“Believe what you will from historians,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s FBI director says at the beginning of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. “Most write from a present perspective, forgetting context.” Context poses a problem for any filmmaker who takes on one of the most powerful and perplexing figures of the 20th century. Last fall, two directors with vastly different perspectives engaged in a brief war of words: Larry Cohen, who made 1977’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, published a memo accusing Eastwood’s Dustin Lance Black–scripted film of falsehoods and innuendos.
Twin examples of “printing the legend,” the two films are so different they’re almost more fascinating as a pair. Cohen’s half-admiring, half-outraged biopic is a Citizen Kane–inspired “greatest hits,” full of caricatures of famous figures. Eastwood’s is a perversely selective, even romanticized portrait with an unreliable narrator. With J. Edgar coming to VOD this week, we highlight some similarities and differences.
On Franklin Roosevelt
Private Files FDR (Howard da Silva) tells Hoover to issue illegal wiretaps to spy on a Nazi-sympathizing group, to find out whether they’re a danger or “just a bunch of Lindbergh lovers.” This is the justification Hoover (played in middle age by a hulking Broderick Crawford) uses to run wiretaps for three decades.
J. Edgar Just because Hoover served during Roosevelt’s entire 12-year term doesn’t mean the President gets any screen time—although DiCaprio’s young bureau chief gloats to confidant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) about presenting FDR with evidence of Eleanor’s sapphic dalliances.
On Robert F. Kennedy
Private Files While serving as attorney general, RFK (Michael Parks) is seen as a dart-throwing playboy who keeps finding ways to show Hoover who’s boss. Hoover quickly blackmails him, noting JFK’s affair with mob moll Judith Campbell Exner. Later he gets Bobby to sign off on bugging Martin Luther King Jr.’s hotel rooms.
J. Edgar A similar instance of blackmail leaves this RFK (Jeffrey Donovan) less flustered, though it may be idol worship: As Jon Stewart pointed out, he seems to have built a replica of Hoover’s fireplace in his office.
On Hoover’s relationships with women
Private Files “Who put you up to this?” young Hoover (James Wainright) shouts at a woman (Ronee Blakley) trying to seduce him. “Is there a photographer in the hall?” Decades later, he refuses the advances of an ambassador’s widow (Celeste Holm), supposedly because he doesn’t want his driver to know.
J. Edgar Hoover gets skittish when divorced socialite Lela Rogers (Ginger’s mom, played by Lea Thompson) asks him to dance. At another point, he tells Tolson he’s thinking of marrying Dorothy Lamour. The ensuing fight nearly destroys their hotel room (and culminates in what the movie suggests may be their only kiss).
On Hoover’s relationships with men
Private Files Columnist Dave Hindley (John Marley) alleges that Hoover has had a lifelong affair with Tolson (Dan Dailey). Cohen’s movie doesn’t quite go there; the companions are earlier seen emerging from the same house, arguing about lawn care. (“I don’t care what you say, boss. It doesn’t look like real grass to me.”)
J. Edgar Hoover promises Tolson they’ll never miss a lunch or a dinner together, though if they ever consummated their relationship, the film leaves it offscreen. In a movie that also leaves out COINTELPRO, that seems strangely appropriate.
J. Edgar is available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 21. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is on DVD.