The boys in the bureau | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

The boys in the bureau 

Clint Eastwood's biopic probes the alleged gay double life of J. Edgar Hoover

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Given Hoover's malevolent influence on American history, one can understand why some people would want to strangle him with his own feather boa. To complicate the matter further, his alleged homosexuality has become an article of faith for some gay advocates. Back in January, when a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Eastwood whether the movie would address all the rumors, the director cryptically replied that Black's screenplay "didn't quite go down that road." This provoked online speculation, which Black hastened to tamp down, that the movie would "de-gay" Hoover. Oddly, the critical commentary ranged from people excoriating Hoover for his homophobia ("Could [Black] really have wanted to explore Hoover's life and ignore his closeted pathology?") to people claiming him as a role model ("American history will be rewritten once more to give people the false illusion that gay people don't exist and made no contribution to society"). But few if any entertained the idea that Hoover might not have been gay at all.

To their credit, Black, Eastwood, and Leonardo DiCaprio—who digs into the role of Hoover with relish and commitment—bypass the discredited story of Hoover camping it up at Roy Cohn's orgy. But they do manage to get their protagonist into a dress. Edgar grows up under the thumb of his domineering mother (Judi Dench), and at one point, after he's become a prominent man, he returns home after an uncomfortable evening at a nightclub to confess, "I don't like to dance with women." His mother icily reminds him of his childhood classmate who was caught wearing drag and later committed suicide (a true story). Her feeling about the incident is unequivocal: "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son." After she dies, Edgar is so traumatized that, alone in her room, he tries on her necklace and dress. "Stay strong, Edgar," he tells himself before tearing off the necklace and collapsing on the floor in a fetal position. The scene may be more subtle than Susan Rosenstiel's tale, but it's no less fabricated.

This business of soft-pedaling the legend without really questioning it persists throughout the movie, especially regarding Hoover's relationship with Clyde Tolson. The handsome young man (Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) doesn't fit most of Hoover's new criteria for agents, but Hoover hires him anyway after learning that Tolson has "no particular interest in women." (According to Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox's The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition, Tolson was reputed to be "strongly heterosexual.") Gay cliches abound: Tolson squires his new employer to Garfinkel's department store in Washington to buy some snappier suits; when Hoover requests a wall sign to denote a new forensic laboratory, Tolson jokes about his "decorating skills"; and during a west-coast trip the two men trade catty remarks about Desi Arnaz's shoes and Lucille Ball's dye job. Even in old age they're like a married couple, Hoover helping the paralyzed Tolson crack the shell of his soft-boiled egg at the breakfast table.

Black lays it on the line during the aforementioned trip west, when Hoover and Tolson come to blows in Hoover's hotel suite. The scene is based on an incident from Hack's book, Puppetmaster, that took place in August 1942 as the two men were vacationing in Del Mar, California. Hotel management was told of "a ruckus" in the suite, which included smashed dishes and ended with Tolson storming out with a black eye and a bruised lip. That's all we know, but Black fills in the rest: when Hoover informs Tolson that he plans to marry Dorothy Lamour, Tolson flips out on him. "You're a scared, heartless, horrible little man!' he shrieks. Hoover slugs him, but Tolson punches him back and forces a bloody kiss on the director. (Ooh, kinky!) "If you ever mention a lady friend again, it will be the last time you share my company," Tolson declares, leaving Hoover alone to whisper, "I love you, Clyde."

Seventy years later, we live in a country so oversexualized that people will accept J. Edgar Hoover being heterosexual, or homosexual, or bisexual. The one possibility that could never gain any popular currency—even though it's probably the truth—is that Hoover was completely asexual. His appetite for power was so enormous that it might well have canceled out any normal human appetite for physical contact. J. Edgar deals with many other aspects of Hoover's life and career: his rabid anticommunism, his relentless self-publicity, his ruthless political vendettas, and his rigid professionalism, which enabled him to transform the FBI from an ineffectual paper-pushing bureaucracy into a model of forensic investigation. The one mystery Black and Eastwood can't solve is Hoover's love life—perhaps because the solution is too simple to be believed.

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