J. Edgar

Machiavelli on the Potomac.


Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar is a remarkably cheerless affair—grim, disjointed, and paced like a snail funeral. But given the movie's subject—J. Edgar Hoover, for nearly 50 years the powerful and widely feared head of the FBI and its precursor, the Bureau of Investigation—this was probably inevitable. Hoover was a tightly buttoned-up teetotaler who was obsessed with propriety, demanding that his agents be meticulously barbered (no mustaches) and austerely clothed (no pinstripe suits!) at all times.

Intriguingly, though, Hoover was also long rumored to be gay—an assumption buttressed by the man's intimate, 40-year relationship with Clyde Tolson, a subordinate with whom he ate lunch and dinner every day, and with whom he also vacationed. In the years since Hoover died, in 1972, speculation has persisted that the tie between the two men was homosexual, while the director's supporters contend it was simply filial, noting Hoover's occasional liaisons with women—among them actress Dorothy Lamour.

Whatever the case, in the movie the bond between Hoover (strikingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Tolson (Armie Hammer) is a central motif. Tolson is depicted as a yearning suitor for Hoover's erotic affection, while Hoover himself is seen as non-reciprocal—a man tormented by inclinations he refuses to acknowledge.

It is to the great credit of Eastwood and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for his script for Milk), that they ignore the undying media myth that Hoover was a public transvestite who participated in homosexual orgies at New York's Plaza Hotel in the 1950s. This lurid tale, retailed by a discarded society wife named Susan Rosenstiel—who was paid for telling it to gossipy biographer Anthony Summers—is too ludicrous to be credited, even though it has acquired over the years an aura of accepted truth.

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Instead of sinking to such sensationalism, the movie offers an admirably nuanced view of Hoover. If only the film were more coherent. It jumps from one era of Hoover's life to another—and then another, and another, and then back again—so that we're not always sure where we are or what's going on. One moment we're in 1919, with Hoover as a fervent Enemy Aliens investigator railing against immigrant anarchists and Bolsheviks; the next, we're in the 1930s, with Hoover cracking down (although never personally) on such celebrated miscreants as John Dillinger and Alvin Karpis. At various points we see him wielding scandalous material from his extensive investigative files for purposes of political bribery: allegations about Eleanor Roosevelt's secret lesbian life, John F. Kennedy's dalliance with a Mafia-linked woman named Judith Campbell Exner. And throughout we keep returning to scenes in Hoover's office in which he's seen dictating his memoirs to a succession of young amanuenses. (All of Hoover's papers were quickly destroyed after his death.)

The movie has a large cast, and memorable performances by Judi Dench, as Hoover's dominating mother (with whom he lived well into adulthood), and a near-unrecognizable Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, his doggedly loyal assistant.

But it's DiCaprio who carries the movie, playing Hoover from avid young lawman to wrinkled Washington manipulator. Such a physical evolution necessarily involves, in depicting the man's later years, a heavy carapace of aging makeup and hairpieces and extensive physical prosthetics. It's a sort of cinematic trickery that is often hard to accept—we can be distracted by the familiar actor's face buried beneath the effects. Eastwood deals with this problem forthrightly: Our first sight of Hoover is at the end of his career, and while we know it's DiCaprio in there beneath the wattles, and may even snicker a bit, the actor's commitment to the character soon overcomes any resistance we might have. In portraying a character in the grip of several obsessions, and tormented by sexual ambiguity, he stirs in us a limited but necessary sympathy for a man who in real life seemed a cold, unbending martinet.

So DiCaprio gives one of his most complexly layered performances. But its effect is obscured by the movie's narrative confusion, and by its excessive length (by now almost an Eastwood trademark) and rigorous solemnity. It's a biopic of considerable accomplishment, attempting to tell us an awful lot (much of it necessarily conjecture) about a basically unlikable figure. Some viewers may feel the movie conveys more than they need to know about Hoover, and at the end they may wonder if the man himself was ever worth knowing. 

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.

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  1. Arrrrrggggh, it’s too bad I’ll have to wait a bit to watch this.

  2. I forgot in our last Di Caprio discussion to give props to Catch Me if You Can. That one is from his pre-hiatus period too.

    1. never mind, I guess it was one of his first one back. Pretty crazy change in careers going from shitty sop to a bunch of good movies with good directors.

      1. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t have to be a dead ringer but jayz, could they have found anyone who looks less like J. Edgar Hoover?

  3. I cannot dredge up the slightest bit of interest to see this, and I appreciate Clint’s work. I just don’t care about Hoover, even though he basically founded extensive federal law enforcement and is a total scumbag just for that alone.

    1. Plus he liked Chicago style pizza.

      1. ProL is Hoover?

        1. Doubt he put broccoli in his chili too

          1. ProL doesn’t make chili; he makes sloppy joes instead.

            1. To be honest, I don’t make chili. I eat it.

    2. I cannot dredge up the slightest bit of interest to see this, and I appreciate Clint’s work.

      Same here. And I even have a grudging respect for DiCaprio after Inception.

    3. +2. Personally I’d rather see a movie about Creepy Karpis, who was actually a pretty interesting guy.

  4. I thought DiCaprio did a pretty good job playing Howard Hughes so I might go see this.

  5. Why am I seeing an ad for that slimy fuck Alan Grayson on this page?

    1. Because you don’t have adblocker?

  6. Lana: OK fine, I can’t prove anything right now.
    Mallory: That didn’t stop J. Edna Hoover from persecuting Martin Luther King, now did it?
    Lana: What does that have to do… Wait, J. Edna?
    Mallory: You never heard that? How Hoover was a huge cross-dressing chicken hawk?
    Lana: I had not.
    Mallory: Well that’s exactly the kind of slanderous and unsubstantiated rumor that I will not tolerate at ISIS. Think about that while you’re on suspension.
    Lana: While I’m on what?!
    Mallory: What are you, deaf and racist?
    Lana: I’m black!
    Mallory: Oh, put it back in the deck.

  7. This is HILARIOUS
    This is serious business!

    The American People’s New Economic Charter
    Your source of information about the emerging Occupy Movement’s economic strategies, concepts, players, and origins,
    PLUS data on public support for the Occupy Wall Street economic agenda.

    They demand compliance with “New Salary Range Recommendations Based on Concepts of Economic Sustainability and Right Livelihood: “Bankers $20,000, Lawyers $27,500, Doctors $28,000,$ Teachers/Librarians 35,000, Laborers $20,000 Technical/Research/Academic $36,000, Entrepreneurs/Business Owners $10,000. Soldiers would be eliminated and replaced with “Defense Workers” earning $25,000. So presumably the Army Chief of Staff would earn the same as a private. No profits for you “business owners” just take your 10 grand and be glad you’re not in a re-education camp with those parents who didn’t teach their kids “universal morality”. My six years of college and three years of law school earn me less than a librarian and Mr. Banker’s Harvard MBA garners him the same pay as a ditch digger.

    1. …consigns YOU to the reeducation camp in North Dakota, Gary.

      Where the Camp Attitude Harmonizer’s salary would be $90,000.

    2. ….the defense workers would get big bucks for slaughtering Asians and Africans on the other side of the globe — making a much better living than owning your own construction company doing productive work at home.

      And obviously the 1% of the 99% that drafted this document picture themselves as the teachers and librarians.

      1. And obviously the 1% of the 99% that drafted this document picture themselves as the teachers and librarians.

        A Phaggot Striver Poor degree isn’t good for anything else, so you’re probably right.

  8. Speaking of the U.S. fashion industry, a handful of the few big-name designers. However, you must not forget Marc Jacobs. His designs are generally free, but the product is designed themselves. For example: Marc Jacobs Handbag, Marc by Marc Jacobs Handbag. In fact, his decks Marc by Marc Jacobs also stand out in the fashion industry. Marc by Marc Jacobs Bags as many types of styles, has also been sought after by many big Hollywood stars.

    1. …the new Sears Kardashian Kollection might bury your otherwise very nice designs.

  9. Another restaurant claimed to use fresh mozz arella cheese, when it’s dishes were actually made with economy cheddar. The “fresh pasta” advertished on another menu tumed out to be frozen.My boyfriend thinks the same with me. He is eight years older than me. We meet online at —-Ag?d?t?.??M–.- .. a nice and free place for younger women and older men, or older women and younger men, to interact with each other. Maybe you wanna check out or tell your friends.

    1. I’m a bi-curious younger woman. Can I find and older women with men on your site?

  10. Hoover did oppose Earl Warren and FDR’s policy of forcing law-abiding American citizens and legal residents into concentration camps. He hated commies too, while respecting their civil liberties.

    1. …up to a point, a point which was reached pretty quickly. Of course, he targeted people he believed to be (and often were) guilty, not people of Japanese ancestry.

  11. Off topic. Need to vent. Just watched Atlas Shrugged on DVD. (Yes, I live in Montana and the nearest showing was a six hour drive, got the DVD as soon as I could.)

    How incredibly disappointing. The epic novel of our time and they reduce it to one hour and twenty nine minutes? Are you fucking shitting me? The tempo was a blur with no time to digest the the ramifications of each government imposition. Zero time for character development and no back story.

    What was the directors cut of LOTR? Four hours? What the hell were they thinking? In a world where Kevin Costner has yet to release a movie less than 3.5 hours long they couldn’t give the most important film adaptation of our time more than 90 minutes?

    No wonder it bombed.


    1. Weren’t they doing that in 3 parts?

      1. Yep, part I…89 minutes. Did so bad in theaters, they are reconsidering doing the remaining two parts.

    2. Inside every long movie is a short movie trying to get out.

  12. J. Edgar Hoover?? If I shaved that man’s back once, I shaved it a thousand times. How he managed to fight crime wearing high heels, was a mystery though. Why, I remember this one time… hey! You kids get off my lawn!

  13. Clint’s worst work because of insufficient detail on the homicidal lunacy of agents & fbi culture.

    “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” (Rousseau)

    Do a background check on fbi/police assassins and serial killers (via my sites); then be less concerned about the run of the mill murderer.

    BTW: In the early years of the fbi Hoover discovered that his agents were generally not quite capable (for a number of reasons) to deal with the murderers and psychopaths of organized crime in the United States; so, Hoover and his associates set out to correct this inadequacy in a calculated and systematic manner: his agents when deemed appropriate would (by training and mind programming) become themselves homicidal sociopaths. His plan worked so well that in today’s fbi, one cannot always determine which agents (and operatives) are cold blooded murderers and torturers.For example: People who knew H. Paul Rico (ex-fbi agent)”… recall him as a cop who dressed and talked like a gangster. Only much later would it become clear that it was not an act.” Hitman, Howie Carr, Tom Doherty Associates,LLC,175 Fifth Avenue, New York,NY 10010,2011, p.63.

    Human Experimentation:

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