'J. Edgar' opens November 9

At a moment when Hollywood is flailing about with tired remakes, Clint Eastwood, one of its more senior filmmakers, seems more determined than ever to stake new ground. His gripping new film “J. Edgar” is the polar opposite of contemporary studio product — a searing biopic about a megalomaniacal right-wing ideologue.

Under his four-decade reign, J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI to blackmail presidents and manipulate the media to mold his image as the nation’s lone protector against gangsters and “Bolsheviks.” Top politicians and reporters were scared to reveal that J. Edgar (superbly played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was a mama’s boy with a gay lover.

Eastwood’s picture opens Nov. 9, so I am not going to review it here other than to say that it’s consistent with Clint’s legacy. His protagonists are a study in surprise — who else would roam from Dirty Harry to Walt Kowalski (of “Gran Torino”), from Josie Wales to Nelson Mandela, from the troopers of Iwo Jima to a “Million Dollar Baby.”

Ask Clint about his game plan, and he will, of course, deny the existence of any. I had a leisurely talk with him last weekend in Carmel, Calif. (he was once the mayor), where he showed his new film before friends and neighbors at the Carmel Film Festival. “My life is a series of accidents,” Eastwood insists.

When Brian Grazer first mentioned Hoover to him, he wondered why the producer was interested in vacuum cleaners. A glimpse of the material, combined with a call from DiCaprio, piqued his interest. Dustin Lance Black was brought aboard to write the screenplay (he’d won an Oscar for “Milk”) and stayed with the film through production.

The profile of J. Edgar is a measured one. A driven man who fought fiercely to introduce science into the messy arena of crime-busting, he also was both ruthless and emotionally unstable.

By contrast, Clint, age 81, seems as rock-solid and relaxed as ever. He is a man famously devoid of intellectual pretension. He steadfastly declines to intellectualize about his work. Indeed, his films seem to unfold as adventures in self-discovery. A libertarian by instinct, he is also a humanitarian by nature — a profoundly decent and accessible man who covets the “accidents” that define the continued growth of his career.

In a 2010 profile of Eastwood in the New Yorker, David Denby observed that “those who were skeptical of Eastwood 40 years ago (I’m one of them) have long since capitulated, retired or died. He has outlasted everyone.”

Talking to Eastwood last weekend, I didn’t sense that he would relate to Denby’s remark. Rather, he seemed to regard himself as a filmmaker in mid-career who was already planning his next film. And it would not be a remake. There was too much more to learn and explore.

Remembering Mengers

Lofty tributes were paid to Sue Mengers last week, but more attention was given to her parties than to the many pictures she put together. The fabled agent, who died last week at age 79, had an instinct for great material and was willing to prod, bully and cajole to get her deals closed.

I once sent her the first draft of “Paper Moon,” telling her, “Paramount developed it, I love it but I can’t persuade Peter Bogdanovich to take it on or figure out how to cast it.” A week later, Mengers was on the phone, purring, “Don’t worry, honey, I’ve got Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum and I’ll beat the shit out of your friend Bogdanovich to direct it.” Bogdanovich, it turned out, needed the beating, but the whole project came together and was a hit.

Mengers threw glitzy parties for famous people and, along the way, paved the way for other power-seeking women of her generation. The obits, however, reminded me of the brevity of her heyday. She was a major force by the early ’70s but losing her power by the early ’80s. By age 54 she surrendered her power base at ICM, serving briefly as president of the William Morris Agency only to find that, while major stars were still accepting her party invitations, they were not willing to sign up again as clients.

Some of her star clients came to resent her forcefulness. Mengers was skeptical of Barbra Streisand’s decision to direct “Yentl,” and Streisand herself resisted Mengers’ urgings to star in a film to be directed by Mengers’ husband, Jean Claude Tramont (a charming stock picker but an inexperienced director). More and more, Mengers was growing weary of Hollywood’s corporate decision making and was turning on the business as a whole. She spent her final years in relative seclusion but continued to invite her favored few to her house.

On a personal level, Mengers was a gracious ally to me. She came to my parties, helped me put together my pictures and, in later years, often dropped me notes of praise for my writings. She once even gave me a glancing kiss on my cheek, blowing smoke in my face as she moved closer (it was not a Pall Mall). For Mengers, this was an astonishing show of affection. It was greatly appreciated.

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