Back then, of course, he was a star on screen; nowadays, Eastwood is more likely to be found behind the camera, directing movies that are usually guaranteed Oscar fodder (he’s won directing Academy Awards for “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby”). He’s in town this day to present his latest directorial outing, “J. Edgar,” about founding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to a crowd that will include no less than Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Department chief Leon Panetta, lots of FBI agents and scrums of Washington insiders who know the bureau down to the last brutalist square foot.
Can Clint Eastwood possibly be nervous?
“Nah,” he says in his signature quiet rasp, popping a piece of apple in his mouth. “If they like it, fine. I want them to be happy, but it’s not going to be Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”
Indeed “J. Edgar,” which opened Wednesday, will probably surprise Hoover’s fans and detractors alike, focusing less on the bureau director’s Machiavellian power plays and more on his psychology, especially as it played out with his constant personal and professional associate, Clyde Tolson.
Leonardo DiCaprio is already earning Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Hoover over five decades, a grueling physical performance that involved arduous prosthetic and cosmetic procedures. Despite what viewers may think they know about Hoover, the character who emerges from DiCaprio’s portrayal and Dustin Lance Black’s script will no doubt prove more enigmatic — even sympathetic — than they thought possible.
“He’s a mystery man,” Eastwood says of Hoover. “I still don’t have all the answers on him.”
With its depiction of a young J. Edgar Hoover fighting Bolshevik activity in 1919, an experience that fed what would later become an obsession with communism that bordered on paranoia, “J. Edgar” engages the timely issue of post-9/11 national security. And in its portrayal of the relationship between Hoover and Tolson (played by Armie Hammer), which Black and Eastwood depict as a passionate but chastelove affair, the film obliquely addresses the similarly contemporary issues of civil rights for gay citizens. Both messages dovetail with Eastwood’s personal politics, which he describes as libertarian.
“I think the message of ‘If we don’t pay attention to history we’re destined to repeat it’ is a little bit in the picture,” he says, comparing post-9/11 America to the Red Scare when Hoover began his career in the midst of anarchist bombing campaigns. “It doesn’t mean we have to be paranoid, but I think people have to be diligent. Because [America] is an enviable country in a lot of ways, and there’s a lot of people who always want to bring down the top dog.”
By the same token, if “J. Edgar” will be seen as pro-gay by audiences, that’s okay, too. “Gay rights are fine by me,” he says, smiling. “I’ve never been one of these people who are rightist on the point of ‘sanctity of marriage.’ I figure if people want to get married, why not give them a shot at it? It’s not bothering me, it’s not bothering anybody else that I can see.
“I’m just a let’s-leave-everybody-alone guy,” he continues, adding that his version of libertarianism “has elements of the liberal side, of ‘Leave everybody alone and let’s be understanding of everybody else,’ [and elements of] the conservative side, of ‘Let’s live within our means.’
“But both of those sides have been lost now,” he continues. “Certainly in recent years, the Republicans have lost the austerity measures, and the liberals lost the liberal element, the understanding of other people’s feelings. So both sides have sort of deserted their base, it seems to me. I always just call myself a moderate because I was an Eisenhower Republican, whatever that is. I guess it’s because it’s the first year I voted and I didn’t know too much about Adlai Stevenson, except that his shoes needed resoling.”
Listening to Eastwood’s half-joking un-polemic, it’s easy to forget that he was elected mayor of Carmel, Calif., in 1986, a political stint that led George H.W. Bush to consider Eastwood as his running mate in 1988. “President,” Eastwood says jokingly of the position he might have considered. “Better not to take the supporting role.” He admits that at the time, some Republican functionaries saw him as the next Ronald Reagan.
“Robert Dole came by to see me and wanted to know where I was headed with this, was I going to run for state office or something like that?” Eastwood recalls. “I said, ‘Not particularly, I’m just interested in my own community and that’s why I’m doing it.’ I took a two-year term knowing that two years was going to be more than adequate for me. If I couldn’t get the job done in that period of time and will it to some other interested citizen, then I shouldn’t be doing it anyway.” (True to his libertarian leanings, Eastwood eased regulations on businesses and public areas in the seaside town of Carmel, most famously allowing the sale of ice cream cones and Frisbees in the park.)
Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of the 2008 film “Milk,” about gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, says that he and Eastwood never talked politics while working on “J. Edgar,” mostly because they agreed the film should focus on Hoover’s personal life rather than his politics.
“If he and I got into a conversation about fiscal policy we’d probably start to disagree,” Black says. “But when we talk about people having the freedom to be themselves, we agree almost universally. Clint Eastwood is a humanist. He likes people and he cares for people. One of the things we did not have to discuss was [questions] he might have about the difference between a heterosexual and a gay love story. And he never asked those questions. I was a bit concerned, wondering how he’d treat those things, and he treated them as any other love story, which I think is the absolutely right answer.”
As for this political season, Eastwood hasn’t decided on a candidate yet. “I liked that fellow from New Jersey, Christie,” he says, referring to Gov. Chris Christie. “He was just a regular guy saying what we’re all concerned about in regular, understanding words without too much razzle-dazzle on it. And then Herman Cain came along and he started doing that, too. . . . And the rest of them dance well.”
To hear Eastwood tell it, he might have gone for Hillary Rodham Clinton if she’d been the Democratic nominee in 2008; as it happened, he voted for John McCain, without endorsing him. “I was probably too busy working,” he says. And, characteristically, Eastwood is understating the case: He has worked virtually nonstop for the past 20 years, directing 16 movies that include “Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River” and the recent dramas “Gran Torino,” “Changeling,” “Invictus” and “Hereafter,” a run he calls “a nice little flurry.” He’s currently slated to star in the father-daughter road trip movie “Trouble With the Curve” next year, then direct Beyonce in a remake of “A Star Is Born” (once the star gives birth).
Once again, we ask: Is this any way for an 81-year-old to behave?
“Why retire?” Eastwood asks. “My dad used to always want to retire; it was this big deal. And then he retired and he passed away. I thought, ‘Maybe people shouldn’t retire, maybe you should just do what you do and continue learning and expanding, as you would in life.’
“You’re always existing with only that knowledge that you have at that moment in time, but there’s always more to learn,” Eastwood continues. “I’m always advocating to people and students: Keep expanding always. If you haven’t got anything to do, then go study another language . . . or take up bowling, I don’t know. That keeps you young for a long time.”