When I was growing up, the bulldog face of J. Edgar Hoover was as iconic as the presidential heads on Mt. Rushmore. He always seemed to be around, shadowing such major figures as Martin Luther King and taking a predictably dim view of students protesting the Vietnam War. I also recall a bizarre and ultimately tragic incident involving Jean Seberg, who started her film career in Hollywood (as Otto Preminger’s St. Joan in 1957), then moved to Paris and achieved New Wave stardom as the American girl who beds and betrays Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Circa 1970, the word spread through the American press that Seberg was pregnant with the child of a Black Panther. The baby girl died soon after birth, and nine years later (after several previous attempts) Seberg committed suicide. Eventually, it was revealed that the FBI, hostile to Seberg’s leftwing sympathies, had planted in magazines and gossip columns the baseless rumor that upended her life.
Obviously, I’m not a fan of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, whose concerns about national security frequently seemed to lapse into paranoia. In later years I heard the rumors about his “unorthodox” sexual proclivities, and became fascinated. So, obviously, did Clint Eastwood, who thought Hoover’s tangled psyche would make for a good film. He assembled what seemed an outstanding team. His Hoover would be played by the always-effective Leonardo DiCaprio, with Naomi Watts and Judi Dench in key roles. Hoover’s longtime companion, Clyde Tolson, would be portrayed by young Armie Hammer, who scored as a Winklevoss twin in The Social Network. The screenplay was in the capable hands of Dustin Lance Black, Oscar winner for Milk.
What went wrong? Frankly, I blame a lot of it on Black’s screenplay. It’s bad enough that – in a film covering some 50 years — it relies on a scrambled chronology that only confuses the viewer. I also suspect that Black, known as Hollywood’s go-to writer when it comes to sympathetic portrayals of gays, couldn’t grasp how to create gay characters he just didn’t like. Black’s Hoover is a grotesque figure, and his Tolson is totally opaque. (Hammer’s stiff performance and unconvincing old-age makeup – apparently augmented by CGI work — don’t help.) Personally, I had no clue as to what Tolson gained from his long covert relationship with Hoover. How could he love this unappealing character from the start? What was the attraction? (Also, why did the loyal secretary played by Naomi Watts stick around for so many years? Had she no life of her own?)
The one interesting aspect of J. Edgar for me was Hoover’s fascination with the movies. There’s a telling scene from the 1930s where a movie audience scoffs at a J. Edgar Hoover public service short about crime-fighting because they’re eager to watch Jimmy Cagney gun down cops in Public Enemy. So Hoover apparently persuaded studio bosses to turn Cagney into an FBI hero in 1935’s “G” Men, and he also worked on his own image, trying to convince the world that he personally captured John Dillinger. On TV there was The F.B.I., a long-running series (1965-1974) based on cases from the agency files, but I also vaguely remember a much earlier show, mostly because of its strange title: I Was a Communist for the FBI.
Today the American public still loves its gangster figures, and Hoover is widely remembered as a buffoon, a possible cross-dresser, and the protagonist of a dull movie. Sounds like a commie plot to me.