Roman Holiday. Spartacus. The Brave One. Sure, these heavyweight films are easily recognized by movie-goers around the world, but when it comes to the legendary man who wrote them, Dalton Trumbo, it’s a whole other story.
In the early 1940s, Trumbo was one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood, despite the fact that he had aligned himself with the Communist Party (citing reasons like fair wages and equal rights). Before the Cold War, joining the party was somewhat commonplace for liberal-thinking Americans, as it stood for something else entirely. Then the Cold War hit, “McCarthyism” under Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy forced political oppression against communists, and the game completely changed.
A stubborn man with many convictions, Trumbo’s political beliefs remained intact even when tension rose between America and Russia throughout the decade. At first that made him something of a social outcast, but once things boiled over in 1947 and fear completely overtook Hollywood, it became a period that would go down in history as one of the darkest times for known “communists.” Especially those in the public spotlight like Trumbo, who when called to testify by the House un-American Activities Committee refused to answer their questions. In return, he and nine other scribes and writers who did so were awarded jail time and blocked from all work in Hollywood, becoming known as The Hollywood Ten.
That’s the entry point to director Jay Roach’s Trumbo. The film, starring Bryan Cranston as the title character, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September to mixed reviews thanks to it being based on the book of the same name by Bruce Cook—most of that story is “as told” to the author by the man himself.
Screenwriter John McNamara, who studied under some of Trumbo’s former colleagues at NYU and began work on this film back in 2008, certainly drew inspiration from Cook’s biography. But he also spent hours upon hours interviewing Trumbo’s daughters, Mitzi and Nikola Trumbo (played in the film by Elle Fanning) in order to humanize him and showcase both the creative genius who pecked away at a typewriter in the tub and the flawed man who enlisted his family to help fight his cause with maniacal aplomb.
“Talking to Nikola for a couple of months gave me a ton of personal insight into Trumbo that wasn’t in the book at all. And Mitzy is a brilliant photographer and took many photographs from that time and shared them all with us, McNamara said. “I was intrigued about what kind of guy would go to jail for the first amendment. That’s not a greedy screenwriter; that’s a complex guy.”
As such, the film’s narrative sweeps through Trumbo’s jail time and quickly allows him to return home to his wife Cleo—played by Diane Lane—and three children including his son Chris. Soon they lose their ranch when Trumbo is unable to find work; however, it doesn’t take long for him to begin penning scripts and putting pseudonyms or his friends’ names on them. That includes Roman Holiday, which was originally credited to McNamara’s former professor Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk in the film) and went on to win an Oscar.
Fame itself might have been out of Trumbo’s grasp, but work was not when he finally found one man to hire him despite gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott) threatening anyone who hired anyone from the Hollywood Ten: B Movie mogul Frank King (John Goodman). King was impressed with Trumbo’s speed and his ability to fix any film, hiring him and several of his fellow blacklisters to write mountains of cheap scripts under false names. As Trumbo’s personal life crumbles, his professional one culminates in another unaccredited Oscar win for The Brave One, to which he submitted the film under Robert Rich. It was both a high and a low point in his life, but to Trumbo it all seemed to be a part of the unflinching process that was proving he could beat the system.
“He had his eye on the ball; there was a larger purpose to his maniacal work schedule than money and fame,” McNamara says. “He really was working to correct what he thought was a huge political injustice and in a way that kept him as sane as he was. He was working on something bigger than himself.”
In the end, Trumbo might have overcome the injustice that was served to him over his political beliefs, leaving a black mark on Hollywood’s otherwise glitzy track record of rising to the cause. But it’s a period of history that is always on the brink of repeating itself, according to McNamara.
“I could foresee a time this could happen again, if a certain orange-haired gentleman became president,” the screenwriter wrapped. “It’s unlikely, but if it were to happen, and because we might dare to offend him? It could happen again. That perfect storm of greed, and cowardice, and fear to exist that could be the fertile soil for the blacklist? Absolutely.”