News & Politics

J Edgar: Did Years of Repressed Homosexuality Transform the FBI Head into a Monster?

The new DiCaprio/Eastwood film on the infamous founder of the FBI thinks maybe!

J. Edgar Hoover is, by now, a mythic figure in some of American history’s most memorable moments. He was the man who founded the FBI in 1935, but he’s best known for his infractions against the American people, not to mention a reputation for being petulant, petty and vengeful.

A shortlist of reasons why he’s one of the most hated men in modern times:

  • Spying on “radicals!"
  • Forming COINTELPRO (which spied on black “radicals”)!
  • Diversion of FBI resources focusing on the Mafia to civil rights leaders like MLK!
  • Allegedly not investigating civil rights-related murders like Emmett Till's!
  • Allegedly mishandling the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy!
  • Crusaded against and blackballed those he deemed “communists!"

And so on. You can argue that Hoover had so many dark spots on his resume because his tenure as FBI head was so lengthy—from its formation in 1935 until his death in 1972—but anyway you slice it, the man was not a friend of the First Amendment or various other civil liberties. In fact, you might say he set a precedent for the myriad ways the FBI and CIA have used to get around it, up to and including the Patriot Act.

Like any treacherous villain, Hoover was a complicated man—which is what J Edgar, the new film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, seeks to portray. Written by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Milk, J Edgar focuses primarily upon his conflicted, dramatic legacy, and infers that the motivations behind his oppressive campaigns—particularly his attacks on individuals he thought to be homosexual—were rooted in his own homosexuality. Was Hoover’s obsession with gathering personal information on every prominent politician in America an attempt to build a wall around his secret? Was he in love with Clyde Tolson, his best friend and protegee, who was buried just a few plots from his own grave? With that as a starting point, you really just have to decide whether you’re going to be sympathetic or not.

So, can you do it? Black told Pridesource that, through his extensive research into the rumors that Hoover and Tolson were lovers (and that Hoover was into cross-dressing), he eventually learned to ... but it was weird.

[Black]’s research caused him to get a "creepy feeling" for how much he started to empathize with the historical figure. "Hoover was this young man who was incredibly promising and brilliant," he says. "Hoover is the ultimate cautionary tale of: Do not replace love and family and your fellow man with admiration and fame. Don't let your kids grow up to be Hoovers, and the way you do that is to teach them the importance of love -- and when they come to you and say that might be someone of the same sex, you have to encourage that and not discourage that."

As a cautionary tale for tolerance, there aren’t too many better examples than J. Edgar Hoover—though again, the film is not about vilifying the FBI head per se, but about exploring his legacy. And though the film portrays tender moments between Colson and Hoover, it was director Eastwood’s goal to maintain that sexual ambiguity, perhaps as a reflection on the moral ambiguity of its message. Eastwood said as much on the Daily Show this week, touching on the level he was operating at with the story:

JON STEWART: What do you think of Hoover? Was he obsessed with law and order because he was obsessed with trying to control himself, do you think?

CLINT EASTWOOD: You know, I’m not sure he was a mystery guy as far as I’m concerned. I grew up hearing him on the radio and reading about him in the paper, but very little. It was a non-information age. And Hoover was always thought of as the head cop, head G-Man, all that sort of thing. But nobody ever really knew anything about him. Great rumors would come out about him, but he was just very secretive. I guess he kept everything between his secretary, Helen Gandy and his close pal, Clyde... I don’t know about the implication, I just kept it as a true love story, actually a love story between the three people.

It's easy enough to empathize with that. And yet, as the sweetness of said love story is explored, Hoover’s ruthlessness veins through the picture, permeating the atmosphere (or perhaps that’s just DiCaprio’s face makeup and fatsuit). As a narrator, Hoover’s extreme statements underscore exactly what we have to reconcile—do we vilify a man who became a monster feeding on power and fear, when so many closeted gays of the era didn’t? Or do we understand his plight, how his inability to be his true self ate him up so much that he lost any semblance of humanity, becoming a paranoid, fixated shell of a man? Leonardo DiCaprio told Hollywood.com:

J. Edgar Hoover really transformed the police system in America and created this federal bureau that, to this day, is one of the most feared and respected and revered police forces in the entire world. Of course, the story goes on to his later years, where he became this, in essence, political dinosaur who didn’t adapt to the changing of our country. The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that Communism was an evil thing, and he wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country. But when the civil rights movement came along, he saw that as an uprising of the people. He stayed in power way too long, and he didn’t listen to his own critics. Therefore, his career ended on a failed note, in my opinion. So [Black’s] portrait of this man was a very complex one and a very interesting one.

Even though it’s a biopic, J. Edgar’s overarching theme of repression breeding repression is an important allegory, one that takes hold of American history as handily as Hoover did. If lack of acceptance and transparency leads to a climate of fear and paranoia, let J. Edgar be a lesson to us for the flipside: open societies beget civil rights.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.