J. Edgar: A Faulty Interpretation

J. Edgar PosterDustin Lance Black is an excellent screenwriter. He won an Academy Award for the 2008 film Milk, and there’s no question that he fully deserved the golden statue.

I’m not so keen, however, on how he interpreted the relationship at the emotional center of the recent film J. Edgar.

(Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the film yet and you’d rather not here specifics about it, stop reading and go buy a ticket . . . then come back and read this article.)

In a nutshell, Black portrays J. Edgar Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) as such a sexually repressed gay man that he never acted on his desires. According to the movie, Hoover’s decision to suppress his sexuality was largely due to his domineering mother (played by Judi Dench) and her statement that she didn’t want any son of hers to be, in her words, a “daffodil.”

And so, J. Edgar depicts Hoover’s professional right hand man and personal companion Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer) as a gay man whose love for the fabled FBI director went unrequited.

I beg to differ.

[An aside: On a light note, I’m not buying that any self-respecting gay man could “unrequite” an amorous advance from pretty boy Armie Hammer!]

Here are the facts involving Hoover and Tolson that any number of historians agree on:

  • Hoover and Tolson were both life-long bachelors.
  • Tolson served as Hoover’s associate director for 40 years.
  • Hoover and Tolson arrived at work together every morning.
  • Hoover and Tolson had lunch together at the Mayflower hotel every workday.
  • Hoover and Tolson had dinner together every evening.
  • Hoover and Tolson went on vacations together.
  • Hoover and Tolson sometimes wore matching suits.
  • When Hoover died, he left the bulk of his estate to Tolson.

Black portrays most of these details in the film. But he chooses to interpret the two men as not having a romantic relationship. Instead, the screenwriter has Tolson loving Hoover and yet never succeeding in getting theLeonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar up-tight FBI director to become physically intimate with him.

The closest the men come to having sex plays out when Tolson throws himself at Hoover by kissing him on the lips. Hoover is shown vehemently resisting that erotic advance, threatening to cut Tolson out of his life if the man ever tries such a thing again.

Although this interpretation is plausible, it’s a doozy of a stretch. The far more likely scenario is that Hoover refused to go public with his homosexuality but that he and Tolson had a discreet physical relationship they carried on behind closed doors.

So why did Black—who is openly gay—choose to interpret the relationship the way he did? The clear answer is:

Dustin Lance Black is an excellent screenwriter.


That is, Black knows that a movie is more compelling if it’s driven by conflict. And so, he portrays Tolson wanting to consummate the relationship and Hoover refusing to take that step—which is more contentious than having the two men living together in a loving partnership.

Of course Black has every right to depict the story as he does, just as I have every right to say: I don’t like it!

While I’m at it, I’ll pick another bone with how Black wrote J. Edgar.

Soon after the scene in which Hoover’s mother dies, the distraught mama’s boy is shown going into her bedroom and putting on one of her necklaces and then one of her dresses.

[Another aside: Again on a light note, I’m not buying that the paunchy J. Edgar Hoover could fit into a dress worn by his aged mother!]

Yes, yes, yes, we’ve all heard the rumor that the famous G-man was a cross-dresser. Unlike with the long list of facts—Hoover and Tolson arriving at work together, vacationing together, etc.—that led to speculation that they were lovers, however, the cross-dressing suggestion is based on a single source. What’s more, that source is a woman who had a grudge against the FBI director.

The woman, Susan Rosenstiel, believed that Hoover had put FBI agents on her tail to help her husband during their nasty divorce.

So why did Black include a scene in which Hoover put on a dress? The clear answer is:

Dustin Lance Black is an excellent screenwriter.

In this instance, that cross-dressing rumor has been widely repeated since it first surfaced in a 1993 Hoover biography. So the screenwriter didn’t think he had any choice but to include some reference to the rumor in
his film . . . or else have millions of moviegoers asking, “I thought Hoover liked wearing women’s clothes. Why wasn’t that in the movie?”Rodger Streitmatter

Despite my two concerns about Black’s screenplay, I still admire his work. Milk was a terrific movie, and J. Edgar isn’t a bad one. I would have been happier with Black’s latest work, though, if he’d interpreted Hoover
as having been in a loving relationship, one that included physical intimacy, and as having no affinity for wearing women’s clothes—his mama’s or anyone else’s.


By Rodger Streitmatter



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