Out screenwriter Dustin Lance Black talks Clint Eastwood’s ‘loving’ take on J. Edgar and Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as a powerful closet case.
No milk for Dustin Lance Black – the 37-year-old filmmaker who says he feels 10 years older today – on this recent morning in a suite at a Beverly Hills hotel. Instead, the screenwriter is nursing a hangover after last night’s premiere of his latest film, J. Edgar, with a bottle of water, joking that “it just means more honest answers; the filter’s down.”
Even without the last drops of Jack and Cokes flushing from his system (proof: a lot of bathroom breaks), Black’s always spoke his mind. It’s how the writer has become one of the most admired LGBT activists of our generation, passionately speaking out on hot topics like Prop 8, being a lapsed Mormon and curious dinners with Taylor Lautner (more on that later).
Today, however, all the talk, or most of it anyway, is around his big Clint Eastwood-directed, Leonardo DiCaprio-carried follow-up to Milk, Black’s biopic about Harvey Milk’s life and legacy that won the writer an Oscar. “It puts a lot of pressure on a lot of your work,” says Black, leaning forward on a sofa. “It’s a dangerous thing to have around the house, so I wrapped him up and flew him to Virginia with my mother. I love him, but he’s not allowed in the house while I’m working. I don’t want to think I’m writing toward that. I want to keep taking risks, and this is a risky film.”
It’s risky not just because of the controversial career of its subject, J. Edgar Hoover, the notoriously snaky FBI director who dominated the bureau for nearly 50 years, carrying his tenure through eight presidencies and three wars. What’s attracting the most controversy is the attention the film gives the infamous G-Man’s mysterious private life: Was Hoover’s closest colleague, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer of The Social Network), more than just his right-hand man?
“Women were very interested in him and he didn’t respond, but he did like to show up to work every morning with Clyde Tolson and drive home with him each night.” Black laughs. “And this is well before it was fashionable to carpool! So it became incredibly apparent that he wasn’t straight and I started to wonder, ‘Well, what did gay look like? Why was he behaving like that?’”
By interviewing gay men of the time – before Stonewall and the sexual revolution, when homosexuality was so vague that gay people were called “daffodils” – Black was able to piece together Hoover, who was never married and lived with his mother (played by Judi Dench) until she died.
“This portrait of this man was a very complex one and a very interesting one,” says DiCaprio, in the titular role through a half-century stretch, seen in his later years with makeup that took up to seven hours to apply. “I just loved the research that (Black) did and the take that he had on J. Edgar Hoover’s life. No matter what his sexual orientation was, he was devoted to his job, and power was paramount to him. Holding onto that power at all costs was the most important thing in his life.”
Black’s screenplay, though, doesn’t slight the importance of Tolson in Hoover’s life. How gay does Black go with J. Edgar? “It’s not Milk,” Black explains. “Milk was gay from head to toe. This is not that.”
The men were nothing alike: “Milk came out and gave people great hope,” he says, “but this man was incredibly closeted and spread fear. I thought, ‘If I’m able to sell this thing, I might be able to finally examine why.’”
He looked into the hearsay regarding Hoover’s hankering for drag, but that turned out to be just what many thought – a rumor. But this is what Black knew: Hoover was an emotionally repressed mama’s boy who was smitten with Tolson; they had many meals together, up until their last moments alive, and they traveled to attend horse races, often sleeping in the same room to, you know, save pennies.
J. Edgar, then, doesn’t ignore the love story. It’s there in the flustered face of Hoover the first time Tolson interviews for associate director of the FBI, their affectionate hand-holding and a tussle-turned-makeout scene. The poignant ending, as the two are seen growing old together, is convincing on its own that the men were more than just colleagues. Eastwood had a lot of inquiries regarding the script and the research behind it, but he let Black run with all of it.
“He never once asked about the love story or the gay relationship,” says Black. “I didn’t know what to think of that until it got to production and I saw how he was treating these scenes. He was doing it in not just an incredibly respectable but loving manner.”
Eastwood’s one suggestion came last-minute after Tolson professes his love to Hoover, who then reciprocates the sentiment – but only after Tolson’s walked out. “That’s not in my script,” Black says, “That was Clint on take two or three shouting out to Leo, ‘Tell him you love him.’”
“As this is happening,” he continues, “I was reading on the Internet that he was de-gaying the film. I don’t think so. People assume that because he’s Clint he might, but he treated it incredibly loving.”
Eastwood, a defender of marriage equality, says: “I had my own impressions growing up with Hoover as a heroic figure in the ’30s and beyond. We never knew too much about Tolson or any of his close confidantes, but through researching this movie… we’re putting our stamp on history. Sure, a lot of things probably didn’t happen the way they happened in this film, but they’re pretty close. Lance has done a great job researching.”
The first time Hammer looked over the script, he wasn’t sure what to make of the mens codependency. He couldn’t get how anybody would stay so dedicated to such a vile beast of a man like Hoover.
“With Clyde, I thought that in order for it to make sense for him to be there and to stick around and to almost take that hot-and-cold abuse, it had to be a love story,” Hammer says. “I didn’t understand the love story; it didn’t make sense. After having conversations with Fiona Weir, who cast the project, and several friends of mine, the complexities of their relationship was made more and more clear to me and I became obsessed with it.”
Black was also consumed by it, and his research caused him to get a “creepy feeling” for how much he started to empathize with the historical figure. “Hoover was this young man who was incredibly promising and brilliant,” he says. “Hoover is the ultimate cautionary tale of: Do not replace love and family and your fellow man with admiration and fame. Don’t let your kids grow up to be Hoovers, and the way you do that is to teach them the importance of love – and when they come to you and say that might be someone of the same sex, you have to encourage that and not discourage that.”
DiCaprio felt similarly. “Lance put it best when he said, ‘Look, if we can better understand these people and their motivations and how their ambition manifested itself into their politics we can learn from them, we can learn from history.’”
History tells us that Hoover was driven, ruthless and manipulative in how he created a system of federal laws that transformed our country into what it is today. He founded the FBI in 1935 and remained director until his death in 1972, originating forensic laboratories and fingerprinting. Hoover was as remarkably heroic, as he was feared.
“You look at the things he did in his teens and into his 20s and boy, what a mind and what potential,” says Black. “Can you imagine if this young man was allowed to love and love openly and have a family and foster things like empathy and maintain a moral compass?”
He may have turned out a lot like Black, the posterboy for LGBT activism. He speaks regularly on issues concerning the gay community and recently wrote 8, a play about the battle against Proposition 8. Up next? Under the Banner of Heaven, an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller that riffs on Mormonism, and next year’s release of his directorial debut, What’s Wrong with Virginia, starring Jennifer Connelly. Black is not, however, linked to Twilight stud Taylor Lautner and filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s vague project, despite having a meal with both of them recently – food for too much thought that put Lautner’s sexuality in question.
About that brouhaha: “It wasn’t one,” Black says, laughing. “It was a nice dinner!”