Tuesday, November 24

REVIEW: Trumbo

Directed by Jay Roach
2015 Biographical Drama
2 hours, 4 minutes
From Bleecker Street Media

Bryan Cranston
Diane Lane
Helen Mirren
Michael Stuhlbarg
Elle Fanning
David James Elliott
John Goodman
Louis C. K.
Alan Tudyk
Roger Bart
Dean O'Gorman
Christian Berkel
Richard Portnow
Adewale Akinnuoye-Adbaje

Are you now or have you ever been a communist?  With those words came the most egregious, embarrassing, insulting, horrific time in Hollywood history.  The story has been told before but perhaps never has it been in so absorbing or entertaining a manner.

In 1947 prolific Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was at the top of his game... intelligent, successful, courted, opinionated, with a lovely, devoted wife, three great kids and a home and property they all loved.   He was also a passionate Communist.  He was dedicated to fighting Fascism and was a declared isolationist.  The plight of the common man was his calling.   Then the day came when Trumbo and some of his friends were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.  Perhaps this is the spot to mention being a Communist in America was not illegal.

The period of shame lasted through the next decade and it was one sick, crazy time... and I ought to know being the young son of one of Peoria, Illinois' most avid anti-Communists.  Many of my mother's favorite Republicans were part of that time and this film... Reagan, Nixon, Senator Joseph McCarthy, John Wayne, Robert Taylor.  I had come to hate the hatred I felt around my home.  Hearing that people should be deported or spend the rest of their lives in jail or even killed because they were commies, red-baiters, Moscow loyalists, sitting at the ready with their sneaky buddies to overthrow our government got to me.  I heard always be loyal to the red, white and blue and better dead than red more than I heard dinner's ready or say your prayers, Sweetheart

Scores of folks were corralled because they were communists or  married to one or used to be one or used to be married to one.  God forbid they once attended some meeting, not even fully knowing what it was all about.  Some were not communists.  While many artists suffered for not spilling their guts in front of Congress, 10 writers, producers and directors were singled out.  History calls them The Hollywood Ten or the Unfriendly Ten.  It's likely Trumbo is the most well-known as one of the 10 but the others were Alvah Bessie, Ring Lardner, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Edward Dmytryk, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, John Howard Lawson and Adrian Scott.  Actually there was an 11th, Bertolt Brecht, but he fled the country the day after his inquest.  Within a year all were in prison  serving sentences of six months to one year.
While imprisoned Dmytryk broke with the others and cooperated,  naming names.  His career went on.  The others were blacklisted from working in the industry and a few never returned to their former occupations at all.

Trumbo, to be fair, was luckier than some.  He took on a few pseudonyms and secretly wrote screenplays.  His chief employer during those years was King Brothers, a cheapie studio where he pounded out one piece of junk after another.  Things were tweaked a bit when he won an Oscar in 1953 for writing the Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy, Roman Holiday.  He couldn't collect his prize because no one knew he wrote it.

Three years later he won another Oscar for writing The Brave One, a tender story of a Mexican boy and his pet bull that he's trying to save from the bullring.  Written under the pseudonym Robert Rich, this time word got around that Rich was really Trumbo and Hollywood right-wingers got even nuttier than they already were.  Remember, traitors like Trumbo were under every bed.  Beware.

One of those who went off the deep end was catty Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper.  Known for her big hats, big mouth and threatening manner, she was an ex-actress who never made it in Tinseltown and she was poised to seek her own warped sense of justice.  She was played to perfection by Helen Mirren, who, although the role was small, must have had the time of her life.  She's played enough real people to know how to nail down such a part and indeed she did.

Things did not really turn around for Trumbo until 1960ish when he was approached by two Hollywood heavyweights, director Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas.  Both were having trouble on their new productions, two gigantic films...  Preminger's was Exodus and Douglas' was Spartacus.  Somehow among the three it was determined that Trumbo would write the scripts and be credited under his own name.  The blacklist would finally be ended.  Obviously, it would never be forgotten.

Part of the great fun of this movie is to see real-life people come to life on the screen again and so well.  Those playing John Wayne (David James Elliott), Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) and Preminger (Christian Berkel) were nothing short of brilliant.  They looked and acted like their real counterparts.  The use of newsreel footage was equally exciting, all the more so by weaving the actors here into the real stuff.

John Goodman was blustery and funny as the cheapie studio head and I am wondering if he could cop an Oscar nom for supporting actor.  Diane Lane, in the story from start to finish, did all she needed to do to be Trumbo's wife, Cleo, but the part was written in a way to not garner a whole lot of attention.

The real Trumbo liked to write in the bathtub

Saving the best for the last, there's Bryan Cranston in the title role.  He gives us intelligence, pathos, humor, dogged determination, bullying, fear and so much more.  His physicality could not be improved upon and that includes an ability to give good face.  He is virtually in every scene.  If you don't like him, stay home.  However, I have to add that this is a masterful performance (he may never be better).  Without a doubt he will be among Oscar's best actor nominees.  Whether he wins or not may have a little to do with performances by people named DiCaprio, Redmayne and Fassbender.

Kudos galore to Jay Roach for pulling off such a brilliant film.  I've only known him for directing silly comedies like Meet the Fockers, Meet the Parents and a couple of Austin Powers.  Here's the one you've been waiting for, Mr. Roach.

Regular readers probably recall that I have the best time sitting in theaters watching films about Hollywood and also am a lover of biography in all forms and a history buff.  This film had them all.  Not unlike the subject of my last posting, a review of Spotlight, this is a film that sheds light on an important part of history.  Wow, that's two in a row.  I didn't even mind that it riled me up over my childhood experiences.  It should rile up everyone.  How interesting that some of what is seen here resonates in other quarters to this day.  Guess we haven't come so far after all.

I have seen some good films this year but I can say without a doubt that, so far, Trumbo is my favorite.

Next posting:
Yes, another review

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