J. Edgar – sharp dressed man

© Warner Brothers 2012

During an evening out at the club, J. Edgar Hoover suddenly urges his friend and lover Clyde Tolson to leave in a hurry. They just came from a movie that was of important symbolic value:  Hollywood had eventually shifted from the sympathetic gangster hero to the heroic police officer. Hoover feels so gratified by what he considers to be a public recognition of his work that during the ride home, he holds his lover’s hand. The gesture has a slight scent of provocation since his mother, Anne, sitting in front of the car, could not but notice. And she would pay him back for this daring move soon enough.

That evening though, nothing seemed to stop J. Edgar. At first, at least. After dropping his mother off, he and Clyde continue to their club, where they get to sit at a table with three beautiful, admiring actresses. Here we see the new hero of the Bureau of Investigation, inspiring comic strips and now movies,  bragging about some incredibly important secrets he cannot reveal. Young, radiating, gorgeous Hoover seems overspilling with power, wits and overall success. Until one of the actresses, trying to get beyond sitting and listening, first invites and then urges him to dance. At this point J. Edgar loses it.

Agitated, distressed, not far from panicking, he suddenly stutters that they have to leave right away for some important business that cannot wait. Clyde Tolson, initially watching his friend’s performance with an amused grin and waiting to find out where things are heading, seems unable to understand this sudden change of mind. After several insistent cues from J. Edgar, he reluctantly complies. Both men head out in a rush leaving the giggling actresses behind.


© Warner Brothers 2012

Later in the movie, we see J. Edgar standing in the same room. His mother had just died but her dress and necklace still lie around. At this moment J. Edgar reveals how well his mother had guessed. He puts on her dress, her necklace and tries to admire himself in the bedroom mirror. Not for long, though. He suddenly crumbles from within and falls to the ground hearing his mother’s warning voice: be strong!
This scene provokes a sudden insight. Here, all the pieces of the puzzle come together to fit around that one central piece: be strong, control yourself. Control who you are. “Must I kill everything I love?” asks J. Edgar at another moment. Absolutely! And he does kill everything he loves, because indeed he has to. There’s really no choice for him if he wants to escape his mother’s threat of obliteration. After all, she’s the very person ensuring his existence. “Yes mother.”

So to start with, he has to kill off this part of himself that his mother would rather see rotting in hell, than allow ‘the rest of’ her son to live. This is what being strong is about. Practically: to spy on every potential threat, to keep detailed secret files – everybody has a secret that makes them vulnerable – arrest and lock away into oblivion whatever could represent a danger. Thus the new political institution of the Bureau becomes a perfect new world for J. Edgar. A perfect world compromise in fact: since he’s master of the secrets now, he can persecute and punish other people’s secrets and manage hiding his.

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche writes that he ”who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” With psychoanalytical hindsight, we might see an unexpected hope in this warning: the monster is still the other guy.

When J. Edgar, wearing his mother’s clothes looks in the mirror, he gazes at the abyss he himself has become through his mother’s terrifying gaze. Obviously, Edgar feels better when chasing ‘official’ monsters like gangsters, communists, radicals and other subversives.

Yes, mother, we will be strong and not become like them. But unlike Nietzsche’s abyss seeker, J. Edgar does not fear falling into those anguishing depths. On the contrary: he never stopped struggling to subdue the abyss of his own sexuality – a sexuality his mother controlled as firmly as the rest of his existence. Paradoxically, this abyss also holds the small reserve of his humanity.



    There is a significant contrast between Eastwood's portrayal of Hoover in this film, and Oliver Stone's in his operatic film "Nixon".  Stone shows Hoover and Tolson for instance lounging at a poolside, with Hoover lusting after a young waiter, whilst plotting political power moves.  Hoover is all appetite and worldly cunning.  No wrestling with his sexuality here.  Or rather sexuality is seen as an integral part of a general drift in American history and politics (history as sound and fury), a destructive beast that is out of control, driven by greed, lust, confusion and mayhem.  One enjoys watching Bob Hoskins as Hoover, while one suffers through Di Caprio's psychological Hoover in Eastwood's film.

    The difference, I believe, comes from Eastwood's decision to leave "partisan" politics out, to a large extent, albeit focussing on the (psycho)logic of authoritarianism.

    May be it's also a matter of left (Stone) versus right (Eastwood) libertarianism.  To the Left, Hoover is probably identified with the Right, making it easier to bypass a more psychological portrayal. But here one wonders whether – as you point out, I think, in this crucial scene from Eastwood's film – Hoover ever went beyond the stage of traumatic cross dressing.

  2. Excellent review! There is a significant contrast between Eastwood’s portrayal of Hoover in this film, and Oliver Stone’s in his operatic film “Nixon”. I appreciate that Eastwood's portrayal of Hoover in this film. I'm so so much enjoyed to see this amazing film. Thanks

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