June 17, 2013
‘J. Edgar’: Hoover’s Hubris Writ Large
Posted on Nov 9, 2011
Even by Clint Eastwood’s austere standards, “J. Edgar” is a very plain movie. And all the more powerful being so. It simply tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—or America’s “top cop” as the headlines of his day styled him—from the time he took charge of a predecessor organization in 1924 until his death in 1972.
In that period he was a revered figure. Or maybe just a feared figure. Whether he was chasing down gangsters in the Midwest or trying to find the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapper or, perhaps most important to him, keeping tabs on “subversives,” he was a master of public relations. With his bulldog countenance and his take-no-prisoners attitude, Hoover personified modern law enforcement and, to give the devil his due, he transformed the FBI into the model of a scientifically based law enforcement agency.
The true secret of his success, however, was his files. No one, except Hoover and perhaps his assistant, Helen Gandy (beautifully portrayed by Naomi Watts as his ever-patient helpmate), knew what they contained. And no one wanted to find out. A succession of presidents was tempted to challenge him, but, in the end, none of them did. After his death, Gandy destroyed the files. A few surviving scraps of paper are the only evidence that they existed at all.
Hoover grew weirder and weirder as the years wore on. It is tempting to see him as the ultimate bureaucrat, fiercely defensive of his institution and his position within it, vicious with any challenges to his power (there weren’t many). He is played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a performance that is nothing short of towering, though in a very quiet way. This is far more than a matter of expert age makeup. He speaks quietly, insinuatingly, reasonably. Under Hoover’s leadership, the FBI rolled out movies, radio programs, comic books, anything that helped keep his organization at the forefront of public consciousness for decades. His “special agents,” always polite and clad in dark suits and ties, were a somewhat refreshing contrast to the more bumptious representatives of law and order at the height of his reign.
There were, of course, oddities about him, notably his sexuality. He lived in an era when “perpetual bachelorhood” was not an automatic signal of covert homosexuality. It was put about that The Director, preoccupied with the fight against crime, simply didn’t have the time and energy for sexual hanky-panky. He was frequently seen dancing with Ginger Rogers’ mother, and, sometime after his death, actress Dorothy Lamour claimed to have had a brief affair with him (not mentioned in the movie). That was enough to keep the gossips at bay. These were, after all, simpler times. The idea that a highly placed public figure might be gay was simply not thought about.
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