Clint Eastwood has always seemed like a law and order kind of guy, so J. Edgar Hoover probably wouldn’t have kept tabs on him the way he monitored other more Hollywood figures.
If he were still around today, however, Hoover would surely be ready to open a file on the veteran director. Eastwood’s new film J. Edgar, which expanded its release this weekend, opens its own scandalous investigation into the divisive FBI director, via screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Oscar-winner for Milk.)
We loved Dirty Harry for operating outside the law, though he always seemed to do it in the service of good. Hoover seems to have done it in the service of Hoover, spying on politicians and civil rights leaders as a way of enduring for decades as the keeper of Washington D.C.’s deepest secrets.
J. Edgar unveils his own, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Armie Hammer as his assistant FBI director (and possible lover) Clyde Tolson, and Naomi Watts as his trusted secretary Helen Gandy.
EW talked with Eastwood about what attracted and repulsed him about Hoover, and we ask the Dirty Harry actor: Did the FBI spy on you?
EW: What’s your perspective on J. Edgar as a man? I feel like he is far more reviled than respected these days because of his authoritarian abuses of power.
CE: Well, I grew up with Hoover in the 30’s and 40’s as the G-man, and that was much less of an information age as we’re living in now. He was always the authority; always sort of the top cop. Certainly the FBI was considered somewhat revered, and somewhat in awe, I guess. He was a controversial figure, and everyone had different opinions of him.
EW: What did you hear from people who knew him?
CE: When you talk to FBI agents now who’ve worked with him, they all have different opinions. A lot of them liked Hoover very much, liked working for him very much, I suppose because he was, like you were saying, an authoritarian kind of person. Here’s this guy starting the Bureau of Investigation which later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and then goes on to stay for 48 years through eight presidents. Of course nobody could fire him, because he had something on everybody.
EW: That’s the dark side, but he was also a law enforcement and investigations genius. A lot of that has been obscured by his Machiavellian tendencies.
CE: He was sort of the pioneer of finger printing and doing all of the stuff which now has gotten so sophisticated with DNA and everything, but he was the predecessor to all of that. So he’s obviously a brilliant guy, though a quirky guy as far as the way he liked to keep everything under wraps. Keeping files, and stuff like that on everybody. He felt he could control behavior. He was obsessed with [politics], sometimes to the point where he was getting criticism for not going after some of the gangsters and stuff. Some people accused him of being in cahoots with them.
EW: Didn’t he say ‘there is no mafia?’
CE: Yes he did, that’s what his game was at that time. I’ve talked to a lot of people with the FBI who had kind of mixed feelings about him, but I’ve talked to a lot of people, some who had even worked with him and they thought he was just terrific. He’s kind of an enigma; he was a very private person so nobody knew too much about him. There were always rumors about him, because there always are about somebody you don’t know too much about. He and Tolson were kind of inseparable pals, so there was always the rumor that he was gay. Whether he was or not I don’t know. In the picture we leave that up for the audience to make that decision.
EW: There’s clearly an attraction between them that Hoover resists.
CE: Some people might interpret it that way; some people might say they were just inseparable pals. Or maybe it’s a love story without being [consummated], I don’t know. But it’s very interesting, the way Lance laid out the script. It was nicely written. It didn’t go to the obvious.
EW: This guy knew the value of a secret.
CE: He knew what he could do to everybody else by finding out what their life was like, but in the same token everything in his life was pretty much kept between he and Helen Gandy and Clyde Tolson. Tolson obviously was his closest friend, right after he died he was the heir to Hoover’s estate, and Helen Gandy was with him for the whole run just about. She’s the one that is speculated, and I guess there’s some people are adamant about, that she actually destroyed the files. I think she even admitted to it. She destroyed all of the files after he died. When people came looking for it, I guess it was the Nixon administration when he died, she had already taken care of everything.
EW: The FBI kept tabs on a lot of celebrities. They had a Sinatra file…
CE: Sinatra was a little more controversial, always had that thing with the mob. A lot of those guys who were entertainers in that era were called to entertain the mob, Jimmy Durante and Sinatra. It’s just that a lot of the night clubs had, uh, ‘interesting’ owners.
EW: You were pretty famous during Hoover’s later years. Do you wonder whether his FBI ever tried to spy on you?
CE: (Laughs) There wasn’t too much to spy on, but no, I don’t suppose… But he might have, you never know. He probably spied on people who were critical of him. I wasn’t an antagonist as far as the FBI was concerned. I’m sure if I’d have come out and said “The FBI is a controversial organization,” I’m sure that he probably would have said “Run a file on this guy.” That’s strictly speculation. If anyone wants a file on me, they can have it.
On Twitter: @Breznican