Liz Smith: The Critical Diversity on Clint Eastwood’s “J.Edgar”

And more from our Liz: can the “truth” ever be found out about this bizarre and powerful figure?  

“IF YOU do something long enough, people let you do your thing,” said Clint Eastwood in an interview with Scott Bowles of USA Today.

Well, that’s for sure! Clint Eastwood at age 81 — still functioning brilliantly as an actor and director — is now practically a god in the movie world. Like the 2000-pound gorilla, he can sit pretty much wherever he wants. And I don’t say that is wrong. He seems to have earned it, from sex symbol western star to active filmmaker behind the camera. It is a position devoutly to be wished by every movie star who has lived long and prospered.

But it is amazing to see the diverse reviews of Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s latest effort, titled “J. Edgar.” The New York TimesManohla Dargis has given the movie a front-of-the-art-section rave for its human portrait of Hoover.

On the other hand, Rex Reed of The New York Observer was outraged by DiCaprio, Eastwood and their screenwriter’s more forgiving approach to J. Edgar Hoover. Rex terms Hoover the worst of “the closet queens.”

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THIS ALL reminds me of book I read in 2008 from the pen of Burton Hersh, titled Bobby and J. Edgar. I am going to quote just a little of it so you’ll have even another point of view if you go to the movie. (I’m not knocking this movie; haven’t seen it yet myself. I am very eager to assess it.)

But here’s Burton Hersh, who subtitled his book The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America:

To quote my own column from 6-12-08: “This turns into even more of a ‘House of Atreus’ tragedy as it descends from old Joe through his sons, more than we’ve even imagined. Hersh paints Joe Kennedy as an amoral but brilliant genius who masterminded the ailing Jack into the White House, then discovered that he was stymied because Jack wanted Bobby as attorney general, and Bobby could not get along with the key Kennedy guy — Hoover.”

Reviewing this book, I also wrote: “The latter is portrayed accurately, I believe, as a kind of petty autocrat who wanted communist witch hunts as his legacy while refusing to pursue the very Mafia that would become the Kennedys’ downfall. There is no question in my mind, and in the author’s, that both Kennedy assassinations were masterminded by the Mafia as outrage against Bobby’s Justice Department. In fact, I feel Hersh has added to the vast ‘conspiracy’ data that we have all struggled with since Dallas. His take on JFK’s slaying is incredible: dramatic, startling, convincing, and likewise the deaths of Officer Tippet and Jack Ruby and then Bobby in Los Angeles … Hersh offers another fascinating vision in his book, saying, “From the moment Joe Kennedy suffered a stroke on the golf course and was left by his wife lying unattended at home for many hours, the fortunate days of his sons were numbered. Rose Kennedy supposedly said, when told of Joe’s fall, ‘Oh, my poor boys! My poor boys!’ intuiting that ‘without Daddy’s firm hand, they more or less fell apart.’

In Hersh’s book, women were the least of the Kennedy downfall. But, more to the point in examining J. Edgar Hoover’s role in all this, I declared: “Mr. Hoover is a delicious portrait of closeted destiny. (The author deals with the dresses, the parties and Hoover’s close relationship with his aide, Clyde Tolson — but if it was ‘gay,’ it was peculiar. Hoover seems to have used Tolson more as a whipping boy/coat holder than as a partner.) … Hersh also gives Hoover a few good marks, saying that J.Edgar organized the FBI into a rigid force with some silly rules about dress, etc. but better than we could have expected. At least Hoover wasn’t assembling power and troops to try to take over the country. He was content to be a petty tyrant and subvert justice on a personal scale that suited him. In the end, he and Bobby hated each other passionately, so that even a long friendship with old Joe could not ameliorate the situation.

“Likewise, Hersh, although scathing about Bobby as compared to Jack (one was ruthless, short and short on charm, and the other seems to have had grace and common sense) — in the end Hersh gives Bobby his due. Not just as a charismatic politician with idealistic intentions, but as a person who saved the U.S. during the Cuban missile crisis. It is the Hersh contention that JFK was sick during that crucial moment, and Bobby kept the world from nuclear holocaust.”

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I DO wonder if “J. Edgar’s” screenwriter — Dustin Lance Black — ever read Burton Hersh on Hoover and Bobby? I recall the late Roy Cohn regaling me with stories of J. Edgar, dressing up as a woman, camping it up and taking vengeance on friends and enemies.

How much my “old friend” Mr. Cohn could be believed was always in doubt, but often convincing.

I do recall that when President Truman was presented with J. Edgar’s comments and asides on famous and infamous persons, he snorted and brushed Hoover’s notes aside, saying he wanted “facts” not “gossip.” (Bravo to Truman!)

10 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Bottom line answer to the question about J Edgar Hoover is the reality of J Edgar Hoover. He became a gossipy old queen in his later years. And a very, very vicious one at that.

  2. avatar rick gould says:

    ; )

  3. avatar Rho says:

    I am not going to see this movie, have better things to do.

  4. avatar Rho says:

    What happened to my post?  All I said is I will not see this movie.

  5. avatar Rho says:

    Now I see it, this is spooky 🙂

  6. avatar French Heart says:

    I admire Clint Eastwood, who is highly respected here in Carmel where he lives, and interested in any film he does altho can’t stand Hoover–but am sure he would make even that story riveting. Will wait till it’s online to see it. Like the Truman quote!

    Just read the reviews of the Burton book on Amazon.. Another book added to my reading list! Recently read, ‘JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters’ excellent research–the writer also makes a convincing case for involvement in the Kennedy murders by factions within the government.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Suzanne, lucky you, to live in Carmel! I spent a year there for grad school, rented a termite-infested shack which has since been torn down and rebuilt… but a very happy year indeed.

  7. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing this movie. But….even more than seeing the movie I am looking forward to the contortionist act so many will have to do when it comes to discussing this movie and subject. On one hand I have been taken to task for suggesting that men and women who live closeted lives do themselves a disservice. That it is always best to live a full and authentic life in the open. The response is always without exception that I am wrong. People should be allowed to live their lives the way they want. If they don’t want to come out about their closeted lifestyles that should be respected.

    My rebuttal, “but what about those that are closet gays or crossdressers who are prejudice against others that are gay or crossdressers?” Doesn’t matter, live and let live. It’s not “my” place to dictate how others live. Yet on the subject of Hoover, for decades people have called him all kinds of names because of his “private life”.

    Yes, let the fun begin. I can’t wait to hear him picked apart and judged by the very same people who speak constantly of not judging others. Aaah hypocrisy…..a beautiful thing to behold.      

  8. avatar Lila says:

    “Hoover seems to have used Tolson more as a whipping boy/coat holder than as a partner.”

    So… Hoover is Mr. Montgomery Burns, to Tolson’s Smithers?