“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” to quote John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” That’s the lesson of “J. Edgar,” which is currently ranked at 40 % on Rotten Tomatoes and is unlikely to be a Best Picture Oscar candidate.
Writer/historian Dustin Lance Black followed up winning the adapted screenplay Oscar for “Milk” with this revisionist take on J. Edgar Hoover, knowing that it would spark controversy. But he was still gobsmacked at how negative some reaction has been. While a recent Los Angeles County Museum Q & A was dominated by tall straight men Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer, the slight gay screenwriter provided the template for this well-researched biopic on Hoover, who held tenaciously onto power as the head of the FBI through eight presidents. “I knew with success I’d get my butt kicked,” Black says. “People came to it with ideas of who Hoover was. We didn’t put him in a ball gown.”
Black stands by the movie that is on the screen as a faithful translation of his vision and denies that director Eastwood or his cast pulled back from its subject in any way. Black feels strongly about not violating the mores of the period in which Edgar and best friend Clyde Tolson were trying to live as closeted gay men. It’s hard for us to recognize what their lives were like, he says, especially when we all remember the FBI chief at the end of his life: “Hoover had become a dinosaur,” Black says, “that’s the guy I knew, how a lot of people see him. There were all these rumors about his sexuality. I wanted to do more research to see what else we don’t know about him. I read all these bios; they were told with an agenda, and were rather dry. None of them got into his personal life in a way that was believable. That’s where I’d find the greatest contradictions. He’s a man who shaped this country, arguably its most powerful man, we might know what he did, but we had no clue why.”
“Milk” led Black to Hoover through his battles against Civil Rights. Black found out that Imagine Entertainment was interested in a Hoover project and pitched development executive Erica Huggins his take. Producer Brian Grazer went for it; eventually, so did Eastwood, whose style is not to revise screenplays that he likes–often to the dismay of the writers themselves. Once Eastwood likes something, he doesn’t want to squeeze the lifeblood out of it.
Black started doing his own research. “I felt comfortable saying that this was a gay guy who played by the rules of the time. His adolescence started in 1910; he fit the pre-sexual revolution profile. I started to see the portrait of man for whom love and family was not a possibility. I started to see a film that spoke to today. I had read a recent poll of young people: when asked their number one goal, more than having a family or becoming a doctor or curing cancer, now the number one answer is to be famous. When Hoover was told he couldn’t love, couldn’t have a family, his number one ambition became obtaining the nation’s admiration. That’s dangerous, especially if you are in politics. Hold onto power and you lose your moral compass.”
Filling in the blank spaces. “Everything is based on research, the things I found, I filled in blank spaces, nothing is created out of thin air. I wanted to tell the truth missing from the bios. One of the things that gets screwed up is a person taking the gay perspective of 1970-80-90, that’s where it falls part, being gay did not look like that in 20s and 30s. The word itself didn’t mean falling in love with same sex, it meant having a great time. I went to Washington, D.C. and talked to older gay men who lived though that time, in their 90s. ‘What was the code, what could you talk about?’ You could talk about nothing, even in the privacy of your home, even saying the words ‘I love you.’ If you were physical it never got discussed, gay didn’t look like it did in the 60s. It was upsetting to me. The truth of that period was more tragic, if you had those feelings, if that was your nature, there was no chance you could fulfill it.”
Eastwood and Black define “gay” differently: Eastwood is more of a Libertarian, says Black, an Eisenhower Republican, a fiscal conservative, not social conservative. Eastwood has answered the question “were these men gay?” with “maybe.” It’s generational semantics, says Black. The pre-sexual revolution generation defines being gay as a sexual act. “Ask people of my generation, post-Stonewall, and it’s part of who you are, your nature, you don’t have to have had sex to be gay or lesbian.
‘Is Hoover gay?’ I say, ‘yes.’ Clint says, ‘I dont know,’ he doesn’t have hard proof they had sex, to him, even the men in FBI define it that way. There is no hard proof that he was not a heterosexual, but his behavior mirrored what it meant to be gay. With the gay thing we see eye to eye, it’s just different definitions of the word. It’s grounded in reality, we knew we were taking risks. We got beat up for things people question. I had some concern, I didn’t know how Clint would treat the love story. But he treated those scenes with incredible loving, he understood the men couldn’t say in words what they were thinking and feeling, it had to be the subtext of love. After the hotel room fight, at the end of the first take before he said ‘cut,’ he said, ‘Leo tell him you love him’: ‘I love you Clyde’ is not in script, that’s Clint.”
Leaving things out: Covering decades of a man’s life was tough. What to put in and leave out? “We could include McCarthyism and other heinous things. But it was important to pick something Hoover did that was a heinous abuse of power, like civil rights in general, that young people will have an emotional connection to. So we picked Martin Luther King.”
Black stayed on set every day during shooting and through post-production, missing just three days. “I wanted it to be as accurate as possible, if anyone had questions.”
Eastwood’s filmmaking style: “Whenever you write script without a director, you put in things that point toward a style in which the story will be told, a subjective style. But Clint doesn’t shoot in that way, he’s more classic and composed. You have to be deft and adjust. I had ideas regaining subjectivity, the device of the narrator who you don’t find out is untrustworthy until it is revealed. I realized that Hoover’s version of the stories was more interesting than the truth. That was the quandary: ‘what to do?’ I thought, ‘if this is about understanding how a man ticks, you learn as much from what he lies about.’ We added some private moments, windows into his soul, not telling it as much as remembering it, what was true and not true. We tried to be thorough and correct, so you don’t walk away not knowing which things we let him lie about.”
Making Hoover admirable and empathetic: “I do not like this man. It’s a cautionary tale about a promising young man who organized the Library of Congress, created forensics, at a time before ‘CSI,’ when there was great resistance to bringing science into crime-solving, when you could commit a crime in Oklahoma, rob a bank and drive over state lines to Texas. Hoover expanded the powers of government to make sure that stopped. There’s a difference between fame and fame for fame’s sake. He started out wanting to accomplish things, and won the nation’s admiration. He held onto that until he became a dinosaur, and saw the most peaceful of movements as radical.”
Adding narration: Black added more narration in the editing room. “We didn’t cut the script down beforehand, cutting needed to happen. There were things I was glad to see go, it needed some connective interstitial tissue put back, from a first person perspective. There were many ways to make it feel more subjective: Do it like ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ traditionally, inside his head, and skip past some information more quickly, with more voiceover stuff. I went over it with Leo, it was great to hear it out loud. We auditioned it for Clint, he liked it, 70% of the new stuff went in, written after we were done.”
In the political crossfire: “We knew we’d get heat from the right and the left. The current FBI is supportive; we tried our best not to do what the books do, to get to the truth of the man, figure out how he ticked, and humanize him in way. That makes some people uncomfortable: it alienates people with strong opinions about the man.”
See also: Five myths about J. Edgar Hoover.