Pin It
Trumbo was officially persona non grata at the Motion Picture Academy, due to his refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his membership in the American Communist Party.

Opening night film: Trumbo 

click to enlarge Dalton Trumbo, photographed by daughter Mitzi Trumbo - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL

Dalton Trumbo is the only person to receive two Oscars for work initially attributed to other people. Just before his death in 1976, the Motion Picture Academy belatedly gave him statuettes for his work on Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both films he wrote under the cloak of others. He was officially persona non grata, due to his refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his membership in the American Communist Party.

The era of the Hollywood blacklist has passed into deserved opprobrium, and the two artists most commonly associated with it, director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), who provided friendly testimony before Congress, and Trumbo, who stood in contempt of it and went to prison, are conveniently cast as the heavy and the martyr. But Trumbo himself rejected that simplistic characterization.

Speaking before screenwriters' guild in 1970, 10 years after he broke the blacklist for his work on Otto Preminger's Exodus and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, Trumbo said, "It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."

In Trumbo, Peter Askin's compelling, affectionate and often quite funny portrait, we see the embattled screenwriter lashing out with eloquent fury, but we also see an imperfect but devoted family man. An A-list cast of actors, including Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, Nathan Lane, Donald Sutherland and Paul Giamatti take turns reading aloud from Trumbo's voluminous correspondence.

Fortuitously for a film about a novelist and screenwriter is that Trumbo could write great letters. Boy, could he ever. In one memorable note, read in a seething but controlled tone by Neeson, he lays the blame for the blacklist where it belongs: the Hollywood producer who refuses to employ the shunned writer. "It is he, not the [Congressional] committee who applies the only lash that really stings: economic reprisal. Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon his country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself."

So masterful, yet casually composed, are his spiraling sentences and clockwork arguments that his son Chris Trumbo recognized their innate theatrical value. He began the project in the mid-'90s as a fundraiser for a Hollywood Ten memorial at the University of Colorado. "There have been a number of versions—over all the versions I used 35 to 40 letters. I pared those down, edited some and combined some to be able to tell a certain kind of story," Trumbo says in a phone interview from his home in Ojai, Calif. "People may be aware of the black list, but I thought it would be interesting to give a personal idea of what went on in those times, starting in 1947 and ending in 1960."

Askin came to the material later, after, among other things, producing and directing the original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. "I first started reading it before 9/11. By the time of the play it was post 9/11, and it remained as relevant—and more relevant than ever," he says, noting such contemporary pariahs as the Dixie Chicks.

"When we did the stage play—in a series of Monday nights [with rotating guest performers]—Tim Robbins came in to do it right when his film Bull Durham was blacklisted from Cooperstown, N.Y.," Askin says, in a phone interview from Manhattan. The film was to be shown there at the Baseball Hall of Fame, but, Askin continues, "they realized Tim's political affiliations and didn't show it. [Actor] Chris Cooper came in and said, 'Congratulations, you just made John Ashcroft's list.'"

For Chris Trumbo, the film is an opportunity to show his father in a context beyond that of a martyr to political conscience. "He also smoked a lot and drank a lot," he says, "We show both aspects of his personality. What happened with the blacklist was hardly what he was looking for."

Peter Askin, Chris Trumbo and Joan Allen will be present at Thursday's 8 p.m. screening in Fletcher Hall. Elizabeth Edwards will introduce.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

More by David Fellerath

Facebook Activity

Twitter Activity

Comments

what was his number....

by Aziyah Patterson on For Jesse Owens, what happened after the Olympics is its own story (Full Frame Documentary Film Festival)

Your comment on Joyce McKinney is libelous and defamatory. She was never even charged with kidnapping and raping a Mormon-- …

by truthteller on Full Frame 2011 brief film reviews (Full Frame Documentary Film Festival)

Most Read

© 2014 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation