Fact-Checking Clint Eastwood's 'J. Edgar' Biopic

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All Things Considered host Robert Siegel offers some nonfiction scrutiny of Clint Eastwood's latest movie, J. Edgar. Siegel talks with Beverly Gage, a professor of U.S. history at Yale, who is working on a biography of Hoover. This is the second installment of our fact-check film series.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

And this week, we are subjecting some current biopics to a little truth squadding. Considering how deep an impression a movie about a historical figure can be - think of George C. Scott and "Patton," for example - we thought some nonfiction refreshers might be helpful. These days, a very famous Washington figure is being shown to millions of people the way screenwriter Dustin Lance Black has written him and the way Leonardo DiCaprio has played him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "J. EDGAR")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (as J. Edgar Hoover) You still fancy facial hair, Agent Stokes?

JOSH STAMBERG: (as Agent Stokes) The ladies appreciate it.

DICAPRIO: (as J. Edgar Hoover) Hmm. And I suppose the ladies' opinions are more important than the bureau's?

STAMBERG: (as Agent Stokes) No, sir.

DICAPRIO: (as J. Edgar Hoover) Perhaps you are better suited for the police force than the Bureau of Investigations.

STAMBERG: (as Agent Stokes) I've been with the department of the bureau for seven years, Edgar. Almost as long as you.

DICAPRIO: (as J. Edgar Hoover) No. You were with the old bureau seven years, and that bureau is now gone, sir. And so are you.

SIEGEL: That's DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI cashiering the mustachioed Agent Stokes played by Josh Stamberg. And joining us for a little nonfiction scrutiny of Clint Eastwood's new movie, "J. Edgar," is Beverly Gage. She's a professor of U.S. history at Yale and is working on a biography of Hoover. Welcome to the program.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: We're not interested so much in the odd factual error here as in the general truthfulness of the portrayal. Does this movie present a J. Edgar Hoover whom you understand as J. Edgar Hoover?

GAGE: The movie fictionalizes a lot of scenes as any Hollywood film about a historical figure does, but I think, overall, it actually does a pretty good job of conveying the big picture of Hoover's life, some of the biggest themes and the biggest questions we still have about Hoover.

SIEGEL: Well, first, professionally, we heard him being the disciplinarian and the stickler at the bureau. Does it give a balanced picture of his leadership of the FBI?

GAGE: I think it's hard for people today who have over the past 40 years sort of seen Hoover largely as a villain to remember that he did come to office, in fact, as a reformer. He came in to clean it up, to professionalize it, and a little bit we heard in the clip about how the bureau was going to be different from the sort of corrupt low-brow police was really Hoover's identifying factor for many, many years of his early career.

SIEGEL: Now, what's central to this treatment of Hoover's life is his relationship with Clyde Tolson, his associate director at the bureau, his inseparable friend, next-door neighbor, daily dinner companion. Here's a clip from the scene in which Hoover offers Tolson the number two job at the bureau, and Tolson, played by Armie Hammer, responds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "J. EDGAR")

ARMIE HAMMER: (as Clyde Tolson) I'm not much for the spotlight, Edgar.

DICAPRIO: (as J. Edgar Hoover) I need you, Clyde. Do you understand? I need you.

HAMMER: (as Clyde Tolson) On one condition: Good day or bad, whether we agree or disagree, we never miss a lunch or a dinner together.

DICAPRIO: (as J. Edgar Hoover) Well, I would have it no other way.

SIEGEL: Now, the screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, is openly gay. He's the man who wrote "Milk," and he treats the Hoover-Tolson relationship as unquestionably romantic and physical, at least so far as kissing and embracing go. Is "J. Edgar" the movie stating the obvious here or stretching the evidence?

GAGE: Well, this is one of these very, very tantalizing historical relationships that people have been trying to get to the bottom of for decades. It's certainly true, as the movie says, that they had this very intense social partnership for 40 years, which is to say they did have dinner together. They went to nightclubs together. They were treated more or less as a couple, almost as a married couple. What we don't really know is what went on between the two of them when they were having private conversations.

So most of the movie, when we see these scenes around the breakfast table or these sort of intimate conversations in other places, that's all kind of fictionalized based on what we do know, which is that there was this very deep partnership. And it doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to look at two men who really didn't date women, who spent most of their lives together and imagine that they might have been in love with each other.

SIEGEL: There's a moment in the movie after J. Edgar Hoover's mother dies when he puts on a dress.

GAGE: Right. That scene in the movie - so Hoover's mother dies, and he's traumatized by this. He puts on her dress and her necklace sort of in homage to her but also as a symbol of his tortured sexuality. That is the movie's one gesture toward one of the most famous sort of pseudo facts about J. Edgar Hoover, which is this idea that he was a cross-dresser. And again, the evidence is rather tantalizing. Most of it was laid out in a biography in the early 1990s by a British journalist named Anthony Summers, and he found a few people who said that they had either seen pictures of Hoover wearing a dress in the 1940s or that in one case a woman claimed that she had actually witnessed Hoover wearing a woman's clothes at the Plaza Hotel with Roy Cohn and an industrialist named Lewis Rosenstiel.

So we have no hard evidence on this in the sense that if those pictures ever existed, nobody has ever seen them or could produce them now, but there are these little bits and pieces of gossip out there that are quite suggestive about his private life.

SIEGEL: There's a twist to the narrative in "J. Edgar," which is that much of what we're hearing, the way in which Hoover is presenting his life in the FBI is through him dictating a highly embroidered memoir of his career, which Clyde Tolson puts the light to it much later in the movie. First of all, did Hoover actually set down an account of his career, and did he embroider it greatly when he did?

GAGE: He didn't ever have the sort of formal situation that you see in the movie where he was dictating a memoir to a series of young agents, and that that is the official record of the FBI. But what we was very famous for and very successful at was having an enormous propaganda division at the FBI that both glorified the FBI, sent out Hoover's own kind of political messages about communists, about personal morality. And that also glorified J. Edgar Hoover, and that was one of his really singular accomplishments at the FBI.

SIEGEL: Hoover is a person who we saw in some newsreels and films. You've been immersed in the story of his life. Does Leonardo DiCaprio get it as far as you're concerned? When you see him, do you think, yeah, pretty good?

GAGE: Well, one of Hoover's most famous characteristics, which I think that DiCaprio really does capture, is that he was known as a very fast talker. And certainly, in his later life, he would go on, really, for hours. You would come in to ask him a question, and if he wanted to tell you stories from the good old days of John Dillinger and Eleanor Roosevelt at extraordinary length, he would go ahead and do it. One of the sources of speculation is, you know, why did he speak so fast?

Some people say that it was because he had a stutter as a young man, and this is what they suggest in the film, and that he worked to get over that. But at any rate, his nickname was Speed, and he was a very serious, efficient, fast-talking young man, and I really do think that DiCaprio captures that.

SIEGEL: Professor Gage, thank you very much for talking with us.

GAGE: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Beverly Gage, professor of U.S. history at Yale University. We were talking about the movie "J. Edgar" starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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