What do you know about J Edgar Hoover? Most responses to this question –or so my guess goes— would be:
- He was the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the FBI).
- He was a cross dresser and closeted homosexual.
- There’s a movie in theaters about him directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
It’s not my purpose here to review the current Hoover movie. I have not yet seen it, and a fine review of J Edgar (the Eastwood film) can be found in Blast Magazine here. But when I saw the trailers for J Edgar and heard some of the buzz about it, I immediately wondered if other biopics about Hoover had been made.
Hoover has appeared as a minor character in dozens of films and television shows. As for films that focus solely on Hoover, there was a feature made about him in the late 1970s called “The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover” but it is unavailable on DVD. The other film about J Edgar Hoover that was available is from 2000. It stars the legendary Ernest Borgnine and is titled, simply, “Hoover.”
I’m glad I chose the latter for this ‘retro review,’ because it takes a different tack than one would expect to detail his directorship of the Bureau over the course of 50 years. Hoover is a 90-minute one man show in which Hoover/Borgnine addresses an unseen audience from a simple stage that is decorated to appear to be his office. A faded American flag is the backdrop and only adornment aside from several Greek-style columns and Hoover’s office furniture.
The film moves between Hoover’s monologues to the audience, feigned conversations he’s had with others, and clips of a real life interview from a deputy of his, Cartha D. Deloach. The cutaways to Deloach add an air of documentary authenticity, though in truth they are almost wholly redundant: Deloach simply repeats what Borgnine’s Hoover has just said. I think the conceit is to give credulity to Hoover’s monologues, to let us know that this is not something a writer or director has concocted. But they don’t add much else, other than bumping up what would be a sixty minute film to ninety minutes.
The casting of Borgnine as Hoover is a wonderful choice. Not only does he bear some resemblance to Hoover (at least in terms of body type), but he also plays the part magnificently.
What’s refreshing as a whole about Hoover is its unabashed patriotism. The other recent one-act play/movie about a famous figure, Will Ferrell’s “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush,” is too easily savage and snooty but not surprising: the artistic class simply knows George W Bush was a never-grown-up frat boy with an objectionable worldview and dangerous religious tendencies. One might expect similar fare for a stodgy and conservative figure like J Edgar Hoover. Not so in Hoover. Instead of a cheap takedown of the man, this film is an unapologetic defense of him, an explanation of and a compelling rationalization for some of his most famous actions and decisions. I might, however, concede, that Hoover does go too far in its defense of the man—as the movie veers quite close to a hagiography if little else.
More importantly, Hoover’s mission is to dispel myths about the Bureau Director, which brings us back to our list of popular conceptions of J Edgar Hoover. Number two on our list — which is widely believed to be true — is that Hoover wore women’s clothing and had a secret homosexual life. Hoover opens with a complete repudiation of this myth and takes to task the ‘tabloid culture’ of the media and society which baked up this, in his words, fabrication. Hoover’s reputed penchant for women’s clothes and homosexual behavior, in my limited research on the topic, does seem to be based wholly on conjecture and unreliable testimony. It’s titillating and what his enemies and detractors would like to believe, but I don’t see any conclusive proof of it.
J Edgar Hoover was almost certainly an annoyingly puritanical and boring man. He’s the kind of person you respect and want on your side but probably wouldn’t enjoy being around much on a Saturday night (unless bridge and The Lawrence Welk Show are your things). Hoover doesn’t offer much balance, but it’s convincingly pulled off and an interesting cinematic alternative –if you are looking for one—about the life of one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century.