BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – Leonardo DiCaprio admits that he didn’t hear much about the famously feared J. Edgar Hoover while he was growing up. That doesn’t stop him from making an astute observation: “The man was a troll.”
He laughs as he continues: “You know how some people resemble certain breeds of dog? Well, Hoover definitely looked like a bulldog.”
Cut DiCaprio some slack; the 37-year-old actor was born after Hoover’s tenure as head of the FBI from 1935-1972 and he spent a reported five hours in the makeup chair most days to try and physically resemble the man in “J. Edgar,” a film based on Hoover’s life.
“What’s worse,” DiCaprio adds, “is how Hoover behaved like a bulldog. It was like blind tenacity, a super stubbornness. He got hold of an idea or an ideology and he wouldn’t let go. No matter what it cost anyone else.”
Prior to his stint as FBI chief, Hoover headed its predecessor from 1924. During his time he investigated numerous figures in U.S. history including the radical political activist Emma Goldman, civil-rights campaigner Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless celebrities. His tough approach had his critics accuse him of subverting democracy.
For DiCaprio, if the chance to play such a monumental figure in U.S. history wasn’t enough, he says he jumped at the opportunity to work with Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood, the director of “J. Edgar.”
“If Clint Eastwood comes calling, you’re interested — automatically,” DiCaprio says. “The man has proven himself as a gifted filmmaker. He’s not a by-the-numbers director. He’ll do things — and he has done things — that are unexpected, from out of left field. Look at his body of work, there’s some real interesting stuff there.”
The praise goes both ways, of course. When asked if he would like to work with DiCaprio again, Eastwood tells The Japan Times, “He’s not just a professional, he delivers the goods. He has some career behind him and there’s a lot of good stuff. And a lot of good work to come.”
DiCaprio’s introduction to Eastwood came when he was a child and saw the 1971 film classic “Dirty Harry” on video. He says it was great as a form of “mass entertainment,” but he couldn’t relate to its vigilantism theme. More appealing to DiCaprio were the 2006 films “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”
“To me, different points of view are more interesting than when only one is presented,” he says. “With ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima,’ Clint was examining both sides of an issue. He went beyond the rhetoric of either side and into the emotions and into the personal aspects of that war.
“(Actually) that’s one of the most negative things about Hoover — he’d only see — and only wanted to allow — one sole point of view.”
One of the ironies involved in dealing with Hoover is that — despite the fact he made it his business as FBI chief to invade the private lives of others — there is little documentary evidence concerning Hoover’s private life. Rumors abound that he was involved in a sexual relationship with his assistant, Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer), and even enjoyed cross-dressing from time to time. Yet Eastwood says that Hoover’s private life was “none of my business.”
Part of what DiCaprio initially admired about the “J. Edgar” project was that Eastwood hired Dustin Lance Black, the openly gay screenwriter who penned (and won an Oscar for) the script to Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.” That biopic centers on the life of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official.
DiCaprio says the question of Hoover’s sexual orientation makes for an intriguing part of his character, but it’s his broader outlook on society that ended up providing the bulk of what he wanted to portray.
“That was one of the biggest contradictions,” he says, wondering if Hoover even entered into sexual relationships with other people. “He was gay … yet he was publicly this big homophobe and an enemy of gay rights, of civil rights … of all rights. He just wanted to control everything, including his own feelings and emotions. He just wanted everyone and everything buttoned down.
DiCaprio switches back to screenwriter Black.
“I admire great writing,” he says. “That’s something that to me is another field, a whole other thing, another talent. And Dusty had so much to choose from. There was so much material (in terms of) what to keep in and what to keep out.”
According to some critics, however, Black kept too much out. They say that “J. Edgar” glosses over a lot of what went on behind the scenes in Hoover’s life. While Tolson often hovers nearby, a lot of attention is paid to the two preeminent females in his life: his domineering mother (played by Judi Dench — who is repulsed by the idea her son may be “a daffodil”) and his longtime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts).
DiCaprio responds to the criticism with a grain of salt.
“I can see that,” he says, pausing before continuing. “But you know, this could have been a movie that’s twice as long as it is (137 minutes). Again, there’s all that great stuff in there that’s in the movie, and all that stuff that’s left out … from his career and his own life. But he had such an incredible and long career, and that’s what Clint wanted to focus on and that’s the way the script came out.”
Eastwood seems to agree, “There might be more drama toward the beginning and toward the end. We had a lot of ground to cover and Hoover spanned more than one era in American history. If he’d had a shorter life, there would be fewer people and events to include.
“I think we made it more interesting than if we had stuck more closely to Hoover and his office and Hoover at home. That would, in a way, have been a darker movie.
“The important thing is that we’re happy with it. We made the movie we wanted to make. I don’t think it’s a movie or a performance you can ignore.”
“J. Edgar” also references several classic films and figures (DiCaprio points out that scriptwriter Black is “such a big movie buff and knows all about old movies”). For instance, at one point in the film Hoover and Tolson shop at a menswear store called Julius Garfinkle. That’s the real name of 1940s movie star John Garfield, who was also a victim of the far-right political witch hunts in Hollywood that Hoover helped orchestrate and perpetuate.
Eastwood has also dealt with criticism that he went easy on Hoover in the film. Japan Times film critic Giovanni Fazio asked in his review of the film last week: “What, I wondered, was the point of casting doubt over Hoover’s sexual inclinations while completely ignoring the fact that he aided the ‘Lavender Scare’ of the 1950s, which saw scores of State Department workers fired for being homosexual or merely suspected of such?”
“The man made himself into a myth,” Eastwood says. “He had a propaganda machine. The movie has to present the myth as well as the man behind it. While you may not admire the man, what he achieved was pretty amazing.
“I didn’t want to present a partisan image. Some of the flaws are there — especially in terms of the abuse of power. There’s also the larger-than-life aspect of the man … of what he did, of what he was able to get away with.”
DiCaprio’s acting in the film has been widely praised. He was left off the list of best actor nominees for this year’s Academy Awards, but his upcoming projects hint at a chance to earn an Oscar in roles that have him playing Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby,” and a rumored role as Frank Sinatra in the legendary singer’s biopic. With a turn as Howard Hughes already under his belt in 2004’s “The Aviator,” DiCaprio could be fast becoming a new generation’s reference point to history.
“J. Edgar” is now playing in cinemas nationwide.