Bryan Cranston stars as Hollywood Golden-Age blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in “Trumbo,” directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara.
“Trumbo” opens in 1947 on the set of an Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) film with Trumbo fiddling with some lines from his script. Life is good. He’s just signed a contract with a major studio that will make him the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood.
A courtly, honorable man, things went badly for Trumbo when the House Un-American Activities Committee came to Los Angeles to hunt down communists in show business. Trumbo refused to testify, to name names and turn on his friends and colleagues, as many others did. This landed him in a Kentucky jail for ten months for contempt of Congress.
Trumbo and his fellow writers, known as the “Hollywood 10,” found themselves on a blacklist. The Hollywood studios were unwilling to hire them. Thousands in the entertainment business lost their occupations and even their lives. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), poisonous and vicious – she wore her outré hats like battle gear – led the attack on anyone she thought was a communist.
A natty dresser himself, Trumbo wore a bow tie and a fedora and colorful shirts. (Diane Lane, who plays Trumbo’s wife, also wears some nifty period dresses, but he’s the peacock.) Trumbo’s working style was also unusual; he liked to write his screenplays in the bathtub, naked, smoking a cigarette in a long holder and a tumbler of whiskey next to his typewriter.
Even for those who don’t know Trumbo’s name, his film titles are familiar. Many are classics like “Roman Holiday” (1953) and “The Brave One” (1956), which won Oscars, although without his name attached. Forced to write under a pseudonym for 12 years, he still kept working. When his films “Spartacus” and “Exodus” achieved tremendous success, the blacklist was finally over to give his own life a happy ending.
At a private screening of “Trumbo” at the Museum of Modern Art Tuesday, the film’s stars, Cranston, Roach, McNamara, Mirren, Lane, Stuhlbarg and Louis C.K., came out in style to celebrate. (Sadly John Goodman, who plays Frank King, an independent producer of schlocky movies, wasn’t there.)
I spoke to Trumbo’s daughters, Niki and Mitzi, on the red carpet about their famous father. Mitzi told me she took the iconic photograph of her father in the bathtub working that is also featured in the film. Her mother was a photographer and her teacher, she told me, adding that her father would be happy about a film made to highlight this part of his life and the tragedy incurred by so many people because of the blacklist.
Screenwriter John McNamara told me all the humor in the film came from Trumbo. “He was very funny. That helps.” As for the challenge of how he balanced the humor with the serious political subject, he said, “I always like a spoonful of sugar. I always like movies like ‘Network,’ ‘The Americanization of Emily’ or ‘The Social Network’ that have a structure of drama but they’re layered in comedy. I really like that myself as a viewer.”
Despite the Black List, Trumbo continued to write films and sell them, eventually even to the studios. “The lesson learned from the Black List is no one really gives a shit about your politics as long as you can make movies that make money,” McNamara told me.
Bryan Cranston, who told journalists he wore wigs and moustaches that were glued and pulled off, said he prepared for the role by reading Trumbo’s books and re-watching his films, rattling off “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” “The Brave One,” “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Kitty Foyle.”
“I re-read ‘Johnny Got His Gun,’ a novel that he wrote in 1939 as an anti-war novel. And he was a pacifist. This was a man who didn’t want war, and when war was declared because we were attacked in Pearl Harbor, he joined. So again, when he fought the Black List, he didn’t want that fight either, but when it came to him, he fought back. He succeeded.”
The entire movie crowd headed to the after party at the swanky Ristorante Villagio on Central Park South. Celebrity guests included Dana Delaney, Elle MacPherson and Julie Taymor, Steve Croft and Alex Gibney. The film’s stars, including Mirren and Cranston, stayed until well after midnight.
“Trumbo” opens today, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015.