The reviews about the new biopic about J. Edgar Hoover directed by Clint Eastwood had spoken of individual moments of greatness awash in an underwhelming sea. It was said that Leonard DiCaprio gave a strong performance but the editing had something lacking and that the narrative thread was coming apart at the seams. Amid this there was always something to compliment. Individual scenes were mentioned as highlights so long as one ignored most of their context. My own viewing backed much of this up; something was missing but there were moments when I was aware that powerful cinematic work was underway.
I’m the first to say that I’m a stubborn skeptic of Mr. DiCaprio’s acting but this is due largely to the trauma of having been in junior high when one of my most hated films ever was unleashed onto cinemas, sweeping the country into a mad frenzy over icebergs and tits. I felt as though my peers had all gone suddenly insane. The girls were carrying fold out pictures of one Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio. It literally happened overnight. I had always been to the sides and something of an outcast but one day I went to the school and a chasm had appeared in the visage of a young man with a severe widow’s peak and sandy hair. I’ve never been able to fully trust him as an actor since.
I recognize that this is a personal issue to work on and my therapist says I’ve made excellent progress.
Ever the cowboy, Clint Eastwood seemed reluctant to afford sexuality to his queer characters although sex is behind every corner as per its customary cameo in any film with the audacity to deliberately exclude it from the guest list.
Eastwood presents the picture that Hoover was gay and met a handsome young man willing to put up with all of his bullshit, and forged a lifelong partnership in a contentious political climate but never fucked, not even once, not even after listening to a specially commissioned audio recording of J.F.K. fucking Marilyn Monroe. There was a notable exception in the film’s blackmail list. Hoover went after a lot of people and certainly Martin Luther King, Jr. He also instigated a special investigation into Jack Valenti, the founder of the MPAA. It was rumored that Mr. Valenti, champion of the “family values” that determine whether or not a film is allowed to advertise or be openly distributed, was also having a gay lover affair.
I imagine it would be uncomfortable for a studio system supported project to delve into such uncomfortable territory.
That said, there was a scene between Dame Judi Dench and DiCaprio that stole my breath away. Edgar comes home from the nightclub after a pleasant conversation goes strikingly south when he is accosted by multiple people at once while with his partner. He begins to slip into his childhood stutter and his mother directs him to begin practicing his speaking exercises.
I have to give DiCaprio props for his thoughtful acting because I knew it was a coming out scene from the moment the camera came up between them. I could identify the tension in his body and the quickened breathing in his chest. He gave the kind of performance that is a reminder that there is something in coming out that is kind of like suicide. So often, people come out of the closet because the pain outmatches the fear. On the screen you could see the visible shift from pain in those stunted utterances, “You know I don’t like to dance, with women,” into a fearful resignation at the end of his mother’s speech.
Judi Dench makes a formidable overbearing mother. She reminds Edgar of a young man whose nickname was “Daffy,” not as a reference to being “crazy” but as a shortened form of Daffodil. The young man was caught being queer and harassed until his suicide. She finishes the story by looking right at Edgar and saying, “I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil.”
My eyes shut and I bowed my head in reverence. For what, I do not know. There was a searing pain there that flashed for a moment across the electric highways of my brain like an old bruise until my reason kicked in and reminded me that I was watching fiction. It’s all as untrue as Freddy Krueger. The film has a multitude of deficits but it shined there. DiCaprio displayed a deftness with his craft I didn’t know he had in him.
In many ways, the sex is removed from Hoover’s relationship to make him stand in more for that fearful metaphor that indulging in sex is a form of anarchy. Where many have grabbed the liquor bottle, the needle, or the playing cards to cope we see Hoover go for control. He maintained a constant vigilance against those who challenged authority, namely his.
That’s what’s so agonizingly painful about the decision to keep him chaste for what was, at best, the work of a film maker constructing a metaphor or, at the more likely, a fear of constructing a man on man romance that is both erotic, loving, and lifelong. The whole point is that some of the worst anti-sex politicians have also been realeaved to have had exciting and lewd lives who constructed a paradigm in which their sins could be forgiven through legislation rather than self-flagellation. Our culture is terriefied that people who lay back and enjoy the pleasures of their own bodies will break the floodgates of civilization. We are resolutely human with all of the rights, privileges, and illogical quagmires therein.
As far as my politics go, it shouldn’t shock you that I lean a bit to the left. A bit more than that. Just a bit more. Right about there. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Hoover. On one hand, he was a strong proponent of science. Without Hoover, we might not have had Quantico. Without Quantico, we would have no Silence Of The Lambs. It’s important to keep these things in perspective. On the other hand, he was a rabid dick weasel. That cannot be ignored, either. I’ve always regarded him as something of a compelling figure but I never anticipated encountering any form of media that would make me want to retroactively give J. Edgar Hoover a hug. Even with all of the films flaws, poorly stitched narrative structure, and trepidation with sex it’s impossible to call it a failure of filmmaking.
It’s a portrayal of Hoover as a human creature who was more than just the sum of his own flaws but also a product of his times. I had never stopped to consider whether or not J. Edgar Hoover could have been on the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder spectrum in his insatiable need to control and micromanage everything in his context. When humans develop obsessions and compulsive behaviors, it is very often linked to excruciatingly deep anxiety and fear.
The story of J. Edgar Hoover as a political figure is the very essence of why a government must be of the people, by the people, and for the people. We shall never, among humans, find an individual who sees the world from outside of their own perspective. This is why diversity is paramount in leadership. The only for a government to see and take into account the needs of all people is for it to be composed of all people. There must be checks and balances and fair representation across classes, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and physical abilities. J. Edgar Hoover had the unchecked power to unquestionably indulge his perspective and define justice at his own discretion. When fear and hatred are given the space to prevail, they will. It is almost as if corruption is a dominant gene in the human species.
I do feel empathy for the pain of anyone with an alternative sexuality living in an anti-sex culture. Being a queer kid at a Catholic school was hard enough, I cannot imagine coming up in politics at a time when being outed as queer did mean the end of your public career. At the same time, acting from pain does not entitle one to punish, hurt, or use others to relieve it. I think it’s important to recognize the cycles of abuse and fear and how to shape the course of history, law, and justice and to break them by persistently presenting a case for the spectrum of human difference that makes us so beautiful.