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.