The Blood-Spattered Oscar:
“…Congress has no right to investigate how we vote; how we pray; think; what we say or how we make movies.
“Hello. I’m Dalton Trumbo.”
I recently re-watched the 1960 Kirk Douglas film, Spartacus. Despite Stanley Kubrick disowning it as one of ‘his’ films, it stands up well and is one of the few from that overrated director that I always enjoy.
I had idly noted during the lovely credits sequence that Dalton Trumbo was the screenwriter and, thinking of what I knew of the Hollywood Blacklist – a shameful chapter in American history which seems to belong to the distant past, yet took place in the 50s, in the lifetimes of many – wondered if this was the first film to have his name on it after he emerged from his own personal nightmare.
And now along comes Jay Roach’s wonderful, thoughtful, witty and anger-inducing Trumbo, to answer that question and many others.
And the first thing that hits is that of course this was not one man’s nightmare. The lives of Trumbo’s (Bryan Cranston) entire family were changed by the sickeningly unjust way in which he was hounded from mainstream Hollywood, where he had been a major player.
We are aware of much of what his family suffered by seeing it through the eyes of his wife, Cleo (the beautiful Diane Lane, who apparently has discovered the Elixir of Youth) and also by way of his children, who basically grow up with their father’s problems overshadowing their entire transition to young adulthood.
And it is a testament to the man that even when it becomes extremely difficult – not least of all when he has to go to prison – that his family is unwaveringly on his side.
As we watch how efficiently the House Un-American Activities Committee go after the Hollywood Ten and attempt to break them by denying them work, it makes for infuriating viewing. These people and many others had their lives ruined because they affiliated themselves with worker’s movements and were – now that WW2 was over and Russia was no longer Our Friend – tainted with the sin of Communism. (Like the events of another outstanding film this week, The Big Short, this ended in people losing their homes, their families and in many cases their lives).
As one character astutely observes:
“All they care about is this new war of theirs. These guys love war and this is a great one. It’s vague and it’s scary and it’s expensive.”
Helen Mirren fairly drips venom as the powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who goes after Dalton and his friends with a vengeance; and I personally loved seeing John Wayne (David James Elliot) portrayed as the macho bullshitter that I’ve always had him down as. I’ve never remotely understood the Cult of Wayne and felt like cheering when Trumbo (who had been a war correspondent) called him out as a draft dodging asshole:
“And where were you stationed, exactly? Oh, yes. You were stationed on a film set, shooting blanks and wearing make-up.”
Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), on the other hand, comes across as someone not afraid to stand up to the establishment – how true this was I don’t know, but I hope so – and is instrumental in Trumbo’s comeback, as is director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel).
‘We Have Our Names Back Again…’
More problematic for me is Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). In reality, unlike his gangster persona, Robinson was a cultured man and keen collector of Art. Initially he is seen as a generous supporter of the Ten, but later he begins to name names.
And it’s uncomfortable. I can’t imagine that I ever would have handed over friends to the thugs of the HUAC; but that’s easy to say at this remove, perhaps. As Robinson points out, the Ten have been able to keep working posthumously, given that they are writers whilst he relies on his face. Still…
I found myself thinking of the last film I saw about the Hollywood Blacklist, the well-intentioned but slightly anemic Guilty by Suspicion (1991) with Robert de Niro. The late, great film critic Roger Ebert said of that film:
“The HUAC members, drunk with the power they had over the rich and famous, gloried in the publicity they got by quizzing big stars (John Garfield), playwrights (Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman) and screenwriters (Dalton Trumbo). The Hollywood studios fell right in line, blacklisting those people who would not ‘cooperate.’ So the classic debating question had become a nightmare reality: Choose your friends, or your country.
“Few governmental agencies have been more ‘un-American’ than HUAC, more opposed to what the nation stands for. But red-baiting gave it such publicity and clout that before long a senator named McCarthy saw the possibilities, and moved from Hollywood to the really big targets, waving a sheet of paper in the air and claiming it held the names of 500 highly placed communists in the federal government.
“Guilty by Suspicion is a movie that tells the story of that time, a story that even today divides those who named names, and those who did not. History has vindicated those who refused to betray their principles, but how would any of us have responded at the time – when to defy the committee meant virtual unemployment in show business?”
And Ebert could just as easily be talking about Trumbo.
This is a fine film which highlights a period that I think should never be forgotten. It has an engrossing screenplay by John McNamara, based on the book Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Cook; and Cranston is perfect casting in the lead, with his look of somehow wounded intractability.
Crucially, it never allows itself to turn the viewer off by becoming too preachy or – even worse – ‘worthy’. It walks a fine line that in general it manages to stay upright on.
And incidentally, since this blog is definitely a comic-book friendly one, I couldn’t help but reflect that it was around this time that decent Americans everywhere also decided to put out of business the publishers of those seditious, mind-warping horror comics of the day. As comics historian Peter Normanton puts it:
“…the almost farcical Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency hearings of 1954, held amidst the paranoiac fear of Communist infiltration, effectively put an end to the activities of the horror publishers, diluting the entire medium with a succession of stipulations formalized in the Comics Code.”
Yes, it certainly was a great time for personal freedom in America, the sort of period that must have made the likes of windbags like Dook Wayne proud.
However, Dalton Trumbo was a person of courage whose stature an essentially little man like John Wayne could never approach.
As a movie fan I have little time for the Joke Parade that is the Oscar Ceremony and I’m enjoying the whole nonsense about racial issues that has broken out this year. Ironically, Bryan Cranston is nominated for his role here – for a ludicrous statuette that the real Trumbo won twice whilst writing under an enforced pseudonym.
And about which he says in the film:
“That small, worthless golden statue is covered with the blood of my friends.”