J. EDGAR (2011)

Running Time:  137 mins.                      Rating: 4 Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Clint Eastwood

Genre: Biography/Drama

Country: USA

Language: English

Distributor: Warners

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Ken Howard, Josh Hamilton, Ed Westwick, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas, Zach Grenier, Denis O’Hare, Stephen Root, Kyle Eastwood, Lea Thompson, Christopher Shyer


I find that I’ve written a lot about historical films in regard to their accuracy and authenticity and analyzed just about every way a film can be screwed up. But after having seen Clint Eastwood’s J. EDGAR, to take a limerick out of context: “look here Jock, and see what I’ve got, I think I found one new way”. This is the first film I’ve seen that I recognized that historical accuracy was sacrificed because of the necessities of editing. The film on the screen is not the same film that was written and shot.

Of course today, nearly every film biography is told in flashback. CITIZEN KANE is the most famous, even if it wasn’t the first, film biography told in flashbacks. That was a fictional biography (whatever else you may hear), however. Nicholas Ray wanted to make a biography of Jesse James and he wanted it told in flashbacks organized by theme rather than chronology, told by the different people who knew him. This was rejected for the conventional unraveling of his life instead. LOLA MONTES also jumped around from episode to episode all using the matrix of appearing in a circus show. Today the flashback is the new conventional. Published biographies today inevitably start with the description of a key event in the mature life of the subject before backing up to their family history and birth. Books no longer begin with a genealogy of the subject; films do not begin with the happy-go-lucky lad or lass running barefoot over the lawn. J. EDGAR is told, or rather “as told to” a series of typists who are tying up Mr. Hoover’s memoirs as he dictates them. While the resulting film is neither flagrant nor blatant in its anachronisms there are considerable alterations to the chronology of the story and huge chunks of Hoover’s story de-emphasized or left out altogether. My hypothesis is that in telling the story of J. Edgar Hoover the filmmakers found themselves with a mini-series length, maybe as long as four hours, film, that had to be trimmed to reasonable length (2 hours and 17 minutes).

In order to do this they had to change the entire focus of the film and zero in on one case among the dozen or so of the most famous FBI cases. The filmmakers chose the Lindbergh Kidnapping as the spine of the film. The chronology of the rest of the film is dominated by scenes delineating various episodes from the case that extended from 1932-1935. There are also various rhythms that were carefully set up which I think were abandoned. And, half of the picture is taken up by exploring the sexually ambiguous sexual relationship between J. Edgar and Clyde Tolson.

Historical pictures, even just period dramas, are problematical from the start. Everything is up for grabs. If the setting is in the past 100 years there are vintage automobiles to deal with. Each will be, of course shiny and perfect because they are rented from enthusiasts who meticulously restore and maintain their cars. In J. EDGAR there is a perfect red 1914 Chevrolet which I’m told by people who know, was the best Chevy and its all been downhill ever since. The street underneath it was cracked asphalt and that can’t be right but I looked it up and Washington D.C. was among the first cities to become Macadamized, in the 1880’s in fact. On the other hand many in the audience gasped when Clyde takes J. Edgar to his tailor to get a decent suit and uses the phrase “fashion forward”. Surely this phrase didn’t exist in the 1920’s. I haven’t found a dictionary containing this phrase that gives its origin and first use, but I’d be surprised if it’s existed very long. And of course hairstyles are almost always contemporary. David Lean, on re-seeing DOCTOR ZHIVAGO after many years, winced at Julie Christie’s 1960s hairdo and announced that he would have given her a period hairstyle instead, but I don’t think so, because producers always want the stars looking as beautiful as possible, and the standards are time sensitive, and I bet he would have gone with a ‘60s hairstyle, even given a second chance.

There are certain hints throughout the picture of what was cut out. There are several scenes where Hoover watches a Presidential Inauguration Parade go past his office and he stands on a balcony and waves as the president passes by. It’s a clever way to show, rather than tell, the way Hoover was a permanent fixture while presidents literally came and went. However this punctuation devise seems to have been attenuated. It was used only a few times, for Roosevelt, Kennedy, I think, Johnson and Nixon for sure. I don’t know if they all made it from script to editing room. There may have been budget considerations (claimed to be $42 million), where stock footage of the inaugural parade (in Nixon’s case, the inaugural) was blended with a CGI close up. The CGI used in the Johnson parade looks like it was made with Colorforms.

There was also an early scene where Hoover is walking in-between two lines of “at attention” special agents. He stops at one, Agent Stokes, and fires him for wearing, STILL wearing, a mustache even though he had been with The Bureau for seven years. Since we had seen Stokes during the Palmer raids in 1919, we can assume that this must be circa 1926. Hoover had been made head of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. Could there have been a previous shape up where Hoover had confronted Agent Stokes about his mustache? During the same scene he addresses another agent, Caffrey, who is asked what he’s doing and he announces he’s going to Kansas City, something to do with bank robber Frank Nash  (I don’t remember if he said, “apprehend”, or “take into custody” or something else or not).  To someone familiar with gangster and/or FBI lore this means nothing less than the infamous Kansas City Massacre. This was a shoot out in front of KC’s Union Station where fugitive Frank Nash was being transferred from local to Federal custody and gangsters (which may or may not have included Pretty Boy Floyd) attempted to free him.

The point is that this happened in 1933. The earliest Caffrey could have left to hunt Nash would have been 1930. It must have been two different, (of a series of how many?), shape-ups. The question is, was this anachronism, an error in the script, or were there a series of “shape up” scenes and the error the result of fusing at least two of these hypothetical scenes into one? I prefer to think that certain exigencies of length dictated the editing and not the type of cheap script where, for example, Dorothy Parker says everything famous she ever said in the same evening.

Of course it is a pretty time worn devise, to have someone blurt out Little Big Horn!, or Pearl Harbor, and we know what’s going to happen and no one in the film does.  CAVALCADE, which is reckoned to be one of the worst Best Picture Oscar winning films, has a young couple leaning against the railing of an ocean liner talking about their future. They walk away and reveal the lifesaver attached to the railing reading RMS TITANIC. Oh. (In the TV remake it reads USS TITANIC). There’s a war movie where the Japanese commandant of a POW camp is depressed because he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima where his family lives. Later he is happy because he found out his family was away visiting relatives in Nagasaki. It’s a cheesy devise and I was sort of shocked Eastwood kept it in, even if it wouldn’t have upset the chronology.

Even weirder, this foreshadowed disaster would be familiar to only a very thin slice of filmgoers. At most. The Kansas City Massacre takes place in June ’33, Roosevelt was inaugurated in March, and the Lindbergh Baby was kidnapped in February. Yet they seem separated by years. In fact, the Lindbergh kidnappings seems to be a disproportionately represented in the film. Dillinger is mentioned only in passing and then only in the context of Hoover’s jealousy of Agent Melvin Purvis who became famous for killing him in July 1934. The shoot out at Little Bohemia, a huge Bureau blunder, isn’t mentioned either. Neither are WW2, Nazi spies, or the postwar Red scares, the Blacklistings, and so many other high points of FBI lore.

J. EDGAR is like a piece of music with its themes constantly interweaving. But as history, those themes are limited in number and are ambiguous in presentation. Mother Love; the Lindbergh kidnappings; dear Clyde; and the comings and goings of politicians are the themes. Mother is a monster and J. Edger is safely under her thumb. She even gives him a ring to seal their relationship. She has one gentile racist outburst about Negros and that’s left at that and later J. Edgar is obsessed with Martin Luther King, Jr. The subject of Hoover’s overt (or lack of it) racism is never approached. In fact there were black FBI agents in Hoover’s time. All of Hoover’s house servants, his gardener, his cook, his chauffeur, were all FBI agents and were all black. And, were all on the FBI’s payroll. Hoover came into public service at the time Southerner T. Woodrow Wilson brought Jim Crow to previously integrated Washington D. C. and he fit in perfectly.

Another aspect that was filmed, then eliminated, but with a remaining artifact, was Hoover’s expert manipulation of the media. There is a scene where Hoover is testifying before Congress and when he and Clyde leave the building Clyde has a huge hissy fit about Hoover perjuring himself. The film doesn’t go into what set off Clyde but it must have been Hoover denying any involvement with the FBI radio series or the films made about the FBI. Not only was Hoover notoriously controlling about the FBI brand but also there were cast listings for actors that suggest scenes depicting Hoover’s involvement. This wasn’t a minor point in the original script I’ll wager.

First of all, Hoover was assiduous in getting publicity for the FBI. He forced Warner Brothers, no doubt through Roosevelt, to have the emblematic tough guy gangster Jimmy Cagney, to play an FBI special agent in G-MEN. This is hinted at in the finished film by showing Cagney as both a gangster and later as an FBI agent in film clips. This would be a perfect set up to show Hoover’s inside machinations influencing and manipulating Hollywood. There was a very popular radio series also called G-Men, later Gang Busters, which ran for 21 years. Hoover oversaw and approved everything that went into the media labeled FBI.

Hoover also made use of the enormous publicity generated by the Hearst newspaper columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell. There was the famous, (but fictional), surrender of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, head of Murder Incorporated. None of Hoover’s media manipulations were shown in the film, so when Hoover perjures himself in front of Congress, to Clyde’s great dismay, there is zero impact, other than the two men NOT having lunch together.

There is a brief scene of Hoover’s Hollywood adventures, meeting Ginger Rogers and her formidable stage mother, the ex-Marine, Lela Rogers, who was also a founder of the extreme right wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. She objected to her daughter uttering the line “Share and share alike, that’s democracy”, in the wartime film TENDER COMRADE, written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Edward Dmytryk, two of the Hollywood Ten. Lela Rogers was an enthusiastic witness before HUAC. In J. EDGAR she seems to exist only to embarrass Hoover by asking him to dance which causes him to be taken to task by his mother who teaches him how to hold a woman and dance, all the while doing everything but accusing him of being a faggot.

Hoover was quite the high society stepper. There are several scenes of J. EDGAR at the track, and he was notorious as a $2 bettor. Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano’s right-hand man and later the Chairman of the National Commission, used to complain about how much it cost him to fix the races so Hoover could come away a winner. Yeah, Hoover used to go to the track as the guest of organized crime figures. He said he wasn’t interested in arresting bookmakers and gamblers. It wasn’t until the notorious Little Appalachia meeting in 1958 that the lid was blown off organized crime. Hoover’s fraternizing with members of The Mob, while downplaying their existence has always been counted as one of his greatest and most damning failings.

So what we don’t have is an in depth recounting of Hoover and his ruthless control of 40 years of the FBI, his part and their part in American History. We do get to see, almost as a parable illustrating in outline the relationship between Hoover and the FBI, Hoover and the government, Hoover and the Media, Hoover and contemporary events, all through the one case, the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping.

A deep analytical dedication to history may be somewhat lacking but what the film does have is a careful examination of the ambiguity of the relationship between J Edgar and Clyde Tolson. It examines this relationship but doesn’t come to any conclusion, which is both a strength and a weakness. The mind of the audience is occupied with the questions: Were they or weren’t they? Did they or didn’t they? They’re like the ambiguously gay duo.  The AGD are discovered with one thrusting his hips into the posterior of the other and looking up and wondering why everybody is looking at them. These two lifelong bachelors have lunch and dinner together for decades, vacation together, are seemingly inseparable and their defenders (by that I mean those who would prefer that we think of J Edgar as a straight man) wonder why we might think they were other than straight.

On the other hand there is no real proof of their sexuality, one way or the other. For that matter, there is very little inside information on the sex lives of couple in general. We never can really know what happens in other people’s relationships. Trying to discern what goes on is an exercise in quantum possibilities. I know people thought I had a peachy keen sex life when I was married and didn’t know the disappointment I felt every morning to discover that I was still alive. I have a friend, more of a friend of a friend, who was very beautiful, which was enough for envy but he married an extremely beautiful woman, an actress and movie star, who played the female lead in an Important Motion Picture playing opposite a Super Star and directed by a film legend. How can one be honest with oneself and not admit that they were envious? Later they had a child and after that divorced, which didn’t create an expected bout of schadenfreude, strangely enough. The damage had been done. Sometime later I was surfing daytime TV and came across the ex-Mrs. on a woman’s chat show, I think it was Oprah but it could have been Sally Jesse Raphael or any one of them.  The topic was Women Who Hate Sex. Apparently 30-35% of all women hate sex because they find it uncomfortable, painful or embarrassing. And the ex-Mrs. was one of them.  She said she got married only because she wanted a child. Envy turned to jaw dropping pity. This was some Olympian sex joke. So close and yet so far. No one, surely I couldn’t have, guessed this when I thought of their relationship.

Add to this unknowingness the idea that many long term gay couples, I think immediately of Gore Vidal and his partner, and Truman Capote and his partner, who lived together for decades but hadn’t actually had sex for almost as long.  And who knows how much, if any, sex long-term heterosexual couples are having?  And that’s a problem for J. EDGAR.  Half of the picture is concerned with he sexuality of J. Edgar and Clyde but Eastwood couldn’t honestly come to a definitive conclusion. It is clear that it was love at first sight for J. Edgar when the tall and elegant Clyde Tolson comes into his office for a job interview. He’s rejected candidates for the most capricious reason yet when Clyde gives him the most supercilious of answers, J. Edgar is anxious to interpret them in the most positive way.

While J. Edgar was alive there was virtually nothing suggesting that there was anything queer about him. In 1968/9 there was a book published called The Homosexual Handbook that had a list of people that it outed. Among those listed were Hoover and New York Cardinal Spellman. The book was suddenly withdrawn and those two names were missing from the reissued edition. Speaking of Spellman, there was the parish house of St. Patrick’s that was known as “The Powerhouse” where the political heavyweights made the decisions about running the world. This included the Cardinal; Roy Cohn; Joe McCarthy; Joseph Alsop; all homosexuals, as well as J. Edgar. There was a rare New York City Republican who was asked why he didn’t take part in regular Republican politics and he always replied with disdain calling them “pantywaists”. An ambiguous term seeming to designate the regulars as effete, upper class twits but now can be seen as an accusation.

Today the accusation that J. Edgar was a cross-dresser is more well known than any of his FBI exploits despite the fact that the charge had been made by only one person whose veracity has been questioned. But, she had been in the position to know. Eastwood’s film plays it down the middle by including a scene where, after his mother’s death, J. Edgar takes one of her dresses from her wardrobe and holds it up in front of himself while looking in the mirror.  A little Norman Bates-y, but psychologically insightful without confirming or denying the cross-dressing rumor.

This demand to “know” about the sexual life of J. Edgar, and let’s face it, the public demands that today, (if SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO were remade today they would have to spend a lot of time on FDR’s mistresses), sets up a structural problem. With a good part of the film taken up with the questions of J. Edgar’s private life and the elements going into making up his character, the bits of business dealing with his private life, particularly the gang busting 30’s are attenuated and encapsulated representatively by the Lindbergh case. Its like one of those films on TV that run an apologetic title before the movie explaining that the film has been edited for content and time requirements.

The narrative of the film is set up as J. Edgar dictates his memoirs to a series of young FBI agents. But a strong sense of subjectivity is soon lost. We see events through his eyes, events that he was present for, without the feeling of their having been processed by his personality. This was undoubtedly one of the filmmakers’ ambitions, also abandoned for practical reasons, though the film retains the corrective scene where Clyde chastises J. Edgar for deliberately distorting the truth because of narcissistic self-aggrandizement. It all flashes by so quickly that there seem to be incidents and whole scenes being debunked that we never were actually shown. The unreliable narrator is all too reliable here.

Now all that being said, I would still recommend this film. I’m sure that’s what a film publicist would call burying the lead.  The acting is uniformly excellent. Nobody here is making it on cheekbones alone. The cinematography is very dark. I once worked in the Art Cinema on 8th St. and PALE RIDER played for a month and I watched it 5 times a day, 5 days a week and I suspected that it appeared so dark on the screen because of an electrical fault in the projection. I now realize that Clint Eastwood likes it on the dark side, very dark. With all of its faults, I still found the film to be totally engrossing and faithful to itself. I did not feel I was being played as I did after seeing PUBLIC ENEMIES.

It would be nearly impossible to get inside a man whose life was based on secrets and whose person life was the greatest secret of them all. It would take at least two films to deal with the public and private lives of J. Edgar and maybe a wild, licentious and totally unfactual burlesque in the style of the late Ken Russell to render a meaningful psychological portrait of the man who invented America’s Secret Police. But restricted to naturalism, this is about as close as we may come, barring some sort of hereto-unknown information. If somehow the original version is available on a DVD in a 3 or 4 hour or even a mini series version, I would be eager to see it.


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