Writer’s Block: Jay Roach’s ‘Trumbo’ revisits a dark chapter in Hollywood history

Movies Features

In the annals of epic Oscar blunders, it is generally conceded that the perfect storm formed around 1956’s Best Motion Picture Story. The winner was not Jean-Paul Sartre (for The Proud and the Beautiful). Nor was it the more deserving Cesare Zavattini (for Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D) or even Leo Katcher for the formulistic The Eddy Duchin Story. And it definitely wasn’t High Society, MGM’s musical remake of the Katharine Hepburn movie and play The Philadelphia Story, which the writers branch had idiotically nominated, not realizing that it was already twice removed from an original story.

“No, no, no,” they quickly amended, struggling to save face, “we meant the other 1956 movie called High Society.” That’s right, the one that starred The Bowery Boys. This was greeted with gales of laughter, which only increased when The Boys’ studio boss cracked, “This just proves what we’ve known all along—that the Bowery Boys series couldn’t have lasted this long if not for the fine writers.” Eventually, the nomination was nullified—for fear that, given the cynical perversity in Hollywood, it would win.

Anything that runs from Jean-Paul Sartre to The Bowery Boys in a single category can’t end well, and this didn’t: The winner for Best Motion Picture Story of 1956 was—to use the title of another 1956 movie—the man who never was. Screen credit went to one Robert Rich, but the script’s actual author was Dalton Trumbo, the most unbowed and prolific of the blacklisted screenwriters known as The Hollywood Ten.

The film he won for was The Brave One, a boy-and-his-bull yarn he dreamed up at a bullfight, wondering how the bull felt. This was not Trumbo’s first time at the Oscar rodeo. He had won in the Best Motion Picture Story category three years before with his tale of a royal princess who goes AWOL in The Eternal City (Roman Holiday). The name on that statue was Ian McLellan Hunter, a friend who fronted for him.

For 15 years—from September 1945, when Our Vines Have Tender Grapes was released, to October 6, 1960, when Spartacus world-premiered in New York City—Dalton Trumbo’s name did not appear on a movie screen (although he secretly scripted almost 20 films, among them Gun Crazy, He Ran All the Way and Cowboy).

The blacklist that had wrecked so many lives and stymied so many careers officially died that October. A second nail in its coffin soon followed on December 15, 1960, when Trumbo’s name once again appeared on the screen, this time for Otto Preminger’s Exodus. Preminger had fired the original novelist, Leon Uris, from the project on the grounds that “he didn’t have a proper feel for the material” and hired Trumbo, whom he had secretly employed previously on The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.

This period of silence and suppression has been thoroughly documented: Trumbo’s late son, Christopher, put together a 2003 play from Additional Dialogue: The Letters of Dalton Trumbo, called Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted. Then there was the 1977 biography by Bruce Cook, called simply Dalton Trumbo, followed ten years later by Trumbo the documentary. All of the above, particularly the last two, go into the new screen stew, Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston, adapted by John McNamara, and opening in theatres on Nov. 6 via Bleecker Street Media.

Heretofore, Hollywood has treated its infamous blacklist period as an annoying gnat buzzing around a bigger picture (The Way We Were, The Front, Guilty by Suspicion), but this new Trumbo is a report from the disquieting calm in the center of the hurricane—what it was like to take a stand, then endure a world of closed doors. Trumbo was adept at finding doors left ajar by producers who needed scripts quick.

“In my mind, I think this film is very relevant to what goes on today,” contends the film’s director, Jay Roach. “History repeats itself. Politicians are expert at exploiting fear to get people to conform to their way of looking at the world. After a terrorist attack, you can convince people that, to be safe, you must strip away protections for privacy or suppress speech. You can turn people against people around them who are not a part of the threat but you can make them seem like they are. That’s how some constitutional protections often get stripped away. They’re more fragile than you realize. If you can exploit fear, you can convince people that even something as fundamental to democracy as freedom of speech is a threat to national security.”

Roach, who was born a decade after the post-World War II Hollywood witch hunts, admits he had to dig deep into research to get his bearings for this film. “Personally, I didn’t know much about the details,” he says. “Like lots of other people, I thought it was related to Senator Joe McCarthy’s Commie-chasing in the early ’50s. It was, obviously, in certain ways—but this predated McCarthy’s rise to prominence.

“One of the most incredible parts of the story was that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was invited by Hollywood to come and investigate the industry. The Motion Picture Alliance, formed by Ward Bond and Hedda Hopper and Ayn Rand, wrote the manifesto. It was an organization that was partly organized to resist unionization, and some people just decided unions were a Communist plot, so they formed the MPA before the war. It sort of calmed down during the war, then re-emerged. People like John Wayne got heavily involved. He was president of the MPA for a couple of terms. I had no idea that Hollywood kind of turned on itself. HUAC wasn’t initiated by Washington or the government. It was initiated by the MPA writing a letter to a very conservative Congressman saying, ‘Come out and help us clean up Hollywood. There are subversives here. They’re hypnotizing Americans through mainstream American movies.’ Of course, it’s an absurd idea, but when you can exploit fear of a legitimate enemy, you can round up people just using that fear and make them seem like they’re related to the threat. Look what happened.”

Hopper, the right-wing gossip columnist and all-round Mad Hatter, led the charge in Hollywood against Trumbo and others who flirted with Communism or were self-deluded card-carriers in the ’40s. When they refused to name names to investigating committees, they became her personal targets—people to ride out of town on a rail.

In the film, Hopper is played somewhere to the right of Wonderland’s Red Queen with delicious regality by Helen Mirren, fresh from her Tony- and Olivier-winning performance of Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience on Broadway and in London.

“’Dame Helen Mirren,’ as we enjoyed calling her, was just phenomenal,” the director confesses. “I loved working with her. She was incredibly eager to get Hedda right. She did a tremendous amount of research on Hedda’s career and personal quirks.  She loved the outfits. There’s nobody who can wear a hat better than Helen Mirren—come to think of it, nobody wears a crown better than Helen Mirren. She wore all those flowery hats that looked like centerpieces at someone’s dinner party, and she wore them like they were completely normal. She really captured the zealous, completely-in-her-own-mind patriotic drive Hedda Hopper had. It was important the person who would take on Trumbo would have that much force of personality.”

The trickiest part of the production was in approximating the iconic celebrities that pass in review. Michael Stuhlbarg manages to suggest Edward G. Robinson in subtle ways without getting specific, but Christian Berkel’s Preminger and David James Elliott’s Wayne don’t go much farther than some excellent vocal inflections.

“If they used vocal coaches, I wasn’t aware of it,” Roach admits. “Mostly, I think, they just listened to tapes. I urged them not to obsess about matching the tapes. What’s most important when you’re playing a real-life character is that you capture the essence, the charisma, the confidence or lack of confidence—just try to show what the person cares about and feel what this person might have felt and trust the audience to gather the authentic qualities of the person through performance.”

Roach’s favorite line in the film is Preminger’s: “It’s better,” he critiques Trumbo about his first draft, “but it lacks genius.” He was tempted to try it on the Trumbo cast.

The most successful facsimile is the dead-on Kirk Douglas imitation turned in by Dean O’Gorman of the Hobbit movies. “He’s from New Zealand and has a very thick accent but somehow transformed himself. I found a really fantastic Kirk Douglas interview with Mike Wallace from around that era that he listened to and studied. I tried to help him figure out how much would be enough of a verisimilitude to go for without making it a caricature, but Dean did most of that work on his own.”

Very sneakily, Roach introduced the impersonation in some grainy footage of the 1953 Oscar ceremonies. (Douglas, who would be responsible for putting Trumbo’s name back on the screen, ironically was the one who announced his front had won the Oscar for Roman Holiday.) “That was deliberate that we snuck him in there in that low-resolution black-and-white. We degraded our footage to match that period’s.”

The 98-year-old Douglas gave O’Gorman high marks for the performance. “Kirk saw the film after we completed it and said he really liked what Dean had done. I was so happy. That was the most important little stamp of approval you could go for. Kirk said the only thing he wished we’d done was thought of asking him to play himself.”

Preminger and Douglas, who later did In Harm’s Way together, were contentious about which one of them really broke the blacklist with Trumbo’s screen credit. Exodus went into release two months after Spartacus, but ten months earlier The New York Times announced that Preminger would credit Trumbo with the screenplay for Exodus, which possibly forced Douglas to do the same with Spartacus.

“We talked to Kirk before the film went into production, and he’s very sharp on this subject,” Roach says. “He wrote a book about it. He said for quite a while he’d intended to give Trumbo credit, but Preminger did beat him to the punch. In a way, Douglas had more to risk. He was not as independent as Preminger was. His own production company had invested a whole lot of money in Spartacus, and they were running behind and over budget because they’d fired a director before they hired [Stanley] Kubrick. He had a lot on the line. I think the heroism of what Kirk did can’t be understated. It was such a bold choice to put an ex-Communist’s name on the front of his film. Trumbo was the first blacklisted screenwriter to be credited in 13 years.”

It’s hard not to overlook the parallel that Spartacus freed the blacklisted writers as well as the slaves. “It’s certainly related,” admits Roach. “Rather than let one person be crucified for standing up for all, other people in Spartacus’ camp stood up and were not only willing to not inform on him but to even go further and die with him. Which was an incredible tribute to the people who refused to inform on friends.”

Roach is particularly proud of a scene where Hopper finally realizes all her flag-waving hyper-patriotism was for naught. “The night Trumbo’s name finally appeared on the screen marked the beginning of the end of the blacklist. Hedda’s watching the movie premiere on TV, and out comes John Kennedy who says, ‘It’s a fine picture. I think it’ll be a big hit.’ That happened. I liked that moment because it feels like Dorothy throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West. Trumbo’s name coming up in the Spartacus credits broke a spell that had been woven in fear. She’d spent so much time conjuring, and it all suddenly just vaporized and she melted.”

As the battered but unbeaten good guy of the occasion, Bryan Cranston has a crusty role that falls comfortably within his skill set. Like Mirren, he has been raking in the awards of late (Emmys for “Breaking Bad”on television, and a Tony for playing LBJ in All the Way), and this performance might well win him other award consideration.

Roach found Cranston such a dream to work with that he’s doing it again, directing the HBO version of All the Way, which will air in the spring. “Bryan’s one of those actors who’s not only prepared, he’s eager to try all the layers—all the sort of tonal adjustments you could take along the continuum of tone—and he’s prepared all of the versions before he shows up, so he knows it when he gets there. Then he allows for discovery by just being on top of it. When the other actors join in and the energy shifts a little on the set, he’s like an incredible jazz musician. He knows the piece so well that he can go off on any new melody or key change or tempo change.”

And what would Trumbo make of Trumbo? Roach suspects he would have a Kirk Douglas reaction: “He would want to write it himself. He wrote zillions and zillions of words to achieve the best 10,000 to make a great screenplay. I read a beautiful memo he wrote about Spartacus and the way that it had first been cut. It was a 40-page essay on the way it should have been cut to serve the story, and he was right. Kirk Douglas said so in his book. That’s why being right really mattered to Trumbo. Sometimes, being right is overrated—especially when you’re dealing with people who don’t rely on logic or science to win an argument—but Trumbo wouldn’t give up. I’m sure that I would have probably received at least a 50-page memo from him.

“In a way, we had Trumbo’s legacy with us in the form of his daughters, Mitzi and Nikki, who talked to us quite a bit and visited the set a number of times. They were very opinionated. They had their own Trumbo, and we listened to them. In some cases, they had a very significant impact on the details of how things were. They just thought we weren’t authentic enough in the screenplay. Even in the edits—I showed them early cuts—they gave us very, very good notes on what it was really like to be in a house where you had to keep secrets. You had to answer the phone carefully. They didn’t have pseudonyms in school, but they could never say what their father did for a living because he was busy writing black-market screenplays and winning Academy Awards that they weren’t even allowed to talk about.”