover’s public life as a simmering romance that never comes to the boil – or almost never. DiCaprio’s great moments in this movie are probably those scenes where we see Hoover searching for his sensitive side, albeit with little success.

With the exception of his mother, the only other human being who played a long-term role in Hoover’s life was his secretary, Helen Gandy. Early in the story, Miss Gandy knocks back his marrage proposal but accepts a follow-up offer to be his assistant. She would remain in the job for 54 years, destroying Hoover’s private files after his death. Naomi Watts can be admired for bringing some substance to this enigmatic woman who seemed to neither have nor require a life of her own.

The bulk of J.Edgar takes us on a whirlwind ride through Hoover’s rise to power. We see his fanatical anti-communism, the introduction of scientific detection methods, the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and the attempts to blackmail politicians. It is necessarily a Readers’ Digest view because there is simply too much to squeeze into a two-and-a-half hour film. His ambiguous connections with the Mafia are barely touched upon.

Ultimately this is one of those projects that might be described as either brave or foolhardy. It is a great story, but so much will never be known that Hoover remains a mystery. To those with no familiarity with modern American history (“Who was this Lindbergh?” I heard someone ask.), J. Edgar will read like a fragmented documentary. Conversely, to those who know a lot it will feel like a hasty summary.

The critic, David Thomson, has said that Eastwood should have taken a less cautious approach and portrayed Hoover as a psychotic monster. It might have livened up the film, even if it played havoc with the truth. But one can respect Eastwood for his scrupulous attention to historical fact. J.Edgar could never be more than a qualified success but it remains an absorbing portrait of a man who exercised power over the lives of millions. Hoover was not a pantomime villain but a ruthless technocrat. It is important that he be shown for what he was: the American century’s own best example of ‘the banality of evil’.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, February 11, 2012

J.Edgar, USA, Rated M. 137 minutes