J.Edgar Hoover: Hero or Villain

J. Edgar Hoover devoted himself to public service, essentially putting aside any personal relationships he might have wanted to have for what he considered to be the greater good. As one who served to gain authority as well as the public’s adoration, he saw his opportunity to achieve both by positioning himself as a supreme crime-fighting figure, a hero of the populace.

“Hoover was incredibly ambitious as a young man,” says Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the character that would take him from a man in his twenties to one at 77. “He was highly motivated to succeed in Washington, primarily due to his mother’s expectations of him. His father had failed to become a major political figure, and Annie wanted her son to carry the family name to great fame and fortune, with little or no regard for what else Edgar might have needed for himself. He became this stoic, bulldog enforcer who had to keep his personal life very personal. He became all about secrets.”

With so little known about the man’s inner life, DiCaprio did vast amounts of research in order to create a fully realized Hoover on screen. “It was a terrific challenge to breathe life into this person, because he was such a mystery,” he says. “I did find that he was very manipulative and very charming; he could charm anyone in the room but at the same time intimidate them. He liked the spotlight, but he concentrated so much on work that it defined much of who he was, his morals, the decisions that he made on really every level. I hesitate to use the word priest because J. Edgar Hoover was no priest, but he certainly looked at the FBI as his church.”

“Leo is a total professional, he comes completely prepared,” Eastwood says. “From the start, I could see he’d done all of his homework, thought a lot about what he had to do, and was interested in my take on things. I was really impressed by his focus, and I think it translated into the character.”

The actor was thrilled to be working with the legendary director. “Clint’s process is impeccable because he trusts his own instincts, he trusts his gut. There’s a beautiful simplicity to the way he works; he has one vision, which made it easier to do my job. He’s really like a corner man. It was like going into the ring and having your coach there, backing you up. And I think that confidence and support are evident on the screen.”

Trust was vital to J. Edgar Hoover, though he bestowed his on only a few individuals over the course of his lifetime, those few he felt were truly loyal to him. In order to paint a complete portrait of the man, it was critical to the filmmakers to capture those key relationships that helped reflect and reveal who he was, beginning with his colleague and friend, Clyde Tolson.

From Grazer’s perspective, “The relationship these two men had was one of companionship and joy, but also loneliness and isolation. They were both a product of their time.”

DiCaprio says, “They ate lunch and dinner together every day, went on vacations together. Whether they were together in any other respect…well, no one living knows the truth. In the film, it’s seen as almost an unrequited love, but a lasting one, nonetheless.”

Clyde Tolson

Cast in the critical role of Clyde Tolson, Armie Hammer says that, whatever their personal relationship, “Clyde was always dutifully by the Director’s side, literally his right-hand man. That was just the way they operated.”

“Armie was terrific as Tolson,” Grazer states. “He was so polished in the part and brought a very subtle but tangible energy to the role, and he had a very natural rapport with Leo.”

Though there was not nearly as much information to be found about Tolson as there was Hoover, Hammer dug deep to learn about his character. “I hired a professional researcher, and she helped me find everything that’s out there on Tolson, even his junior high school year book,” he says. “According to some of the old FBI guys he was very observant, often the smartest man in the room. He was nicknamed ‘the human computer’ because he had a photographic memory. So even apart from any attraction there might have been, it’s easy to see why Hoover would rely on him so heavily.”

Helen Gandy

Another lifelong ally whom Hoover knew would never betray him was his secretary, Helen Gandy.

“Helen kind of ran the agency,” Eastwood contends. “If you ask the old-timers, whenever you wanted to know something, you went to see her. She had much more information than anyone else.”

“Helen’s commitment to Edgar never faltered,” says Naomi Watts, who portrays her in the film. “I think she was initially impressed by him and found him clever and charismatic, but she was only interested in a career. She worked closely with him longer than anyone, through incredible changes in the world, and she remained steady and poised till then end.”

For the Australian, playing a deeply patriotic American in a film about one of the country’s most controversial figures was enlightening. “I knew nothing about my character, and very little more about Hoover, when I took the role. Not being a part of America’s history, and then not having lived through those times, made this a great learning experience for me.”

“Naomi did such a fantastic job,” Lorenz states. “The role was an understated but important one in the film, and she really made the most out of every scene and elevated the character, which was fitting for the role that Helen Gandy played in Hoover’s life.”

One woman who was not content to stay in the background of her son’s life was Annie Hoover. A domineering force, she wielded great influence over him and served as his measure of a moral high ground. Hoover lived with her and turned to her for guidance at every stage of his life, until her death when he was 43.

The venerable Judi Dench brought her to life in such a way that “you were able to love her and fear her at the same time, and she never even raised her voice,” says Grazer.

“She was really the kind of mother you don’t want around,” Dench comments. “She was very opinionated, and unbelievably possessive of Edgar, though she had three other children. I think she wanted not only the best for him, but beyond that, as if his accomplishments were a reflection on her. She reminded me a bit of Lady MacBeth. I think she wanted to be associated with the greatest man in the land. Edgar didn’t stand a chance, really.”

Despite both their long careers, this was the first opportunity Eastwood and Dench had to work together. The actress was thrilled to get the call. “He’s a legend,” she smiles, “so when he rang me up, my voice went up several octaves. I thought, ‘I’ve waited 75 years for this.'”

That sentiment went both ways. “Judi’s a terrific lady, I’ve always been such a great admirer of hers,” Eastwood affirms. “She was my only choice for this role, so I’m certainly glad she didn’t turn me down.”

As seen in the film, one of the most pivotal cases in Hoover’s career—and the one his mother applies the greatest pressure on her son to solve—would come to be known as the crime of the century: the Lindbergh kidnapping. The case was particularly important to the Bureau because it helped to highlight its value in creating and enforcing federal laws. It also established a framework for collecting and testing forensic evidence from a crime scene, and ultimately played a significant role in Hoover’s ability to persuade Congress of the need to centralize such information.

At the time, Charles Lindbergh was, as Hoover advises a young agent in one scene, “the most famous man in the world.” DiCaprio says, “Hoover—as much or as little as he really had to do with it—certainly used the kidnapping to propel himself and the FBI to national fame.”