If you head to the movies over the Thanksgiving weekend, “J. Edgar” might be among your films to choose from. Plenty of critics have already cast their votes as to whether the biopic, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Dustin Lance Black, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is worth your time. (The Globe’s Ty Burr wasn’t so sure.) As an FBI historian, I‘m less worried about the entertainment value of the movie, and more concerned about what it does, and doesn’t, get right. Like most Hollywood films depicting complicated factual events, “J. Edgar” blurs and simplifies the history of the FBI, but it mostly gets it right. The film does as good a job with Hoover as one can expect from Hollywood.
The most interesting — and controversial — decisions Eastwood and Black make deal with Hoover’s perceived sexuality. (Really, did we expect Hollywood not to look at Hoover’s sexuality?) The director and writer have chosen to portray Hoover as a closeted and asexual gay man who promoted scientific crime detection and used his secret files in dastardly ways. Unlike others before them, they don’t explain away Hoover’s abuses as a result of his sexuality — which is a good thing as that would take away from the reality of his abuses — but depict him as a complex and haunted momma’s boy with a penchant for power.
In this respect, the film strikes me as a historical counterfactual. In other words, it poses the question: What if Hoover was, in fact, gay? There is no verifiable evidence whatsoever, including the popular stories about Hoover, confirming his sexuality. The only "suspicious" thing we have are photos Hoover took of his associate FBI director, Clyde Tolson, sleeping, but even that tells us little. But if one were to make a purely speculative conclusion about his sexuality, the most convincing would be that shown in this film. In the film, Hoover is content having a close fraternal relationship with Tolson where he skirts around the edges of his presumed sexuality. Hoover places his hand atop Tolson’s in a car; he tells him he has great affection for him (Tolson replies he “loves” Hoover and gets no response); the two buy stylish clothes together and have endless lunches together; Hoover’s house is immaculately decorated; and after a spontaneous fist fight with Tolson, Tolson kisses Hoover, causing Hoover to demand angrily that Tolson never do that again. Yet after Tolson departs, Hoover says to himself in private, “I love you.”
Hoover’s supposed cross dressing (a myth) is hinted at after his mother dies in 1938, when a distraught Hoover (who lived with her all his life until she died) puts on her necklace and dress while staring into a mirror before he breaks down, now alone, crying on the floor. None of this is rooted in fact, but seems right if one were exploring the popular fascination with Hoover’s sexuality. In the end, the rumors about Hoover tell us less about the man and more about the homophobia and gay stereotypes of his era.
Given this particular cinematic portrayal, the film contains a huge hole because it ignores what Hoover and the FBI really did when it came to gays — gays and lesbians were intensively investigated by FBI agents and purged from their government and, later, non-government jobs thanks to Hoover’s extensive files. The FBI first investigated gays systematically starting in 1937, then targeted gays in government as security risks who could be blackmailed by the enemy during World War II, and then in 1951 Hoover created a massive Cold War program and file targeting “Sex Deviates.” By 1971, when the file was incinerated, it had grown to some 330,000 pages of information about suspected gays, lesbians, and their various organizations. The only group Hoover targeted more was Communists.
How else does “J. Edgar” hold up historically? The device for telling Hoover’s story is his dictating a memoir to various (good looking, male) FBI agents who type it up in Hoover’s inner office. The memoir, we see, is titled “The Untold FBI Story.” This comes from the FBI sanctioned official history published in 1956 by FBI-friendly journalist Don Whitehead. His book was titled "The FBI Story" which, itself, was made into a Hollywood film in 1959 starring Jimmy Stewart. JFK’s affair during World War II with Inga Arvad, whom the FBI believed was a German spy yet never proved it, is depicted in an unspecific and generic way with Hoover telling Attorney General Robert Kennedy he had the information. Hoover never did this with the Arvad information, but did coyly make it clear to RFK that he had other various information about the president’s peccadilloes. Similarly, the FBI’s recording of Martin Luther King’s sexual affair is depicted, as well as the infamous anonymous letter the FBI sent to him suggesting he should commit suicide rather than accept the Nobel peace prize. Yet the film would have it that Hoover dictated the letter personally to his distraught executive assistant, Helen Gandy (it was likely delegated). The film further depicts President Franklin Roosevelt’s verbal order of 1936 authorizing the FBI to conduct intelligence investigations against domestic communists and fascists as a written one. Roosevelt never signed an order, and we only know about it because it was Hoover who created a personal memo about it after the fact. But the film seems to be simplifying an involved story and, perhaps, mixes FDR’s 1936 verbal order with his 1940 written order authorizing the use of illegal wiretaps in domestic security cases.
When seeing “J. Edgar” it’s important to keep in mind that the facts are there, but unsurprisingly for Hollywood blurred together and compressed. And finally, If you see the movie, you’ll get more out of it by thinking of it more as an argument for what might of been rather than what, in fact, was.
Douglas M. Charles is assistant professor of history at Penn State University, Greater Allegheny. He is the author of the forthcoming The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade against Smut and J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939-45.