The crowd at the Los Angeles County Museum screening of J. Edgar rose to their feet when three tall straight guys—Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer—joined diminutive gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black onstage at the Bing for a Q and A moderated by the NYT’s Charles McGrath. While Eastwood grew up with top cop J. Edgar Hoover, Black and his cast did not, and had to pore through reams of research to understand the restrictive mores of a time when to be openly gay was simply not allowed. DiCaprio and Black seemed more critical of Hoover—“he was a political dinosaur at the end of his career,” said DiCaprio, “he was a crockpot of eccentricity…didn’t adapt to civil rights…was obsessed with power”—while Eastwood seemed more admiring of Hoover starting thumbprints and his quest for law and order. That tension is in the movie, for better or worse.
As he did when researching his Oscar-winning screenplay for Milk, Black searched for contradictions and underlying political agendas in the reporting on his subject, and dug deeper via primary sources for the underlying real story. “We don’t know this man who shaped this country,” said Black, who wanted to find out why he had such lust for fame and power, lived with his mother until he was 40, had no personal relationships outside his work, and wasn’t interested in Dorothy Lamour. “Hoover was a man denied love, which he replaced with fame and admiration. He was a master of media, to increase the department’s power. He figured out how to celebrate the law men. But if you went after him, or defied him of the public’s affection, he’d go after you.”
“He created CSI,” joked DiCaprio.Eastwood was delighted with Black’s all-encompassing script, which runs from the 20s through Hoover’s death in 1972: “I like to see him mature and age, and everybody else along with him,” he said. “There are a lot of parallels now with the 20s era Bolsheviks and the unease and justified paranoia, as there is now, post 9/11.”
DiCaprio read the script and told Eastwood (who had developed one project for him that never came to fruition) he’d like to take the role. DiCaprio took what he called “the Dustin Lance Black Hoover road trip” and visited the places where he lived, worked, dined daily with close aide Clyde Tolson (Washington D.C.‘s Mayflower Hotel) and died. The actor spoke to nonagenarian Deke DeLoach, the last surviving man who worked with Hoover. “It was fantastic to pick his brain,” said DiCaprio, “to understand who [Hoover] was as a man, the respect he commanded. These were men of service who devoted their entire lives to their country.”
At the after-party attended by LACMA chief Michael Govan (pictured with DiCaprio, above), Film Independent series host Elvis Mitchell, board member Terry Semel and a gaggle of press, DiCaprio was cheered by the response. He liked watching the film two nights running first at the AFI and then the “smarter, more sophisticated” LACMA crowd, he said. “I’m glad people cared about him.” DiCaprio wanted to gain weight DeNiro-style for the role, but Warners wouldn’t let him, insisting that digital effects would add the pounds. The blow-out fight that Hoover had with Tolson was documented, he said. Given that the FBI didn’t know what went on behind closed doors, “I thought we took the middle road,” said DiCaprio, between fact and speculation. “I love the way he handled the screenplay, with a lot of class. They had a great partnership and love for each other for decades, spent their days with each other. It’s more about two men who care about each other to a great degree.”
Hammer told me that he initially had no idea how to approach playing Clyde Tolson, who lived his whole life waiting to get a kiss from the man he loved. He had to dig into the research to find him. Both actors submitted to hours of heavy aging makeup (five to six for DiCaprio, seven to eight for Hammer)—which helped to make them tired, Hammer said. They were able to shoot chronologically so that they could get a handle on their characters by the time they got to their old-age scenes. “It’s hard to animate yourself in makeup,” said DiCaprio. “It stiffens you up. I got into it.”
Both actors praised Eastwood for running a set that is geared to getting the best out of performers. “He’s a director who relies on his own instincts, not advisors, watches you as an actor, reacts on a gut level,” said DiCaprio. “He pushes you to trust your own choices because he so implicitly trusts his own instincts.”
Black was overwhelmed by the mountain of material—“there was so much to work with,” he said, that making cuts and choices was difficult. Left out of the script, for example, was Hoover’s role in choosing crony Lyndon Johnson as Kennedy’s replacement after the assassination. The Kennedies wanted someone else, said Eastwood. “He misused his power to influence that.”