By Jeff Otto | The Playlist November 9, 2011 at 4:58PM
Perhaps no figure in American history was as simultaneously respected and reviled as J. Edgar Hoover. Ruling the F.B.I. with an iron fist from its foundation in 1935 all the way through to his death in 1972, Hoover was a controversial figure for countless reasons, from his unscrupulous (and often unconstitutional) tactics to his mysterious personal life and rumors of cross-dressing and homosexuality. Hoover built the F.B.I. from the ground up, but many would argue later overstayed his welcome and abused his authority on a regular basis.
Tackling the complex subject matter of Hoover’s life in any kind of resolute way is a daunting task. In the end, it took a 37-year-old screenwriter and an 81-year-old director to pull it together. After years of research, “Milk” writer Dustin Lance Black penned the script that piqued the interest of an ageless Clint Eastwood who, at 81, remains as vibrant and daring as ever.
Eastwood gathered an impressive ensemble including Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Naomi Watts as Hoover’s longtime secretary Helen Gandy, Armie Hammer as Hoover protégé Clyde Tolson and Judi Dench as Hoover’s mother, Annie Hoover.
Eastwood and the cast (minus Dench) were recently on hand at the Beverly Wilshire to discuss the biopic, which hits screens today in limited release and opens nationwide this Friday. Here are five highlights from the press conference.
1. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s quest to find a personal connection with Hoover.
In researching Hoover and the many biographies and accounts of his storied career, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black found that the vast majority of these accounts were inconsistent and had a very specific political and/or personal agenda. So Black set out to take what he’d read and explore Hoover’s world first hand by retracing his steps in Washington and meeting with those who had met him or known the man. “At a certain point you’ve met enough people and read enough biographies you start to be able to come to conclusions about who the man was,” says Black. “This is someone who attained a lot of power and maintained that power for longer than he probably should have. For me, it was always important to answer that question of why. So most of my questions were always to answer that and I thought that was how we could make this into an emotional story. That’s how we could learn from the good and the bad that he did.”
Black found his answer in the very secretive, restrained private life of Hoover. “For me, that why was answered in his inability to love,” says Black. “And learning a lot about the atmosphere he grew up in, interviewing older gentleman who could describe what it was like to grow up in that time, pre-sexual revolution; the behavior, the rules of what you could and couldn’t say, even in private with a person you might be falling in love with. All of the sudden, it started to really match up with Hoover’s behavior and I really felt like I understood this man. It was a creepy feeling at times because I would have hard feelings about so much of what he did and I started to empathize with him and feel for him. You start to question that and worry about that. And I always would stop myself and say, ‘Hey, if we want to prevent this from happening again, we need to understand this from a human perspective, we need to understand that why.’”
2. Leo’s connection with the script and his view on J. Edgar.
Black’s script was at the heart of DiCaprio’s decision to tackle the challenging and potentially alienating role. Beyond the personal backstory that may have fueled many of Hoover’s decisions in life, DiCaprio was intrigued by the almost singular lifestyle led by the men and women of this story. “Dustin Lance Black’s script was a very fascinating portrait of this man,” DiCaprio tells press. “These characters had devoted their life to government service and that meant not having any kind of personal life whatsoever. They were a representation of the F.B.I. That was their church. It’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around. To completely sacrifice any love in your life and never experience that on a personal level and all three of these characters lived a life of service to their country.”
The part also meant exploring the many sides to Hoover’s journey, from his early days forming the Bureau to his controversial later years ruling with an iron fist and regularly overstepping perceived boundaries. “I was fascinated by [Black]’s take on entering Hoover’s career during a time [where it was treated like] almost a terrorist invasion by communists, the red scare, that sort of paranoia that was infused in our country and the lawlessness of these bank robbers that were going from state to state and becoming free men when they crossed state lines... How J. Edgar Hoover really transformed the police system in America and created this federal bureau that to this day is still one of the most feared and revered and respected police forces in the entire world.”
“Of course, this story goes on to his later years where he became, in essence, a political dinosaur who didn’t adapt to the changing of our country,” says DiCaprio. “It’s very much about the Kennedy years and the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that communism was an evil thing. He wanted to retain fundamental principals of democracy in our country, but when the civil rights movement came along he saw that as a parting of the people. He didn’t adapt or change to our country. He stayed in power way too long and he didn’t listen to his critics. He was a staunch believer in his moral beliefs and his beliefs in what was right for our country. Therefore, his career ended on a failed note. So Black’s portrait of this man was a very complex and interesting one. You can’t deny that he wasn’t a patriot, but at the same time his tactics were pretty deplorable.”
3. Despite the prestigious cast and director, Armie Hammer was a little unsure about taking on the Clyde Tolson role at first.
As Clyde Tolson, Armie Hammer has one of the most pivotal and tricky part’s of Hoover’s complicated tale. Whatever the true extent of Hoover and Tolson’s relationship actually was, their importance to one another over their decades as coworkers and friends is undeniable. Considering the often harsh treatment Tolson endured from Hoover, Hammer initially had trouble identifying with his character’s motivations. “At first, I didn’t understand it,” admits Hammer. “For the character of J. Edgar, there’s a lot going on. It’s very layered and I think Leo did an incredible job nailing that. But with Clyde, in order for it to make sense for him to be there and to stick around and almost take that sort of hot and cold abuse, it had to be a love story. I understood why Hoover wanted him around and why it was dangerous and titillating to have him around. When I first read it, I didn’t understand exactly why Clyde stuck around. And then after having several great conversations with Fiona Weir, who cast the project, and with several friends of mine, it became more and more clear to me and then I became more and more obsessed with it.”
4. Clint doesn’t see a connection between J. Edgar Hoover and Dirty Harry.
Considering Hoover’s no holds barred approach to law enforcement, the parallel could be drawn between Hoover’s tactics and one of Eastwood’s most famous creations, Dirty Harry. But Eastwood sees a distinctive separation between the two, primarily in the fact that Hoover made his moves from behind the scenes. “I don’t think Hoover conforms to Dirty Harry at all,” says Eastwood. “Dirty Harry was a mythical character that Don Siegel and I approached as an exciting detective story. Harry Julian Fink had written Harry as a man concerned with the victim and it came about at a time when everybody was concerned about the rights of the accused. So we came out with a detective story with a lot of violence and stuff, but it was also concerning the rights of victims. And shortly after that, there came all kinds of victimless rights organizations, so we felt maybe we were ahead of the curve on that. I don’t see any parallel though because Hoover was an administrator. He administrated a very large organization, so why would he be out on the street making arrests? That’s what he had his agents for. He was just under scrutiny from people because he disliked them or he was aggressive or whatever.”
5. Hoover’s life, legacy and almost pathological need for power was stranger and more convoluted than any fiction.
Hoover’s journey is unlike almost any other figure in American or world history. He sought and attained a level of power beyond all measure. And even as he failed to adapt with the changing times and that power was brought under great scrutiny time and again even by Presidents, it remained largely in tact until his passing. “You couldn’t write a character like J. Edgar Hoover and have it be believable,” says DiCaprio. “He was a crock pot of eccentricities. We couldn’t even fit all of his eccentricities into this movie. We could go on and on. The fact that this man was, if not the most powerful man of the last century, one of the most in our country. And he lived with his mother until he was 40 years old. He listened to his mother for political advice. The more I dug deep to understand the history and childhood and what motivated these people at a very early age, [his mother] wanted the Hoover name to rise to great glory in Washington and so he was this incredible ambitious young genius that really transformed our country and created this Federal Bureau that to this day is revered and feared. And yet, he was a momma’s boy. He was incredibly repressed emotionally. His only outlet was his job. He wasn’t allowed to have any personal relationships, or that’s how he felt. No matter what his sexual orientation was, he was devoted to his job and power was paramount to him. Holding onto that power at all costs was the most important thing in his life.”
“J. Edgar” opens in limited release today, Wednesday November 9th, and expands this Friday, November 11th, 2011.