The Missionary: Dustin Lance Black


By William Van Meter

The prominent screenwriter puts J. Edgar Hoover’s cross-dressing myths to rest, but finds something darker in his latest biopic.

Photography by David Needleman

Dustin Lance Black is giving a brief tour of his newly purchased 1920s Tudor-style house in Hollywood. A distinctive odor of potpourri and lavender sachets permeates the air.  
"It’s old-lady scent,” Black admits,  pointing out the smell and sickly yellow walls, both remnants of the previous tenant that will soon be gone. Family photos and two Writer’s Guild awards decorate the living room, but his Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for <em>Milk</em> is noticeably absent.
"Oscar is with mom,” Black, 37, explains. “It brings her a lot of joy. It felt right. I didn’t want to see the Oscar and think <em>OK, I’ve done that.</em> I’m too young to feel like that, and I want to keep challenging myself and taking on risky projects."
Atop the kitchen table is a potted orchid and a sculpture of two bare-chested wrestlers -- one is holding the other aloft and upside down, about to slam him. It looks bronze, but is a painted Styrofoam reproduction souvenir from Black’s next endeavor, <em>J. Edgar</em>, which opens in November. It’s a replica of the sculpture displayed in his FBI office.
Black was looking for his next project during the period before <em>Milk</em> was released, and saw that Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment was affiliated with something called "Hoover." "I immediately called to see if it was J.  Edgar Hoover," Blacks says, "and not about the dam, president, or vacuum cleaner."
Black has had a longtime interest in the founder of the FBI. "To the conservative right," he says, "Hoover was a hero. Of course, in the gay community, you hear he was gay and a cross-dresser. I was curious where the truth lies. Here is a guy who was arguably the most powerful man in the United States in the 20th century. He held power for 48 years and, in his own way, controlled the presidents, from Coolidge to Nixon. I wanted to investigate the greatness of his youth and what he became, which was a heinous blackmailer."
Unfortunately, Black soon dispelled the cross-dressing myth. "It doesn’t take much digging," he concedes, "to find out that it’s one source. It was clear she had a bone to pick with the FBI. They intervened on her divorce and it didn’t go well for her, and she admits that to the original interviewer. That is not mentioned in any of the documentaries. Anytime you investigated these rumors, none seemed true. They were all coming from the far right or the far left. The truth was often more heartbreaking, more horrible then what people think. But he was also more brilliant than people gave him credit for."

Tags: Movies, Lifestyle