Everyone remembers Psycho, in which Anthony Perkins played a knife-wielding weirdo obsessed with his dead mother, and most of us remember Rambo, in which Sylvester Stallone played a super-patriot action-hero fighting for truth, justice and the American way. We all know about Romeo, and some of us will remember Dumbo, Disney’s animated baby elephant with the big ears. But Trumbo? He’s not exactly a household name, and unless you’re something of a film buff you may never have heard of him. Trumbo is the hero of Trumbo, a wholly absorbing film from Hollywood director Jay Roach.
For the record, Dalton Trumbo was a successful screenwriter during Hollywood’s golden years, one of the notorious ”Hollywood Ten” blacklisted in the 1940s for refusing to testify before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee was set up to weed out communists in high places, and the definition of “communist” was fairly loose. These were the dark days of anti-red witch-hunts, when many a loyal American was named and shamed for real or imagined communist sympathies. The Hollywood Ten finished up in gaol, and many other writers, actors and directors were sacked or boycotted by the major studios. Some eked out an income by writing under assumed names, but their work was never credited on-screen. In Roach’s film the screenplay – crisp, witty and disturbing – is the work of John McNamara, and I doubt if Trumbo himself could have written a better one
It’s true that many Hollywood celebrities had communist connections . As an opening title informs us, thousands of Americans joined the party during the war years when Uncle Joe Stalin was a loyal ally of Uncle Sam. Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) joined up in 1943, and in the eyes of McCarthy and his witch-hunting mates, was a still a certified security risk years after the war was over. It was much the same here. Thousands of lefties and Laborites, haunted by bitter memories of war and depression, drifted into the communist camp. My own father was one, causing much anguish to poor mum, who was convinced that dad’s CP membership had denied him an army commission.
Roach’s film is as much a portrait of those paranoid times as a study of Trumbo himself. Cranston, familiar to all except me as the star of the TV series Breaking Bad, gives us a grimly dogged and highly convincing impersonation. But for all his studied mannerisms and surface gestures, we never engage deeply with Trumbo as a human being. If anything, Diane Lane as his loyal wife Cleo, and Elle Fanning as his teenage daughter, are more vivid and sympathetic characters. Roach falls back on repeated shots of Trumbo belting away at an old manual typewriter or writing in his bathtub, sustained by cigarettes, whisky and Benzedrine hits, as if this were enough to reveal his inner life. I wanted to care more for the guy. Neighbours shunned and vilified him, and the syndicated columnist Hedda Hopper (a gleefully malicious Helen Mirren) pursued a relentless personal vendetta . Hopper comes across as the real villain of the story – not McCarthy or the feeble studio bosses or the big-name stars like John Wayne who spurned Trumbo in his hour of need .
How good was Trumbo anyway? He made a tidy fortune as a screenwriter, but apart from Kitty Foyle, about a working-class girl who makes good, and the Oscar-winning romance Roman Holiday, there’s not a lot else of Trumbo’s I remember. Roman Holiday was written by Trumbo’s friend Ian McKellan Hunter, who based his script on Trumbo’s storyline and declined to turn up at the presentation ceremony to accept his Oscar (which officially went to Trumbo in 1975). A turning point came when Stanley Kubrick defied Hollywood moguls by insisting that Trumbo be credited for the screenplay of Spartacus (1960). Spartacus isn’t Kubrick’s best film, but it sealed the fate of the Hollywood blacklist and signalled the end of the McCarthy era.
Could it happen again? I think so. There’s no shortage of political hysteria in the air these days, and plenty of reckless military adventurism of the kind that feeds hatred and suspicion. I can imagine a round of Islamist witch-hunts in the US, especially if Donald Trumbo (sorry, Trump) becomes president: “For our own security I want to weed out all those Islamists in the State Department and the White House.” There’s a telling moment in Trumbo when news comes through of the death of justice Wiley Rutledge, wiping out a narrow liberal majority on the US Supreme Court and denying Trumbo any chance of a successful appeal against his gaol sentence. With the recent death of justice Antonin Scalia, Barack Obama has a choice. He can cement a conservative majority on the court or make it a little easier for liberal causes to succeed. Future Trumbos will await his decision with interest.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascall Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.