Reel life scandal

    Good things come to those who wait, even if the waiting period spans more than half a century. I say this because Hollywood has finally made a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director whose Machiavellian manipulations were hidden from public view by the bureau’s myth-making machine during his long tenure. Now, finally, the public will have the opportunity to behold Hoover’s dark side – as rendered by Leonardo DiCaprio – and hopefully gain a fuller understanding of how he managed (via blackmail and other chicaneries) to keep his job for 48 years.

    Let’s play hooky from the news cycle today, since there isn’t much that’s new. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concludes in a report that the rich are getting richer at the expense of everyone else (shocking!), Rick Perry is pitching a flat tax plan that would flagrantly favor the rich (shocking!)…you get the idea.So instead let’s go to the movies, where reel-life scandal awaits us.Good things come to those who wait, even if the waiting period spans more than half a century. I say this because Hollywood has finally made a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director whose Machiavellian manipulations were hidden from public view by the bureau’s myth-making machine during his long tenure. Now, finally, the public will have the opportunity to behold Hoover’s dark side – as rendered by Leonardo DiCaprio – and hopefully gain a fuller understanding of how he managed (via blackmail and other chicaneries) to keep his job for 48 years.This Clint Eastwood movie, entitled J. Edgar and due for release in November, is bound to spark controversy; in all likelihood, it will stand in marked contrast to the glowing cinematic and TV depictions of the bureau back in the day, when Hoover himself personally vetted the scripts and cast members on ABC’s late-’60s series The FBI. In Hoover’s lifetime, which ended in 1972, he was widely viewed as something akin to a secular God, and, as John F. Kennedy reputedly remarked, “You don’t fire God.”But what’s amusing at the moment is that the keepers of Hoover’s flame (most of whom are FBI alumni) seem most upset about a fairly minor matter: Whether Hoover will be cinematically portrayed as gay.William Branon, who chairs the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation, has written to Eastwood, warning that a gay Hoover “would be a grave injustice and monumental distortion…based on a completely unfounded and spurious assertion.” And the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI has warned Eastwood that a “rumored kissing scene,” featuring Hoover and his top aide/best buddy Clyde Tolson, “has caused us to reassess our tacit approval of your film.”But the palace guard is focusing on something that is both trivial and indefensible.For what it’s worth, Hoover and Tolson at the very least sustained an intense bromance. The lifelong bachelors ate lunch together every day for nearly 40 years, dined at each other’s home nearly every night, took their vacations together, and snapped adoring photos of each other. As Ronald Kessler, author of a recent book on the FBI, concluded the other day, “Given their emotional detachment, Hoover and Tolson had a spousal relationship as broadly defined. The movie’s portrayal – without showing them actually having sex – is a legitimate dramatization of their relationship.” (The movie doesn’t depict Hoover as a cross-dresser; those rumors are not nearly as well substantiated.)But Eastwood, the film’s director, should be relieved that the gay issue is front and center, because that means he’s getting a pass to tell a far more important story. He has reportedly dramatized material that should tell us plenty about how Hoover wielded his power and bent the powerful to his will. As Eastwood remarked the other day, “I don’t give a crap if he was gay or not…It’s a movie about how this guy manipulated everybody around him.”If true, this is a movie that’s long overdue. The FBI is blessedly a better place today than in Hoover’s era, but the historic record needs to be highlighted. The real Hoover has surfaced in a few books, but film reaches a far broader audience. The real Hoover amassed dirt on everybody in Washington who mattered, or was likely to matter; in the words of author Curt Gentry, whose 1991 book The Man and the Secrets remains a worthy read, Hoover’s secret dirt files were typically comprised of “individual incidents taken out of the context of whole lives.” Or, as one Justice Department official told Gentry, the files were “full of political cancer.”Hoover was particularly adept at collecting, and disseminating via selective leaks, rumors that certain key Washingtonians were gay. These were people whose careers Hoover was anxious to impede or destroy. He had spies in the White House during the eight administrations he served. He collected, in Gentry’s words, “the forbidden fruit of hundreds of illegal wiretaps and bugs” that targeted (among others) Supreme Court justices, congressmen, labor leaders, civil rights leaders, prominent scientists and philosophers, and, as a bonus, Hollywood celebrities. And eight presidents kept him on the job because they either found this dirt to be useful, or because they feared what Hoover might have on them.You certainly didn’t see any of that in the ’59 Warner Brothers flick The FBI Story, or in the Hoover-blessed ABC series. And yet the FBI alums don’t seem focused on that at all. Doesn’t it strike you as curious that the new film’s deconstruction of the Hoover image seems less important to the alums than the possibility that he will be depicted as gay? Is being gay really worse than being institutionally craven and corrupt? Kind of insulting to gays, don’t you think?   The FBI loyalists seem to have their priorities backward, but so be it. As one gay activist remarked the other day on a law-enforcement news website, “If the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover’s friends and associates resist the notion that the blackmailing, extorting, empire-building, racist, homophobic man was gay, fine, whatever they wish to think. The straights can have him.”——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.