The Making of 'J. Edgar'
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of the Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Well into production of J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's new biopic, the old Eastwood -- the veteran of Dirty Harry and Magnum Force and A Fistful of Dollars -- suddenly sprang into action.
To teach his stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer (as J. Edgar Hoover and his longtime partner, Clyde Tolson) how to perform a scene in which they get into an all-out brawl, the 81-year-old director decided to show them himself.
"Clint was there with one of his stunt-guy friends, Buddy Van Horn, and they put on an impromptu fight scene for us," Hammer marvels. "There's Buddy standing in the middle of the room and Clint says, 'I think it should be something like this' -- and he explodes into Clint Eastwood the fighter and they start smacking each other around and rolling on the floor. And then Clint just gets up and says, 'OK, something like that.' "
The fight didn't just reveal what great shape Eastwood is in (he frequently worked out with weights during the shoot and regularly plays golf); it also showed his commitment to this story about the bulldog-like Hoover, who ran the FBI and the government arm that preceded it from 1924 until his death in 1972 -- a period in which he worked with eight presidents and may have kept secret files on everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy. He also maintained tabs on Hollywood: keeping a 2-inch-thick file on gossip columnist Hedda Hopper while supplying her with tidbits; spying on Marilyn Monroe's meetings with Robert F. Kennedy; and even vetting James Stewart before he starred in The FBI Story.
Such shocking information doesn't even touch on allegations that he was gay (most likely), a racist (definitely) and a cross-dresser (quite possibly).
"All along the way, people accused him of being a cross-dresser," Eastwood notes. "But nobody knows how accurate it was. Evidently the woman who accused him of that, her husband had been sent to the slammer by Hoover. So you don't know how much was vengeance."
Eastwood himself believes "there is a certain amount of truth" to all the allegations, but wanted to retain some ambiguity, and that meant casting the right actor to pull it off. DiCaprio dropped his fee from $20 million to around $2 million for this project, sources say.
"He could have made a lot of money just doing spectacle movies with all kinds of CGI," says the filmmaker of his first-time collaborator, who at 36 is 45 years his junior. "But he wants to vary his career, like I've always looked to vary mine as a director."
The role has placed DiCaprio, who ages from 24 to 77 years old in the movie, squarely in the middle of this year's Oscar race -- a contest that's frequently bypassed him. He has been nominated three times -- for 1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape, 2005's The Aviator and 2006's Blood Diamond -- but never won. Eastwood himself has been nominated on 10 occasions and won four statuettes. If he wins again, it will be thanks to a man he's not even sure he likes.
"He was a very political animal," he says. Asked if he's sympathetic to Hoover, he adds: "I don't know. I'm sure I wouldn't have agreed with a lot of his philosophies."
Hoover -- whose techniques included wire-tapping, paying informants and possibly working with the mob -- long has been an object of fascination for Hollywood, which glorified him in its ABC TV series The FBI (1965-74) and has told his story in movies such as 1977's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover with Broderick Crawford and 1987's J. Edgar Hoover with Treat Williams.
Born in 1895, he created the FBI as we know it, joining the organization in 1924 when it was still called the Bureau of Investigation and he was under 30 years old. (Remaining there for the rest of his life, he died of a heart attack in 1972.) In many ways he was brilliant, disciplining his staff and using modern techniques to shape arguably the best law enforcement group in the world. But over time, he changed, turning virulently anti-communist and keeping invasive files on friends and enemies alike.
All this was grist for the mill as far as DiCaprio was concerned.
"He's always been somebody I never could quite put my finger on," he notes, calling him "one of the most incredibly ambitious human beings I've ever heard of. The more I researched him, the more intrigued I became."
The movie began not with DiCaprio, or even with Eastwood and Warner Bros. -- the studio that releases it on Nov. 9 after J. Edgar kicks off the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles on Nov. 3 -- but somewhere else. Imagine Entertainment co-chairman Brian Grazer initiated the project, at first titled Hoover, through his deal at Universal.
"I was fascinated by the FBI and how it became what it is," Grazer explains. "On the one hand, Hoover had this level of patriotism, and on the other, he was as diabolical as any man in the world."
But who could put all this into a two-hour script that was fair without shying from the truth?