Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Trumbo (2015) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 5th June, 2020

Trumbo 1McCarthyism was one of the most disgraceful features of modern American history, as for a decade from the late 1940s a witch-hunt against real and imagined Communists was carried out, on the grounds that these “un-American activities” amounted to treason. Hollywood was a particular focus for attention. The US film industry had before the Second World War benefited from a significant influx of European refugees — many Jewish —  fleeing the Nazis; unsurprisingly, some of them were left-wing. But during the War, Hollywood became a major platform for broadcasting the US view of the world, American values and an often black-and-white portrayal of good versus evil. The onset of the Cold War made the Soviet Union the new bogeyman, so anyone being in the least complimentary about the Russians, let alone signing up to Communist Party membership, was in danger. This led to Congressional hearings at which “suspects” were interrogated by Joseph McCarthy and his allies, as well as being pressured to name others. Some were sent to prison for refusing to testify to their persecutors’ satisfaction. Others even committed suicide. Most ended up on a blacklist, which meant that their livelihoods were withdrawn, leading to penury and many a family break-up. All were victims.

Trumbo 2Dalton Trumbo is not a name that particularly resonates these days, but in the 1940s he was one of Hollywood’s most successful screen-writers. He fell foul of the McCarthyites but refused to renounce his political beliefs or to betray others. He was barred by the major studios, but he was such a good writer that he was able to bootleg scripts under pseudonyms to a couple of sympathetic men in the business. He was earning only a fraction of his previous fees, but had the delicious pleasure of winning a couple of Oscars under another name. He also had the resolute support of his wife, whose importance really comes across in Jay Roach’s movie Trumbo (available on BBCiPlayer for the next three weeks), in which she is beautifully played by Diane Lane. However, the real tour de force, as it needed to be, comes from Bryan Cranston as the eponymous hero, chain-smoking, swigging bourbon and tapping out reams of script with two fingers on a typewriter. Roach makes most of the actors look like their originals — full credit to the make-up department — which means that the interspersed extracts of real-time newsreel footage work extremely well. The actress-turned-gossip–columnist Hedda Hopper, who boasted a readership of 35 million in her heyday, was a prime mover in the Hollywood blacklisting enterprise, gleefully ruining the lives of talents far superior to hers. In the film, she is played by Helen Mirren, the epitome of bitchiness, but with dresses and hats to die for.

One Response to “Trumbo (2015) ****”

  1. ffranc_sais said

    There is also The Front, a barely-fictionalised account of such a “bootleg” operation. It was released the year after HUAC was finally abolished, but when many of those caught up in the Cohn/McCarthy witch-hunts were still around to authenticate it. Woody Allen gives one of his best screen performances as the “front” of the title. It is also worth reading the comments on the IMDb entry.

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