In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He was also a member of the Communist Party. Ordered to speak before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, he refused to cooperate, and was jailed for contempt, becoming one of the “Hollywood 10.” After he was released, he was unemployable, at least under his own name. For nearly 10 years, he made a living by writing scripts for a B-movie studio, by fixing other peoples’ scripts, and, once in a while, by writing scripts for real movies. He twice won an Oscar for best screenplay, including one for the wonderful Roman Holiday, under someone else’s name. Eventually, actor Kirk Douglas (for Spartacus) and director Otto Preminger (for Exodus) insisted that Trumbo be named in the credits. When president-elect JFK crossed a wingnut picket line to see Spartacus, the blacklist was over.
There’s a good story in there somewhere. Unfortunately, this movie isn’t it. Sad to say, this movie about one of Hollywood’s best-ever screenwriters is a poorly-written mess.
Bryan Cranston, an actor I generally like, does a poor job as Trumbo. He gets the voice and gestures right, but misses the man’s heart and soul — a failing that the little clip of the real Trumbo speaking at the end of the movie only emphasizes. Similarly, the wonderful Helen Mirren gets to wear a lot of great hats as Hedda Hopper, but can’t do much with her one-dimensional part.
There are some good moments. I enjoyed John Goodman as the B-movie studio owner. And the relatively unknown young actor playing Kirk Douglas is pretty good too. But all in all, it’s a missed opportunity. If you want to see a good picture about those years, see The Front (reviewed below).
Weird Trivia: Trumbo’s last job in Hollywood, shortly before he died, was as an uncredited (!) script doctor for The Way We Were, the 1973 film in which a major plot development centers on the couple’s different reactions to the Hollywood 10. Wouldn’t you like to know which scenes in those films were actually Trumbo’s?