Leonardo DiCaprio has proven himself a masterful actor, but his performance
in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is sure to put him on the same shelf as Sean Penn,
Meryl Streep, Viggo Mortensen, Johnny Depp, and Christian Bale – actors who
inhabit their roles so convincingly that the real person essentially disappears.
As J. Edgar Hoover, who became the head of the FBI in 1924 and remained so until
his death in 1972, DiCaprio thoroughly captures the look, the mannerisms, the
voice, and the personality. We see a man who took his public image as seriously
as his job, as made abundantly clear by a scene late in the film, in which key
events in his life are disputed. It’s actually rather cleverly handled. It’s a
matter of perception; what others see in you may not be as interesting as how
you see yourself.
The film is structured as a meandering narrative, freely shifting back and
forth between Hoover’s early days at the FBI and the final years of his life, at
which point various typists transcribe an autobiography he’s dictating. He
recounts the major cases he personally oversaw, including the Palmer Raids, the
kidnapping and death of Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy, and the gangster wars of
the early 1930s. To say he “personally oversaw” is not to suggest he acted alone
or was even physically present. That didn’t stop him from taking most of the
credit. When Melvin Purvis, one of the most effective and respected agents of
his time, became a media sensation after successfully tracking down criminals
such as Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger, Hoover’s response was to demote
him. He would, in fact, frequently fire or reassign agents he considered
I suspect most audiences will go into this movie with preconceived notions
about Hoover’s personal life, most notably that he may have been a transvestite
and a closeted homosexual. Both are unsubstantiated rumors, although there is
strong evidence supporting the latter, not the least of which is his lifelong
friendship with FBI associate director Clyde Tolson. Apart from their
professional relationship, they would often dine together, attend social events,
and go vacationing. Tolson would go on to inherit Hoover’s estate, receive the
American flag draped over his coffin, and ultimately be buried in the same
cemetery only a few yards away. It cannot be denied that Eastwood and
screenwriter Dustin Lance Black are making a case for this aspect of Hoover’s
life. But this is not a message film about forbidden love; it’s a portrait of a
man who defined himself solely by his reputation.
True enough, it was built and maintained in large part by gathering secret
files on the alleged sex lives of prominent public figures, including Eleanor
Roosevelt. It’s widely speculated that he did this only for the purposes of
blackmail, which would explain how he was able to stay in power for nearly fifty
years (and why FBI directors have since been limited to ten-year terms).
Publically, he was so militantly anti-gay that he went as far as to track down
and threaten anyone who questioned his sexuality. There’s no telling how he felt
privately, although the film makes some compelling arguments. Consider a scene
in which he’s alone in a hotel room with Tolson (Armie Hammer) and broaches the
subject of proposing to actress Dorothy Lamour (who in real life was reported to
have had an affair with Hoover). How does this fit with the image of a lifelong
bachelor who surrounded himself with good-looking people, had an eye for
fashion, and lived with his mother until the day she died?
His mother, Annie (Judi Dench), matronly and domineering, says that she would
rather her son be dead than a “daffodil,” like one of Hoover’s old schoolmates.
We inevitably have this scene in mind after her death, at which point Hoover
tearfully tries on one of her dresses. By my understanding of this scene, he was
not trying to emulate the opposite sex; rather, it was an emotional last-ditch
effort to recapture his closeness with his mother. This isn’t creepy so much as
it is sad and desperate. In that moment, we pity him.
The other woman in his life was Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who, after a few
unconventional dates and an awkward marriage proposal, would go on to become his
permanent personal secretary. He entrusted her with his secret files, the
contents of which remain largely unknown. No real effort is made to speculate on
all the information he gathered, which is fine because this isn’t really what
Edgar is about. It’s a well-researched period drama, complete with accurate
costumes, convincing sets, and appropriately nostalgic lighting and color
schemes. Above all else, it’s a superbly acted character study about a man once
considered the second most powerful in America – although he could have easily
been the first, considering the control he had over elected officials.