In an in-depth interview, the legendary American director explains how he scanned dusty files from the past in search of the keys for understanding longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, one of the 20th century's most powerful and indecipherable
In Clint Eastwood's new film, J. Edgar, the John F. Kennedy assassination is depicted with such violence that it shocks audiences. There's no empathy for the victim. The death of the president is a mere footnote.
The award-winning director was himself surprised by the impact the sequence had on those who've seen the movie. In the much talked-about bio pic of longtime FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, Eastwood had intended to keep the attention accorded to the Kennedys to a minimum."Everything about them had already been written and said – John's affairs, the affairs of both brothers with Marilyn Monroe, the dreadful relations between Hoover and the whole Kennedy family. What else was there to add?" Nothing, obviously – except presenting the fall of the clan in a completely different way.
To do that, the director had to flip the perspectives, and tell the story of Nov. 22, 1963 from the point of view of John Edgar Hoover, who headed the Bureau of Investigation and its successor agency, the FBI, from 1924 until 1972. "A man of mystery," says Eastwood, who spoke at length with Le Monde before the movie's French release this month.
As part of his preparation for the movie, Eastwood met with several people who worked with Hoover. Some were emotional when they talked about their former boss, others reserved, but all considered him indecipherable. And "none of them went beyond simple biography. I wasn't about to be satisfied with that – I wanted to try and figure out what was going on his head," Eastwood explains.
In his reconstitution of the fatal day, Eastwood shows Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, taking a call that informs him that a lone killer has just shot the president in Dallas. Mechanically, the FBI boss reaches for the high-security line that links him to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Dryly, he tells the president's younger brother that the chief of state has been killed and hangs up. The whole picture comes together in a matter of seconds: the antagonism between Hoover and the Kennedy clan; Hoover's power, derived from the information he possessed, to make and unmake kings. Compared to the White House's transient occupants, the FBI boss's power was immutable. From Coolidge to Nixon, Hoover served eight American presidents.
"I felt very strongly about this episode," says Eastwood. "I asked the screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, to find every detail about it that he could. Could Hoover have really been that cruel? That dry? That's why I show Leonardo DiCaprio from the back at that moment, as if he were showing his contempt to the audience too."
"Do not file"
It was after seeing William Wellman's Public Enemy, Howard Hawks's Scarface and Mervyn LeRoy‘s Little Caesar, gangster movies in vogue in the early 1930s, that Hoover himself realized that he had to win the image war by creating a new FBI out of the old Bureau of Investigation. He did this in 1935, and the same year, in William Keighley's G Men, James Cagney played a young federal agent. It marked a turning point: young Americans would henceforth identify with the crime fighters rather than the gangsters.
"It was during that era, the early 1940s, when we started to become aware of how important Hoover had become," recalls Eastwood, who was born in 1930. "My parents and other adults around me talked about him at least as much as they did about the Errol Flynn paternity suits."
By 1935, when his picture appeared on the cover of Time for the first of three times during the course of his career, J. Edgar Hoover had achieved icon status.
Studying the comic books depicting Hoover and FBI agents, re-reading the series devoted to Hoover's exploits, Eastwood says he was surprised to find both a ham-fisted cop and "a man of exceptional political talent. Eastwood says "Hoover knew how to get his picture taken with Hollywood stars like Shirley Temple, Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, and how to silence journalists who weren't on his side; he was a master at the art of passing for a man he was not."
As evidence that Hoover was an exceptionally gifted political animal, Eastwood discovered a tape of the FBI director talking to Richard Nixon. He was struck by the way Hoover gave the president an opinion about everything, exercising a clear sense of superiority. "It's very impressive," Eastwood says. "It gives you a sense of the measure Hoover had of his own power. He acts like a king, and talks to the president the way you would to a subject."
Part of Hoover's power stemmed from the bugging, taping, and investigations he did of everybody in politics, from congressmen and senators to the president himself. He kept the information updated and filed with scrupulous precision. "The files were destroyed by Helen Gandy, Hoover's secretary, right after his death," Eastwood says. "What did they contain? We'll never know. Did they contain anything? I like the idea that all of his power may have rested on hot air."
Hoover was as proud of his archiving system as he was of the creation of a central data bank of fingerprints that facilitated the hunt for criminals, which marked a truly revolutionary step in the fight against crime. Hoover's filing system was Kafkaesque, mysterious, unintelligible, deliberately labyrinthine and understood only by him, with files names that included "Obscene," "Sexual Perverts," "Personal and Confidential" or the most baroque of all: "Do Not File."
Watching presidents go by
Eastwood drew inspiration for his movie from large ring binders that he filled with hundreds of photos of Hoover and his associates. In one image, perhaps the most striking, Hoover is seated with a map of the world at his feet – a vivid image of the way he saw his role.
Hoover hated White Heat and Scarface because they imparted a heroic vision of gangsters. James Cagney in White Heat claiming to be "on top of the world," Paul Muni in Scarface looking at a blimp with the words "The World Is Yours' -- Hoover resented these individual expressions of hegemony, and yet his own hold on the world ended up being far superior.
Hoover controlled his universe from the FBI's general headquarters in Washington – and that is the main setting in J. Edgar: his office, from which he observed the world and watched presidents go by. It was a miniature kingdom, an autarky that worked according to his own rules.
"Hoover was very strict with his staff – about the way they dressed, how much they drank," says Eastwood. "They all had to have law degrees. He was the director of his universe, attentive to every detail, with all the eccentricities that would entail. For example, he had no tolerance for people with moist palms."
Other details emerged after Hoover's death. He forbade coffee breaks. Letters and memos had to be written in a uniform manner, with margins and the space between lines calculated to the millimeter by Hoover himself. And there were other oddities as well, making Hoover a weirdo on the same monumental scale as Howard Hughes. After a car crash that occurred when his vehicle was turning left, Hoover insisted that the chauffeur of his Cadillac systematically turn right, thus making navigation of even the simplest route complicated.
Hoover was rumored to be homosexual, and speculation swirled around his relationship to Clyde Tolson, the associate director of the FBI. Two scenes in J. Edgar address the issue of Hoover's sexuality. In one, Armie Hammer, the actor who plays Tolson, kisses Leonardo DiCaprio. In the other, Hoover puts on one of his mother's dresses – according to rumors that circulated about the boss at the FBI, he liked to dress up as a woman.
Writer Truman Capote, who was gay, told a magazine editor that Hoover and Tolson were gay, and he was thinking of writing a long piece about them. In the end, though, Capote quipped that he couldn't get past the title: Johnny and Clyde.
Eastwood chose to put a large question mark around the subject of Hoover's sexual orientation. He took into account photographs that Hoover snapped of his companion -- Clyde Tolson sleeping, in his bathrobe, or relaxing bare-chested by the pool. They reveal a definite intimacy. But, says Eastwood: "Love and sex are two different things. It was clear that Hoover held Tolson in high regard, so it seemed superficial to present their relationship as merely homosexual, assuming that it was."
"Hoover surrounded himself with people he trusted," Eastwood explains. "His mother, with whom he lived, and his secretary Helen Gandy were part of the inner circle. Tolson gained access to the circle when Hoover's mother died."
"Helen Gandy is a legend at the FBI," the director adds. "The present FBI chief, Robert Mueller, told me he didn't know anything about her except for one thing: she assumed stewardship in an incredible way. After Hoover died, Tolson and Helen Gandy barely said a word. They could have written memoirs and earned millions, but they never did. Loyalty was the key to Hoover's universe, with that keen sense for the secret that always goes with it." Indeed, Eastwood says, this fact is the only thing he is sure about the man in question.
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