Access Pollywood: J. Edgar in DC

Eastwood and DiCaprio share stories from filming the upcoming bio pic, J.Edgar.
By John Arundel

"He's still a mystery to me," Eastwood said of J. Edgar Hoover. Photo by John Arundel.

Beginning with the 1971 thriller Play Misty for Me, I’ve probably seen just about every one of the 30 films Clint Eastwood has directed over his storied career. Perhaps even twice, ever since they invented TiVo.

Like most Eastwood fans, I relish in how their unrushed narratives often merge with fast pacing – and an extreme cool factor. From westerns to action films and dramas, it’s hard not to leave an Eastwood flick and not be high from his urbane and sophisticated sense of cool.

Then how cool was it to learn that that my favorite actor-director had signed up my other favorite cool actor Leonardo DiCaprio – the Jimmy Dean of our time- and would be shooting his new biopic J. Edgar in my hometown.

Last Spring Eastwood brought DiCaprio for some shooting on the steps of the Masonic Temple in Alexandria and then for some additional shoots at the old courthouse in my childhood hometown of Warrenton, Va. and at a farm in nearby The Plains (pop. 382), where I grew up. That was something for us Eastwood fans to get truly thrilled about.

So when Warner Bros. rolled out the finished product last week and then put out the call for journalists to line the Red Carpet at The Newseum for the J. Edgar premiere, how I was I to say no to a light pixie dusting of cool from Hollywood’s king of cool?

At the appointed time last Tuesday, the air filled with the clicking of motor-drive cameras and the requisite jockeying for position. Hey, why push? Weren’t we all promised at least four minutes with Eastwood and J. Edgar’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black?

And none of us left disappointed.

Both Black, who came dressed smartly in a pinstriped suit, and Eastwood, sporting a tweed jacket and that trademark grin and shock of white hair, spoke freely and lucidly about the legacy of legendary and controversial FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (played by DiCaprio).

The movie delves into his complicated relationships with his doting but domineering mother Anne Marie Hoover (played by Judy Dench) and longtime gay associate, Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer (a.k.a. the Social Network’s Winklevoss twins). A strawberry blonde Naomi Watts takes on the role of Hoover’s secretary, Helen Gandy.

“He’s still a mystery to me,” Eastwood told me and my Washington Life colleague Janet Donovan. “He was an idiosyncratic type of fellow … I think he did a great job developing the organization. Once he had the organization developed he ran it with a small circle of associates that he trusted.”

Eastwood admitted that he “liked developing him into a live character,” but said he was conflicted as to whether he was a “hero” or “evil.”

Screenwriter Black took a less sympathetic view towards Hoover. “I think he took a population very afraid and he fanned the flames of fear,” he said. “It’s like today, people are giving up their personal liberties because we live in such a climate of fear.”

“I ended up feeling for him in certain ways,” Black added. “I feel like a lot of what happened to him in his youth was very wrong and hurtful, but in the end we all make choices and it’s up to us … so I think he lost his way,”

Black took an even less sympathetic towards Hoover’s mother, played in the movie by actress Judi Dench. “There was a lot of research on his mother. She lived just a few streets from here, and she really wanted to be at events like this,” he said. “But her husband was mentally ill so she would come to event like this with Edgar on her arm. Eventually she decided to make her youngest son her new man. And that was easy because he didn’t feel like loving anyone.”

“Sadly,” Black added, “instead of encouraging him to go and find love, she took it all for herself. When a parent tells a child you will never love, never have a family, the child will turn to quite hurtful things, things that are fleeting and dangerous.”

Black said that he returned to Washington, where he spent summers in college, to write the film. “As soon as I found out this got greenlit I moved back here and was staying with my mom in Virginia,” he said. “I wanted to walk in all of his old footsteps, so from his childhood neighborhood – sadly his home is gone – to his adulthood home and of course, the FBI.”

Since shooting began, he said that he spent time with star Leonardo DiCaprio at The Mayflower Hotel, where Hoover and Tolson dined daily.

The Red Carpet is largely a Hollywood phenomenon, but when a big premiere comes to Washington the political stars come out in force. Also attending were Motion Picture Association of America head Chris Dodd, Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Leahy, a movie buff who had a bit role in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” said he went on the set during the filming of J. Edgar and had the chance to chat up Eastwood, but did not try and score a cameo for this one. “When I was a young prosecutor I had a couple of meetings with J. Edgar Hoover, so it will be interesting to see how he’s portrayed,” Leahy said.

Chief Lanier said she was excited about the chance to meet Eastwood, who so famously played a San Francisco detective in the Dirty Harry films. “Yes, I guess if I was sat next to Clint Eastwood I guess I could give him some tips on how to play Dirty Harry.”

Motion Picture Association of America head Chris Dodd and J. Edgar Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Photo by John Arundel.

Marcel Pomerleau and Sen. Patrick Leahy. Photo by John Arundel.

D.C. Police Chief Lanier: "I guess if I was sat next to Clint Eastwood I guess I could give him some tips on how to play Dirty Harry." Photo by John Arundel

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