Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had it all — wealth, fame, Oscars. But he refused to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War, and was branded a national threat. Now, with Jay Roach directing, the man whose name was banned on a big screen for years has his own movie.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
...The scene being shot on this balmy October afternoon is of a Beverly Hills cocktail party in 1947.
A huge swimming pool, lit by a hundred floating tea light candles, glows in the early evening. A band plays jazz under a striped cabana while men in black tie mingle with women in silvery gowns. And at the center of it all is a debonair figure in a white dinner jacket, smoking a cigarette through an ivory holder, arguing with guests about the decadent and corrupt capitalist system.
"Dalton Trumbo was a socialist, but he loved being rich," says Bryan Cranston, the 59-year-old Breaking Bad star who grew a topiary-like mustache to play the wealthiest communist in Hollywood, the original limousine liberal, in Trumbo, premiering Sept. 12 at the Toronto Film Festival.
Cranston and Lane re-enact the scene of Trumbo and his wife, Cleo, at the HUAC hearings in 1947. Photo credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle, still photographer for Trumbo
Of all the writers blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s, Trumbo, the long-uncredited author of such Oscar-winning classics as The Brave One and Roman Holiday, is the most famous and revered. At any rate, he's the one big enough to get his own biopic, even if it did take more than 50 years to bring his story to the screen. Directed by Jay Roach (HBO's Recount and Game Change) and co-starring Helen Mirren as commie-obsessed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Louis C.K. as screenwriter and fellow traveler Arlen Hird (a composite of several other blacklisted screenwriters) and Diane Lane as Trumbo's supportive wife, Cleo, it's a tale filled with as many twists and turns as the screenplays Trumbo used to tap out in his bathtub.
The film shows Trumbo's rise during the 1940s to become one of the highest-paid Hollywood scribes of his time (think Aaron Sorkin, only even more liberal). It explores his complicated, sometimes contradictory politics ("a swimming-pool Soviet," one character calls him). It recounts his struggles during the darkest days of the Blacklist era, which started in 1947 after Trumbo and other writers — a group that became known as the Hollywood Ten — refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which resulted, for Trumbo, in 10 months in federal prison. Others, like John Howard Lawson, writer of Cry, the Beloved Country, got even longer sentences, while some ended up fleeing the country — including Trumbo, who spent two years in Mexico, though that detail is omitted from this biopic. Instead, the film focuses on his years surviving the Blacklist in Hollywood, writing under false identities and laboring in the town's creative ghetto (John Goodman has some scene-stealing bits as schlock producer Frank King). Until, in the end, Trumbo is vindicated in 1960, when the Blacklist finally crumbles, as his name once again appears on movie screens in the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus.
"Here's a guy with an interesting job, well paid, a rich guy in great shape who had everything to lose," says Roach, who finds much to relate to about the character. "I know writers who are like that — mainstream, big writers, nominated for awards. And to be confounded with the question of being seen as a threat to America? I'd like to think that I wouldn't cooperate [with the government]. But what would it be like to park your career? To put yourself under a gag order?"
Of course, much has changed since the dark days of the Hollywood Blacklist, when the major studios, pressured by conservative politicians, banned scores of writers, actors and directors from working because of their suspected political beliefs while Congress hauled stars to D.C. and compelled them to testify against their friends. Today, being a socialist isn't a crime (indeed, an avowed one currently is leading in the New Hampshire polls in the 2016 Democratic primary race). Nearly all the victims of the Blacklist are long gone (Trumbo died in 1976), and memories of that bleak, ignoble era grow more distant every decade. Nowadays, most people under 40 probably think the Blacklist is a James Spader TV drama. Or its other modern incarnation, a screenplay competition.
Trumbo and his wife, Cleo, at the HUAC hearings in 1947.
Still, the filmmakers behind Trumbo believe their hero's story will resonate. "The debate on the NSA, wiretapping, how much we invade a person's privacy — that continues," says Cranston, an outspoken liberal in his own right. "Trumbo didn't commit a crime, yet he went to prison. So he's emblematic of oppressed people throughout our history, whether it's African-Americans or Latinos or communists. In America, there was a time when fear-mongering was tremendously effective. We are continuing to relive it."
In 2008, in the middle of the WGA strike, TV writer John McNamara (Lois & Clark, Aquarius) had lots of time on his hands. "I'd been force majeure'd," he says, referring to the "Acts of God" clause in contracts that studios used to cull writers from their payrolls during the strike. So he pulled a book from his shelf — Bruce Cook's 1977 biography Dalton Trumbo. Wheels began spinning. The potential for a film about Trumbo's life was so obvious, McNamara couldn't believe one hadn't been made years ago. "I couldn't fathom why Sidney Lumet didn't cast Dustin Hoffman," he says. "Or why Hal Ashby or Warren Beatty didn't make this movie. Jack Nicholson could've played Trumbo. Paul Newman should have."
It took McNamara a couple of years, between TV gigs, to research the subject and pound out a draft (he already knew quite a lot about the era; at NYU during the 1980s, he'd studied screenwriting under three once-blacklisted writers). He sent it to his agent at WME, who floated it around town. And nothing happened. Nobody was interested in producing a film with a communist hero set in the least flattering period of Hollywood's history. "If it were a poker game," recalls McNamara, now 53, "I was down to my last two chips."
Then he pulled a straight. Kelly Mullen, an executive producer at Michael London's Groundswell Productions, got ahold of the script and pushed it into her boss' reluctant arms. "I said, 'We are never, ever going to do a movie about Dalton Trumbo,' " recalls London, who hadn't done a biopic since 2008's Milk. "Then I read it." London pitched the movie to Roach to direct. The director, now 58, made his name during the 1990s and 2000s with big-screen comedy franchises like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Meet the Parents. But for the past several years, he had been reinventing himself on HBO with politically themed films, exploring hanging chads in Recount and plumbing the soul of Sarah Palin in Game Change. Directing a big-screen political biopic was a logical next step. "I knew Trumbo's movies, Spartacus and Roman Holiday," says Roach. "And I read his letters. They were funny and articulate." Roach was ready to sign on — but he had one big problem with McNamara's script: John Wayne.
Cranston (left) and Roach in August at Roach’s production office in Culver City.
"Jay had grown up in Albuquerque, and John Wayne was his [father's] hero," explains London. "And in the script at the time, John Wayne was the villain. So I called up John McNamara and told him there was good news and bad news. The good news was that Jay wanted to do it. The bad news was that he didn't want the John Wayne thing."
In point of fact, McNamara's script was accurate: Wayne was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group dedicated to rooting out communists in the movie colony and ruining their lives. But luckily for McNamara, there was no shortage of villains in Trumbo's life (including, it should be noted, this publication, whose right-wing founder, publisher and editor during the Blacklist, Billy Wilkerson, was among the first to publish suspected communists' names, including Trumbo's). McNamara softened Wayne's part (played by David James Elliott) and made the main antagonist the syndicated Los Angeles Times columnist Hedda Hopper. "John Wayne had his interests," says Mirren, agreeing with the screenwriter's shift of focus. "But he didn't have the reach of Hedda. She was ballsy and unafraid. There is no one around today with her nationwide influence."
Roach had given McNamara one other note: "I encouraged him to get to know the people directly involved — [Trumbo's daughters] Niki and Mitzi." The screenwriter did just that, though there may have been moments when he regretted it. "I was a very noisy person," says Mitzi, 69, a photographer. "I gave them lots of notes. A lot of things were changed." For instance: The original ending was a scene at MGM Studios in the '70s where Trumbo bumps into Wayne and the two former adversaries share a Kumbaya moment ("You stay outta trouble," Wayne tells him; "That I will not," replies Trumbo). "I really didn't like that," says Mitzi. "It wasn't that way. I was delighted when they cut that."
Then there was the 55-year-old feud over who was first to defy the Blacklist and put Trumbo's name on their movie's credits. In an early version of the script, Kirk Douglas gets all the credit as producer of Spartacus. But Mitzi and her sister were adamant that director Otto Preminger also get kudos since he came first in announcing to the press that Trumbo would be credited as the writer of Exodus, even though Exodus came out two months after Spartacus. McNamara added some Preminger scenes into the script, but not so many as to annoy the real Douglas, who at 98 still gets feisty over the subject. "I'm pleased that the film reflects the truth," he tells THR, "that the first time Dalton Trumbo saw his name onscreen after more than a decade of being on the Blacklist was at the premiere of Spartacus."
A group of Hollywood writers, directors and producers at the HUAC hearings in 1947. Trumbo is in the front row in the light suit; others include 'Casablanca' writer Howard Koch and 'Caine Mutiny' director Edward Dmytryk.
While McNamara was noodling with the script, London and Roach started looking for an actor to play the title role. They approached George Clooney. They approached Matt Damon. Then they got realistic. "We went through a long period of courting movie stars," says London. "We [took] some unrequited shots at people. Then we started looking for someone who was right in front of us, whom the world doesn't know as much about — and that was Bryan Cranston." At the time, the actor was finishing up his final season playing a meth dealer on Breaking Bad and was looking to work on a bigger-sized screen. The $15 million budget was put up entirely by Shivani Rawat, an Indian-American investor (her godfather and backer is the founder of 5-Hour Energy drink), and production began in September. But not in L.A.
Ironically, a film that delves into the darkest chapter of Hollywood history mostly was shot in Louisiana (where the tax breaks have succeeded in driving a Bolshevik-Menshevik split in below-the-line regional labor interests). That Beverly Hills cocktail party at Trumbo's home in 1947? It was re-created last October, when THR was on the set, at an estate in the upscale Metairie neighborhood of New Orleans. Its real owners are an options trader and his wife.
Hedda Hopper, who died in 1966.
It's a sign of how far America has evolved: Theaters soon will begin showing a movie about Dalton Trumbo, a figure once so controversial, his name was banned from screens for a decade, and nobody is upset. Well, nearly nobody. Ann Coulter wrote a column — "From Meth Cook to Hitler Apologist," referring to Cranston's TV character and Trumbo's isolationist sentiments before World War II — but otherwise it's been crickets. No protests. No congressional outrage. Not even Donald Trump has said anything (though in August, Cranston called Trump "refreshing," while also condemning him, in an interview with The Nerdist podcast).
In fact, shockingly, there even are signs that the right actually might like the film. "We tested the movie in a particularly conservative theater in Plano," says London. "There was a [cardboard] standee of John Wayne — because it's Texas. The audience didn't see the film as polarizing or as a political statement. They saw it as standing up to the government." John Goodman also identifies a message in Trumbo that could appeal to conservative sensibilities, drawing a parallel between political correctness on campuses and the Un-American Activities Committee of the '50s. "It's the same emotional response: shame and anger," he notes, "which is what the HUAC played up for their own good."
Hedda Hopper must be whirling in her grave.
Of course, there's plenty of time before the film's Nov. 6 release for controversy to build. "It doesn't take much to have someone say something inflammatory in this country and we're off to the races," notes Cranston. On the other hand, the fact that passions about the era have cooled, that Trumbo's name no longer strikes fear into the hearts of conservative watchdogs — that alone may be reason enough to make a movie about Dalton Trumbo.
"We don't like to face a lot of our history," says Lane. "That's why it's so important to tell this story. People don't like to think that we're walking on skeletons. But we are."