Thursday, 3 March 2016


Trumbo made less of a splash than I expected at the London Film Festival; stories about the movie industry tend to be popular, not least among the press, and stories about the Hollywood blacklist resonate politically. Its release this month has reinforced my perception: most of the attention has been paid to the lead performance by Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who was one of the most visible of the Hollywood 10 and, as the movie shows, one of the most active in finding ways to work around the blacklist before becoming the writer whose credits, on Spartacus and Exodus, brought the blacklist out of the closet and ended it once and for all.

It's a worthy film, but not a very exciting one. It fails to build the tension, either politically or personally, and deliberately detours around philosophic questions that might make it fascinating as a film of ideas. This is particularly strange as the paradox of the rich Hollywood communists is one the movie dips its toes into, but basically avoids.

Trumbo instead plays up a certain misconception, one I saw it repeated recently in Sarah Churchwell's Guardian piece about Preston Sturges. She wrote that Sturges 'commanded astronomical fees in an age when most scriptwriters were treated like hacks.' Trumbo was in the same category, but Churchwell's distinction is misleading. First, because regardless of how much money they were paid, virtually all studio writers were treated like hacks. It went with the territory. Second, even the hacks were well paid, which is why Faulkner and Fitzgerald and the like were out there hacking away. The lower level writers weren't paid enough to fund the relatively lavish lifestyles of the Trumbos, but they still were being paid more than most writers, and way more than most people. Even Trumbo gets a 'mere' $1,200 (automatically chiseled down from two grand by Frank King) for his first script for the King Brothers, which he writes in a few days. As Herman Mankiewicz famously cabled Ben Hecht: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around.”

This is one of the Trumbo paradoxes the movie dodges. Cranston's performance is a tour de force, but it's as studied, if not affected, as the writer himself: all cigarette holders, dry speeches in faux folksy, bathtub work station and the like. Trumbo was the most publicly recognizable of the Ten, partly because he may have been the most highly-paid writer in Hollywood, partly because of the affectation, but the group was diverse—something the film plays down by condensing the more down-to-earth communists into one character, played (in a performance that has not received the attention it deserved) by the comedian Louis CK. Yet rather than be a foil for Trumbo, he's there mostly to prove what a good guy Trumbo was, then die off conveniently. The real politics of the CPUSA cell in Hollywood have been dissected elsewhere; John Howard Lawson, who doesn't feature here, was in charge; a highly-paid Stalinist who may be best remembered now for his attack on Albert Maltz for questioning the party's attempts to control what members wrote.

More interesting is the personal level: Trumbo's explanation to his daughter of why he's a communist sounds like a modern democrat trying to explain why he's a 'liberal'. It reminded me of Guilty By Suspicion, written by blacklist victim Abraham Polonsky, who had his name removed from the credits when the Robert DeNiro character who won't inform was changed from a communist to a generic liberal. In the end, films about the blacklist (Guilty By Suspicion or The Front) always seem to boil down to the basic question of loyalty to one's friends; to honour. Trumbo tries to go a long way toward revealing the structural character of the blacklist, but seems to leave Trumbo's own politics out. Actually, he joined CPUSA in 1943: long after many in the party had left in protest of the Hitler/Stalin pact (if not the show trials). Few Americans were flocking to the party in mid-war, and it would have been interesting to hear why Trumbo did. In some ways this might have been more interesting, and no less worthy, as a TV mini-series, with the time to address such conundra.

The movie makes a couple of interesting choices in terms of script and cast. They re-cast incidents, or, as with Louis CK, amalgamate characters for dramatic ease and effect. The most bravura moments in the movie are provided by John Goodman as Frank King, the Poverty Row producer. Goodman's explosive King is a tour de force, though one we've seen before: in Barton Fink and Matinee. In fact, in Matinee the character he's playing is basically William Castle, another guy Trumbo wrote for during the blacklist.

But while Trumbo may have been churning out (and commissioning) dozens and dozens of scripts for the King Bros, they weren't being made into movies by them, that's for sure; the Kings produced only around a dozen films in the years of the blacklist. Trumbo's King Bros. script for The Brave One won an Oscar he couldn't receive (he'd 'get' another for Roman Holiday); but he also wrote the script for Gun Crazy. His work was credited to front Millard Kaufman, along with MacKinley Kantor, who wrote the original magazine story and first version of the screenplay. He hated Trumbo's redoing of it. Go figure, because Joseph H Lewis' movie is a classic. 

The re-cast incidents include John Wayne's confrontation with Trumbo; it happened, but it was Carl Foreman, not Trumbo, who was the object of the Duke's anger. Likewise with the corrupt former head of the House Un-American Affairs committee, Pernell Thomas: the confrontation in prison happened in Danbury, Connecticut, while Trumbo was actually jailed in Kentucky; it was Lester Cole who got the last word on Thomas. And I wondered why, when Otto Preminger goes to Trumbo's bungalow to ask him to write Exodus, they needed to be introduced to each other. Trumbo had written The Court-Martial Of Billy Mitchell for Preminger back in 1955.

The actors playing actors are a mixed bag. David James Elliott as John Wayne and Christian Berkel as Preminger are a little too clean, as is Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G Robinson; but Stuhlbarg manages to convey the inner turmoil, and perhaps weakness, in Robinson's dilemma of naming names. The most interesting is Dean O'Gorman as Kirk Douglas: he's Douglas played very still as a person, smaller than you'd think, and not as completely dominant as he probably was around this time. Though after Goodman, the show stealer is Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper. Mirren looks so much like Patricia Clarkson in this role I wondered why they hadn't hired the latter, but the thin-skinned edge to her power, and the perhaps incongruous blackmail of Louis B Meyer are done perfectly. But whether Hopper would have actually dared try something like that with Meyer, who'd made her career, is doubtful; here she is stands in for the well-documents worry of the Hollywood moguls about seeming, as rich immigrant Jews, somehow un-American.

While the movie eschews most of Trumbo's political background, it makes the blacklist into a story of family conflict, as the writer uses and alienates his wife and children. Or at least his children, because we really get very little of his wife's reaction, which is a shame because the viewer keeps waiting for Diane Lane's big scene, which you know must be coming, and never does. You can understand why a film would concentrate on the personal dimension; why they would leave that portion of it unexamined is more puzzling.

In the end, Trumbo succeeds in getting to its eponymous character's essence best when we finally see his name on the screen credits once again, and we see the mix of pride and justification, of artistic satisfaction and return to status that play across Cranston's face. Eventually Trumbo's name was restored to the credits of the films he wrote, and the real life coda is indeed a moving one, showing the story is still one that needs telling.

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