What’s Jewish about ‘J. Edgar’?

J. Edgar Hoover the man, unlikable though he was, makes a more interesting study than “J. Edgar” the movie.

“He was arguably the most powerful man in this country in the 20th century,” said Dustin Lance Black, the “J. Edgar” scribe at an early screening of the film at LACMA last Friday. An incipient partnership between the museum and The New York Times held enough clout to also attract director Clint Eastwood and the film’s stars Leonard DiCaprio, who plays Hoover, and Armie Hammer, who plays his longtime companion Clyde Tolson to a Q-and-A with Times writer Charles McGrath.

In reality, Hoover may have been one of the WASPY-est men that ever lived. But in some ways, his story shares strands with Jewish themes of alienation and ascendancy. The Hoover depicted in the film is ruthless, focused and disciplined, so committed to his work it nears religious devotion. He has an unhealthy attachment to his opinionated mother, played by Judi Dench, who prods him into greatness. Nearly four decades after his death, Hoover still figures as an icon for modern celebrity—famous, powerful, lavished with luxuries—but also isolated and repressed, in love with his own self-image, alien from human attachment. But he overcame personal disadvantage, including an emasculated father, and innovated his way to the American Dream.

Though this modern take on a historic figure shares at least one theme with Black’s Oscar winning script “Milk” – that of gay sexuality – it is more concerned with how its title character cleaved to and maintained power. It could even be argued that Hoover amplified his dominion over others by denying his sexuality; his sole, myopic quest was presiding over the FBI. But his powers extended well beyond his ability to investigate and apprehend criminals: In the film, not one of eight U.S. president is safe from Hoover’s scorn. No national leader is exempt from his secret, incriminating files, and even Robert Kennedy chafes under his cold, calculating menace.

Black said he had read Hoover’s biography and was driven by what he did not know about the illusive “top cop,” as Eastwood called him.

“His biography was filled with contradictions, and I thought, ‘What a shame that we don’t truly understand the man who drove 20th century politics,’” Black said.

Black’s Hoover was plagued by a neurotic quest to root out suspected communists in the U.S. His no holds-barred approach to catching criminals looked a lot like a witch-hunt, with Hoover pursuing perceived “enemies of America” with an uncompromising single-mindedness that bordered on delusion.

In private, his behavior was even more bizarre.

As DiCaprio put it, “He was a croc-pot of eccentricities – the man lived with his mother until he was 40 years old.”

The film shows Hoover cuddling with his mother, trying on her pearls and even slipping into one of her dresses.

But insights into his private life came much later. At the time he reigned as one of the most powerful men in the country, he was seen as a crime-conquering hero, transforming America’s fascination with the gangster into an admiration for the FBI’s nation-serving crime fighters. Hoover’s quirky vernacular during impassioned speeches about the dangers of communists mystified the country. He defined the greatest threat facing America—and then fueled it.

Eastwood attributed Hoover’s intense suspicion of communists to a depression-era atmosphere of general unease, calling his preoccupation with traitors “justified paranoia”. It’s not unlike present-day paranoia, Eastwood said. Substitute “communist” for “terrorist” and that same national unease persists. A skilled speaker with a sure purpose and a bully pulpit can prompt national hysteria on almost any issue. Then as now, rather than challenge, the media often aids and abets. 

One of Hoover’s gifts, the filmmakers pointed out, was that he was among the first public figures in American history to skillfully manipulate the media to his advantage. “He was a man very obsessed with power,” DiCaprio said. “Love and adoration of the public was everything he had.”

DiCaprio, who has himself been something of a cultural fixation ever since he starred in 1997’s “Titanic” knows well the impact of public adoration. As he told Brooks Barnes in a recent New York Times profile, “I’ve been to the Amazon, and people with no clothes on, and I’m not exaggerating, know about that film. I’ve accepted it.”

DiCaprio’s preceding reputation got him the royal treatment in Washington, when several people involved with the film were given tours of FBI Headquarters.

“I got some lackey at the Department of Justice,” Black told the audience. Then, turning toward DiCaprio, “You got Eric Holder himself,” he said, referring to the U.S. Attorney General.

But Hoover’s 48-year reign at the FBI might as well have been a different era. In the film, he implements the first national fingerprinting index used to identify criminals. Had he lived today, Eastwood said he had no doubts Hoover would have pioneered DNA testing.

“It’s an era we don’t really understand,” Armie Hammer, the actor who plays Hoover’s right arm (and eventual live-in partner) FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson. “[Hoover and Tolson] were men of service. They said, ‘The FBI is my church’ and they sacrificed their personal lives on every level [for the job].”

But in the film version, at least, that’s not entirely true. Though primarily focused on character and style, the film’s emotional gravity comes towards the end, when Hoover confesses to Tolson, that, ostensibly for public purposes, he is thinking of entering into marriage. Tolson, who endures all kinds of abuse at Hoover hand’s on screen, erupts in a paroxysm of anger. The two tussle, wrestle, and exchange an awkward kiss. It is the only sexual expression in the entire film (other than a scene at a nightclub when Hoover sloppily rejects an offer to dance with Ginger Rogers’s mother).

Black’s script suggests in no uncertain terms that these two men were lifelong partners – the closest thing either of them had to a spouse.  Is it really possible that such aggressive, powerful men lived out their lives in stark sexual repression?

DiCaprio said: It’s none of our business to know what goes on in the lives of public figures behind closed doors.

Um-hm. Outta the mouths of babes.