Trumbo: a review
This weekend I saw Trumbo, a movie chronicling the history of the “Black List,“ which was a list of people working in the American movie business who became unemployable when they were marked as traitors. This list began in the late 1940’s and by the early 1950’s, it ruled Hollywood until a courageous few defied its power in the early 1960’s. During those years, thousands of entertainment professionals were targeted. The reason? They were communists trying to infiltrate the U.S.A. with their dirty communist propaganda!
It’s true that many of these people had joined the Communist party. Some joined in the 1930’s before George Orwell’s 1984 let the world know what an oppressive, soul-killing dogma communism was, or they were closely associated (friends, worked with, went drinking with, etc.) with communists. Perhaps some of these show biz commies would have approved of Stalin’s gulags, re-education camps, seizing property, putting all the educated to work in factories and collective farms or decided like Mao and Pol Pot later did, that they wanted to purge the country of teachers, skilled labor and anyone who wore glasses. Who knows? I doubt many were as crazy as all that. Most were more interested in less drastic changes like better wages and working conditions. Viewed as subversives, all were considered guilty of “Thought Crimes.”
Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was a prominent Republican, active in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) who made it her mission to destroy the careers of those she considered subversives. Hedda Hopper, as played by Helen Mirren, was a ruthless ideologue and anti-Semite who would have been right at home in 1984’s “Ministry of Truth.” Big Brother had nothin’ on Big Mother Hedda, who wielded her pen like an avenging angel. The result was the destruction of careers and lives of thousands. Actors, writers, craftsman– anyone working in the film industry was faced with long-term unemployment; some never worked again.
To make things worse, friendships were destroyed when hundreds faced a devil’s bargain. Called to testify before Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), people were ordered to prove their loyalty by giving up the names of those they suspected of being communists or face contempt charges and possible prison time. Even now, people are bitter—not forgiving those who gave names. Director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, Streetcar Named Desire) testified before the HUAC committee and his testimony ended careers. In 1999, Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar. Many in the audience refused to applaud, and outside the theater there were demonstrators protesting.
Trumbo was directed by Jay Roach (Meet The Parents, Austin Powers) and stars Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad, Argo, Godzilla, 30 Rock, The Simpsons and a zillion other credits) as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who finally broke the back of the Black List, neutralizing Hedda Hopper and the MPA. Along with Helen Mirren as the fearsome Hedda, the rest of the cast is stellar, with Louie C.K as melancholy writer, Arlin Hurd, Diane Lane as Cleo, Trumbo’s supportive wife, and most notably, Michael Stuhbarg (Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) as actor Edward G. Robinson. Robinson’s fall from grace after giving up the names of friends sums up the plight of actors caught in the storm of paranoia. “You can write under another name,” he tells Trumbo. “I only have this,” he pleads, pointing to his face.
For all the fine talent on display, it is Cranston who dominates. His Trumbo is a mix of confidence, righteousness, hubris, cunning and peculiar habits. He often sits in the bathtub as he chain smokes and writes. Trumbo’s a gambler who trusts the odds and when they fail him, our sympathy for the humiliation he endures in prison catches us off guard. Later, when after completing his prison sentence, he writes under pseudonyms, defying Hedda and her minions, we see his commitment to support his family become an obsession to outwit the MPA. During that time, Trumbo won two Oscars for screenplays he wrote, but without his name on them, one for Roman Holiday and the other for The Brave One, they were awards he could not collect.
The Black List began to lose its power when actor Kirk Douglas openly credited Dalton Trumbo as the writer of Spartacus. The superb script and Douglas’ moving performance as Spartacus, the slave who defied the Roman Empire resulted in an unqualified success. Box office success is power and Douglas used it to free Trumbo from the grip of the MPA. The nail in the coffin of Hedda’s power was John Kennedy’s endorsement of Spartacus, saying, “It’s a fine film.” Trumbo’s success opened the gates to employment for others on the “List.”
Then the story jumps years to an event that occurred long after Trumbo was vindicated. Cranston, as Trumbo, delivers a speech describing the damage done by the Black List, acknowledging all who suffered, including those who named names—“We all were victims.”
Dalton Trumbo was an enormous talent. The injustice he suffered was a product of the fear and politics that gripped the entire country. The movie is worth seeing, if only for the Oscar worthy performances by Cranston and Mirren. I also recommend it because of its rendering of Hollywood during these pivotal years. As Trumbo asks more than once in the film, “Where’s the story?” More than style, innovation, setting or wit, story is what matters to me. In Trumbo, the story is a battle between determined foes and what they represent: Trumbo (First Amendment Rights and artistic freedom) and Hedda Hopper (the paranoia of the Cold War). Because these foes are portrayed as complex human beings (Trumbo more than Hopper) we are invested and care about the outcome.
In addition, this is a history that anyone who cares about movies, our culture or freedom of expression should know. When I was a young actress, Dalton Trumbo interviewed me for the role of “the girl back home” in his film, Johnny Got His Gun, based on his 1938 National Book Award-winning anti-war novel with the same title. As he patiently explained a pivotal scene, I sat, politely nodding my head. It was one of many interviews and readings I did during that time. I remember how old he seemed, his face a city map of lines (all that smoking), the hunched posture and the drooping white mustache. During the fifteen minutes I was there, he was gracious and tried to make me feel at ease, but I knew I didn’t make an impression and the part went to someone else.
How I wish that I had known I was in the presence of an Industry lion, a master of his art, someone who had led a rebellion, a guerilla warrior fighting the Thought Police of 1950’s Hollywood.
I do now.