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Clint Eastwood Makes Hollywood’s Day

 "The guy has won two Oscars, starred in more than 60 films and TV shows and remains Hollywood's most iconic living cop and cowboy. Still, Eastwood, who is considering coming out of acting retirement, barely got 2003's Mystic River made. He had to fight to make 2004's Million Dollar Baby. And he isn't sure 'what people are going to make of this one. But as long as they're talking about it, then you're doing your job '."

"I guess we make the anti-tent-pole movie," he says. "That's not always the way studios want you to make them, but we do OK."

Clint Eastwood Profile

Scott Bowles - USA Today

BURBANK, Calif. – Peanut shells often litter Clint Eastwood's office carpet.

Eastwood doesn't eat peanuts. Neither does his staff, which keeps his quarters on the Warner Bros. lot immaculate. The mess belongs to Lola, a squirrel Eastwood lets roam his office and ransack a bag he leaves open on the bottom of a bookcase. She comes through the front door, which Eastwood also leaves open.

Security has tried to evict Lola with traps and pellet guns, Eastwood says. But no one has said a peep to him about the studio policy that bans animals unless they're acting. "If you do something long enough," Eastwood says, surveying his office, which now is free of shells, "people let you do your thing."

The tenet applies to movies, the 81-year-old says. Eastwood has earned a grudging freedom in Hollywood to make his kind of films, which usually run under budget, skip the elaborate effects and waft to a score Eastwood composes. All are in effect for J. Edgar, the controversial biography of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that opens in limited release today before a nationwide rollout Friday.

"I guess we make the anti-tent-pole movie," he says. "That's not always the way studios want you to make them, but we do OK."

OK? The guy has won two Oscars, starred in more than 60 films and TV shows and remains Hollywood's most iconic living cop and cowboy. Still, Eastwood, who is considering coming out of acting retirement, barely got 2003's Mystic River made. He had to fight to make 2004's Million Dollar Baby. And he isn't sure "what people are going to make of this one. But as long as they're talking about it, then you're doing your job."

People will talk. Already, the film's portrayal of Hoover as sexually conflicted has irked some former agents. Two groups campaigned against any suggestion of a sexual relationship with assistant FBI director Clyde Tolson, though Eastwood says he had cooperation from the government and some FBI vets.

J.Edgar also marks the most sexually charged film that the director, an emblem of macho whose credits include Unforgiven and Gran Torino, has made since his directorial feature debut, 1971's Play Misty for Me.

J.Edgar, an intended Oscar contender starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the founding director of the FBI, is less a biopic than an unrequited gay love story. It examines Hoover's long tenure as America's top cop and his relationship with assistant director Tolson (Armie Hammer).

Eastwood grew up on the Junior G-Men comic books Hoover helped create in the 1930s, and to prepare for the film, he investigated Hoover like a cop, digging up transcripts, interviewing friends and consulting an FBI that remains silent on Hoover's sexuality.

But ultimately, Eastwood says, he went on instinct, even asking DiCaprio to ad-lib to intensify the love story.

"Sometimes you just go with your gut and say, 'I can't care what people are going to think,' " Eastwood says. "I don't know if J. Edgar Hoover was gay. I don't really care. But he's a guy shrouded in mystery, which I've always found fascinating."

Clint likes 'a good story'

Whether Eastwood finds it lucrative will be another question. While Torino and Unforgiven were hits, Eastwood, who also did Flags of Our Fathers and Invictus, isn't known as a director attuned to focus groups. If anything, Eastwood says, there are too many voices weighing in on what movies get made.

"I understand it, because this has become an expensive business," says Eastwood, who joined it in 1955 with a small role in Revenge of the Creature, an installment of the Creature of the Black Lagoon series.

"People have a lot invested," he says. "But getting that money back, making that sure-fire hit, has become as important as telling a good story. I'm not that complicated. I still just like a good story."
Eastwood swapped plenty of tales with his parents while growing up in Piedmont, Calif., when Hoover was making his name chasing gangsters and bootleggers.

"I loved the G-Men and read all the comics I could get my hands on," Eastwood says. But the family never discussed reports that began circulating in the 1940s that Hoover was gay.

"And we never talked about anything like cross-dressing," Eastwood says of the rumor that Hoover enjoyed women's clothes. "That wasn't something you talked about at the dinner table back then."

Still, Hoover's legacy fascinated Eastwood, an avid reader and history buff. So when he received the J.Edgar script from Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his Milk screenplay, Eastwood responded the way he always does when he sees a script he likes: He went into warp drive.

Few filmmakers shoot more quickly or inexpensively than Eastwood, renowned for using one take, staging few rehearsals and asking for few script changes. He shot J.Edgar in 39 days for $35 million, both roughly half the cost and time of a big-studio release.

"He's very faithful; he works with the same small crew he's worked with for years," DiCaprio, 36, says. "That helps you move incredibly fast. I'm a guy who can ask for quite a few takes, but I never felt when we left a scene that I needed to do it again. You feel artistically safe in his hands."

DiCaprio, too, was fascinated by Hoover. He had done months of research for the John Dillinger biography Public Enemies before turning down the role that went to Johnny Depp. After hearing Eastwood had Black's script, DiCaprio called the director to ask to be considered.

Eastwood concedes that he hesitated. "He's a good kid, but everyone is a kid to me now," Eastwood says. "Getting that age right, so we could make him younger or older, was important, and I wasn't sure Leo would look old enough. But he spent five hours in the chair when we had to do makeup. He's a professional. And it doesn't hurt when you've got your story and got a star like Leo. It's harder to say no."

Director still has doubters

Studios have turned down offers that Eastwood thought they couldn't refuse. After stumbling upon the book Mystic River at a Costco in 2002, Eastwood bought the rights to the movie in two weeks. He was ready to shoot in six.

Warner Bros. initially said no. The $25 million movie, execs argued, was too dark and violent and had too depressing an ending. The film earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture and director, and won acting awards for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. It earned $90 million, the fifth-biggest movie of Eastwood's career.

He says he still met some resistance to 2004's Million Dollar Baby, which was nominated for seven Oscars and won Eastwood best director and picture statuettes. The film also earned Hilary Swank a best-actress Oscar and earned $101 million at the box office. "If Mystic River doesn't work, I'm not sure I would have gotten to do Million Dollar Baby."

Even J.Edgar raised eyebrows at Warner Bros., whose strategy is to focus on high-profile, big-budget films like the Harry Potter series and The Green Lantern.

Of course, Potter is gone and The Green Lantern struggled this summer. "I'm not sure how those $100 million movies always work," Eastwood says. "If you paid someone $100 million for a house, you'd probably get a pretty good house. I'm not sure you'd get a good movie."

Black says he was stunned by how hands-off Eastwood was with the script, which calls for Hoover and Tolson to kiss on the mouth and for Hoover to press his late mother's clothes to his body in a tearful scene. "Lance didn't treat it as gay scenes," Eastwood says. "But there was clearly a strong relationship between these men. We wanted natural interactions for them, especially for the time."

One of J.Edgar's most controversial scenes comes during a heated exchange between Hoover and Tolson, who in real life shared a home with Hoover and was his heir. After an on-screen fight that causes Tolson to storm out, Hoover tearfully spits that he loves Tolson.

The line does not exist in the script. Before the scene, Black recalls, Eastwood approached DiCaprio with a suggestion: "Tell Clyde you love him," the director told his star. "Let's make it a very emotional scene." DiCaprio obliged.

Word of the portrayal angered some FBI alums, including the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation and the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, which fired off letters to Eastwood.

"There is no basis in fact for such a portrayal of Mr. Hoover," wrote foundation chairman William Branch. The Former Special Agents group wrote Eastwood that the kissing scene "caused us to reassess our tacit approval of your film."

Eastwood isn't surprised by the criticism but says "a lot of people still haven't seen it yet, so it's hard to have that discussion. And you're never going to please everyone in a movie, even if some executives want to try."

Eastwood says he knew he'd have to make the movie quickly and cheaply to compete with the landslide of films that arrive over the holidays for awards season. He asked stars and crew to join him in taking an undisclosed pay cut.

The crew and cast agreed, including Hammer, who has a personal stake in the film. The great-grandson of oil tycoon and philanthropist Armand Hammer remembers bitter fights his family had with Hoover's FBI, which considered the Hammer clan a societal menace.

"I took special pleasure in planting a kiss on J. Edgar Hoover's mouth," Hammer says. "I remember (Armand Hammer) laughing, reading the paper that Hoover said he was a spy. I couldn't get over how they were alike in some ways. I'm sure my grandfather abused power the same way Hoover did. It drove him crazy he couldn't get (Hammer). Those two guys were more birds of a feather than they thought."

While Eastwood chronicles Hoover's pit-bull pursuit of communists and the Mafia, he has always been more interested in the man's personal demons, not his public personae.

The key, he says, was in approaching the film the same way he approached the squirrel, who surprised him one day sitting a foot from the star on his office couch. "You can question what you're doing to death, or you can do things the way you want and know," he says.

Eastwood stretches and heads to the office door, where Lola has led another squirrel to his steps. "She always comes back," Eastwood says. "She knows I'm here, doing my thing."

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