By MARK HARTSELL
J. Edgar Hoover strides across the Great Hall, an attractive young woman in a teal dress and hat at his side. They head toward the Library’s Main Reading Room, admiring the architecture as they walk, when the woman stumbles. Hoover laughs at the misstep, puts his arm on the shoulder of a man standing nearby and says, “It was on film. It was on film.”
“Print it,” says the man, tall and slender with gray hair sticking out from beneath a blue baseball cap.
The assembled crew laughs at the joke, and the woman, actress Naomi Watts, repays him for the teasing with a slap on the arm.
“Stop that,” she says.
The man in the cap, director Clint Eastwood, laughs too, and Hoover—or, rather, actor Leonardo DiCaprio—and Watts walk back to the entrance of the Great Hall to try it again.
Eastwood, DiCaprio and Watts came to the Jefferson Building on Sunday, March 27, to shoot scenes for a film about the life of Hoover, the controversial former head of the FBI and—for about five years—an employee of the Library of Congress.
The film, “J. Edgar,” explores both the public and private lives of Hoover, who served as the most prominent figure in law enforcement in the United States for 48 years and under eight presidents.
DiCaprio, the star of “Titanic,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and “Shutter Island,” portrays Hoover. Watts (“21 Grams,” “King Kong”) plays Helen Gandy, who worked as Hoover’s secretary for more than five decades.
The film also features Oscar-winner Judi Dench as Hoover’s mother, Anne Marie, and Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”) as Hoover’s protégé, Clyde Tolson.
Dustin Lance Black, who in 2009 won a best screenplay Oscar for “Milk,” wrote the screenplay and was at the Library for the shoot.
The film, produced by Eastwood, Brian Grazer (“A Beautiful Mind”) and Robert Lorenz (“Letters from Iwo Jima”), is scheduled for release by Warner Bros. Pictures in 2012.
Hoover got his start in government in 1913 at the Library of Congress, walking five blocks each day from home to work. He began as a messenger and rose in rank to clerk, then cataloger.
Kenneth D. Ackerman, author of “Young J. Edgar,” believed the Library’s groundbreaking cataloging system inspired Hoover—and served as the basis for the system he created at the FBI to track information about individuals, groups and movements.
“He imagined how, with a few tweaks, he could use it to track anything he liked, even people,” Ackerman wrote. “He could use it to find anyone, even in a vast country of 105 million souls spanning an entire continent. He could use it to hide things, too, just by manipulating the code.”
Hoover did well at the Library. He doubled his salary in his short time at the institution, and, according to Ackerman, colleagues speculated that he would have risen to chief librarian had he stayed.
But in 1917, Hoover moved to the Justice Department, where he eventually rose to director of the Bureau of Investigation. In 1935, he helped found the FBI, where he served as director until his death in 1972. Hoover built the bureau into a large and effective crime-fighting organization.
Under Hoover, the agency established the world’s largest fingerprint file and best scientific crime laboratories. At a time when professional-development programs for law- enforcement professionals didn’t really exist, Hoover created the FBI National Academy to provide officers with special training. He instituted rigorous standards for the recruitment, training and promotion of agents.
But over the years, Hoover became an increasingly controversial figure: He used the agency’s surveillance powers to collect damaging information about political leaders and prominent citizens and used those files to maintain his position of power. He aggressively investigated civil-rights activists, communists and others he regarded as radicals.
Eastwood, a cast of two and a crew of about 100 came to the Jefferson Building the last weekend in March to bring Hoover, the uncontroversial Library of Congress cataloger, back to life.
The crew arrived on Saturday and began work in the Great Hall and Main Reading Room after the Jefferson closed to the public late that afternoon, placing cardboard to protect the floor, laying electrical cable and setting up lights.
The crew also installed two rows of specially constructed card catalogs—more than 5 feet high and roughly 25 feet long but with only eight drawers that actually opened—along the east entrance to the Main Reading Room.
Giant, helium-filled light balloons floated above the floors of the Main Reading Room and Great Hall, illuminating the scene. Art directors and Library staffers hid modern equipment, took down magnetic signs and replaced contemporary books with period volumes.
The cast and director arrived late Sunday afternoon. First Eastwood took a tour of the Jefferson Building and—with extras dressed as G-Men keeping watch on the steps outside—then ate a catered lunch with his crew across the street at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The script called for scenes to be shot in the Great Hall and the Main Reading Room. In the film, Hoover escorts Gandy through the Great Hall and into the Main Reading Room for an after-hours demonstration of the efficiency of a card-cataloging system he says he helped develop.
Gandy times how long it takes Hoover to use the catalog to find a book, a scene that ends in Alcove 6 of the Main Reading Room with an awkward, on-bended-knee proposal that Gandy rejects and, then, an offer that she accepts—a position as his secretary.
The final take of that scene drew a round of applause for Watts from the crew and crowd—the scene marked her last day on the production. The crew moved cameras up to the mezzanine to capture broader shots of the Main Reading Room and finished the last photography about 12:45 a.m. on Monday.
And with that, the stars went out, the lights came down, the crew packed up—and the return visit of cataloger J. Edgar Hoover to his former employer was a wrap.
Mark Hartsell is editor of the Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.