J. Edgar: Black or Gay?

November 16, 2011

Multiple Pages
J. Edgar: Black or Gay?

Clint Eastwood’s biopic J. Edgar, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the Washington bureaucrat who ran the FBI and its predecessor from 1924 to his death in early 1972, provides an intriguing data point for tracking the 21st-century struggle between blacks and gays for the upper hand in the Victim Sweepstakes. 

Hoover was widely rumored to be either a self-hating gay passing for straight, a self-hating mulatto passing for all-white, or both. So did Clint, a presumably neutral bystander, wind up blaming racism or homophobia for warping Hoover?

Gays have been striving manfully to overtake blacks in the struggle to be above criticism. The precipitating incident for gays’ current anti-black offensive may have been the November 2008 California election when Tyler Perry fans turned out in vast numbers to vote for that nice young Mr. Obama, and, while they were there, against—the very idea!—gay marriage. The press had to construct an elaborate cover story blaming the outcome not on black church ladies but on the hegemony over the California media wielded by Utah Mormons. (I call this popular theory The Protocols of the Elders of Zion National Park.)

“Gays have been striving manfully to overtake blacks in the struggle to be above criticism.”

Ever since, gays appear to have been out to take blacks down a few notches. Gay groups have been busy publicly humiliating Kobe Bryant, Tracy Morgan, and other black heroes.

This month, sleazeball director Brett Ratner was hired to produce the upcoming Academy Awards telecast, presumably so he could persuade the great Eddie Murphy to come out of the seclusion he’s mostly maintained since 1997 (after that unfortunate transvestite prostitute incident) and host. But Ratner was quickly canned for joking that “rehearsing is for fags.” Murphy, whose famous 1987 stand-up act in lavender leather was largely based on what’s now gingerly being called “the three-letter F-word,” immediately bailed.

Hoover’s ancestry on his father’s side was shadowy. Gore Vidal, another Washington DC local boy, remarked: “It was always said of him—in my family and around the city—that he was mulatto. People said he came from a family that had ‘passed.’” 

But J. Edgar ignores that intriguing angle for the well-worn story of Hoover and his longtime companion, strapping younger man Clyde Tolson (played ineptly by The Social Network’s Armie Hammer, who is the great-grandson of Bolshevist billionaire Armand Hammer). Hoover, who never married, was accompanied everywhere by Tolson. Café Society hostesses knew to invite Hoover and Tolson as a couple.

What went on behind closed doors? Clint doesn’t know, and at 81, he doesn’t have time to develop a point of view about his movies. In this century, Eastwood has directed eleven movies—three more than the Coen Brothers, who are hardworking, a generation younger, and there are two of them. 

Clint seems to feel that Hoover bugging and blackmailing presidents was, on the whole, not a good thing. But with so many of his Hollywood colleagues hiring private eye Anthony Pellicano to wiretap their enemies, Clint seems in less of a hurry to throw the first stone (and in more of a hurry to deliver another adequate movie before he dies).

Clint delegates most of J. Edgar‘s messaging to gay activist screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. He won a zeitgeisty Oscar in 2009 for his fair-to-middling script for Milk, the biopic of the gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who liberated Castro Street (making it Ground Zero of the AIDS epidemic, but who remembers such off-message trivia?). 

The gay activist screenwriter sees J. Edgar as tragedy. Hence we are given large helpings of two straight young actors doddering around as elderly queens under pounds of makeup. Eastwood appears to have blown most of his cosmetics budget on trying to age DiCaprio realistically while relegating poor Hammer to a Halloween-store mask. Yet all those latex prosthetics on DiCaprio and Hammer are the only chemistry between them. 

J. Edgar is a dull tragedy, but it could have been a lively comedy if it had been subversively envisioned South Park-style as yet another Big Gay Conservative Fiasco. Notably, J. Edgar leaves out Hoover’s secret working relationship with the brains behind Senator Joe McCarthy—Roy Cohn, the lisping homosexual staffer to whom Hoover illegally fed FBI wiretaps. 

McCarthyism collapsed into farce when Cohn took a shine to handsome G. David Schine, his own Tolson-like aide. After Schine was drafted, the lovelorn Cohn tried to blackmail the Army into stationing his innamorato near him. During the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings, McCarthy blundered into enabling Army lawyer Joseph Welch to introduce the word “fairy” into the record. 

For Schine, however, the McCarthy shambles ended not as gay tragedy but as straight comedy. He moved to Hollywood, served as executive producer of The French Connection, and had six kids with his new wife, the Swedish Miss Universe. 

Now that would be a more entertaining period piece than J. Edgar.


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