Wednesday, December 09, 2015

TRUMBO: My review

Saw TRUMBO recently at a DGA screening. It was packed. I said to several of the members in line, “You realize this is about a WRITER, not a director, right?” But they wanted to see it anyway. And you should too, if you like Bryan Cranston (who doesn’t?), care about social injustice, or want to finally see Diane Lane juggle water tumblers.

The story is about Dalton Trumbo, a hugely successful novelist and screenwriter in the ‘40s who refused to cooperate with the witch hunting Committee on Un-American Activities and (along with others) was blacklisted in the ‘50s. To make a living he and other blacklisted writers were forced to churn out schlock B-movies at a fraction of their normal fee while using pseudonyms. It’s as if today Aaron Sorkin could only get work writing Women-in-Prison movies for direct-to-video under the name Candy Apple.

If John McNamara doesn’t win the WGA Best Screenwriting Award for this screenplay with this subject matter he never will. It’s got to be the ultimate crowd pleaser for THAT crowd.

Unfortunately, there is now a parallel to today’s events. Hopefully this film will enlighten some people as to the real dangers of blatant fear and mistrust (although those people are probably all home playing MORTAL COMBAT X).

TRUMBO is a little long and lecture-y at times, and I don’t know if you’d appreciate it as much if you have no connection to that world or time period, but I found it fascinating. And I could watch Bryan Cranston peel potatoes for two hours.

There were some other terrific performances. John Goodman is absolutely hilarious, Louis C.K. is proving to be one hell of a legitimate actor, and Helen Mirren, as always, is terrific.

One of my favorite things in the film is her portrayal of gossip columnist/barracuda, Hedda Hopper. At the time she wielded enormous power in Hollywood and was a reprehensible human being. A bitch with a capital C. How nice that that is becoming her legacy – not her power, not her influence – but her loathsome presence and empty soul. Roast in hell you bitch with a capital C.

Beyond that there are actors playing movie stars and those always feel more like impressions than real people. How do you make John Wayne seem real when the real John Wayne was a cartoon? This becomes less of an issue however, as movie audience gets younger. Very few Millennials will say Michael Stuhlbarg didn’t really capture Edward G. Robinson that well (I actually thought he did… and he really nailed Arnold Rothstein on BOARDWALK EMPIRE).

But hey, any movie where Otto Preminger is one of the heroes is worth seeing. And Kirk Douglas comes off well too.

Dalton Trumbo was a character. Very flamboyant, larger-than-life. After seeing the film I went on YouTube where there are some appearances by the real Dalton Trumbo and it’s amazing how well Cranston captured him. But that’s like saying an actor really had Abe Lincoln’s voice down. Unless you go to YouTube, you have no idea how Trumbo acted or sounded. So take my word on it.

Like I said, TRUMBO is worth seeing. I don’t think it’s going to receive many Oscars. But if it does win one, I suspect the Academy will adhere to tradition and not give it to them for twenty years.

41 comments:

Bill Avena said...

Any portrayal of my favorite HUAC MILF Lee Grant?

Anonymous said...

Helen Mirren: Best actress in the world.

Anonymous said...

Bitch with a capitol C. I am so stealing that.

From everything I read, if any awards are given to this it will be for Ms. Mirren.

Pam, St. Louis

Canda said...

The only danger, as always, will be if people think this is a literal history, since Louis C.K.'s character is a combination of several people, and not a true person of history. Hope some viewers, but I doubt it, will read more about the period.

Cranston was terrific, and Diane Lane continues to amaze with her ageless beauty. I hope she never, ever, has any
"work" done on her face. I believe she will age naturally in a glorious way, and hopefully serve as a role model for all women in film who change their looks (c.f., Meg Ryan), when it isn't necessary to do so.

Roger Owen Green said...

"Spotlight," "Beasts of No Nation," "The Big Short," "Trumbo" and "Straight Outta Compton” are the Screen Actors Guild Award nominees for cast in a motion picture

kent said...

A few years ago we saw Trumbo at the Falcon Theatre with Joe Mategna. He was excellent. Then, just last Friday, we ran into Mr. Mategna at a street festival outside the Falcon and I told him they should have had him do the movie. He said it was in good hands with Bryan. So, that's two good reviews.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Roger, you reminded me of the question I ask almost every year: Do you think Le Academy ever will/should offer an Academy Award for Best Ensemble?

Steve Pepoon said...

"You do realize this is about a WRITER, not a director, right?" Hilarious.

Jim S said...

I am curious. Did they show that Trumbo was an actual card-carrying communist? (He was. When Stalin and Hitler were friends, roughly Sept. 1939 to June 1941, he was a Nazi apologist. He was a member of a group taking money directly from Stalin's regieme. He never said anything in the nature of "Wow, I am for social justice and the party seemed like a good idea at the time, but Stalin is an evil madman and I renounce him and all that he has done in the name of Communism."

I am not defending the blacklist or HUAC. They were evil, but being a friend of Stalin is not cool.

Stephen Marks said...

I don't get it, probably because I'm dumb, but if they were great writers they would not have written "schlock B movies". So I guess I'm asking did they write great scripts and the directors and actors turned them into B movies or did they write bad on purpose because of the low pay? Yea that bitch with a C line is great Ken

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

"That's Hedley!"

CarolMR said...

I've never understood the fascination that Hollywood actors, writers, and directors had with murderous, oppressive, anti-free speech thugs like Stalin and Castro.

Anonymous said...

@ Jim S.:
I am not defending the blacklist or HUAC. They were evil, but being a friend of Stalin is not cool.

It would definitely be more accurate to say HUAC was not cool but being a friend of Stalin was evil (especially after 1939).

jbryant said...

Stephen Marks: The blacklisted writers wrote what they were hired to write, which was generally "B" pictures. I suspect most of them did the best they could under the circumstances, though I'm sure some just cranked it out and took the check. I doubt they were selling a lot of spec scripts for "A" pictures though.

VP81955 said...

Today, BTW, is the 110th anniversary of Trumbo's birth (he died in 1976).

Did an entry today on his ties to the lady in my avatar, and how Carole Lombard sought to send copies of "Johnny Got His Gun" to all 96 senators and President Roosevelt in early 1939, only to apparently be thwarted by studio moguls. (Just as well, too; soon after Germany invaded Poland, Trumbo himself had its publication halted and copies recalled. Those copies remaining became fodder for fascists.) The entry includes a few paragraphs of Trumbo being interviewed by...Hedda Hopper!

And to clarify things, while Trumbo was on the left, he didn't join CPUSA until 1943, when the Soviets were allies of the U.S., France and Britain.

The entry (which includes a link to this review) is at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/840472.html.

P.S. Trumbo himself directed a film version of "Johnny Got His Gun" in 1971. Playing the lead was Timothy Bottoms, who three decades later played George W. Bush in two vastly different ways -- first in the Comedy Central sitcom sendup "That's My Bush!" in the summer of 2001, and a few years later in s straight TV drama on U.S. reacthion to 9/11/01. In retrospect, that apparently is as fictional as the actual comedy.

Buttermilk Sky said...

How was Hedda Hopper worse than Louella Parsons? Discuss.

Dixon Steele said...

Blacklisted or not, I find it hard to sympathize with Trumbo, who as mentioned by others above, supported both Hitler and Stalin.

Yes, innocent people were hurt by the blacklist. But I wouldn't put Trumbo's name on that list.

Ellen said...

I loved Cranston's performance so much I wanted the movie to be twice as long.

Diane D. said...

CarolMR
I don't think Hollywood actors,etc were attracted to those murderous dictators; they were attracted to Communism. At the time of the HUAC, Communism could be made to sound very altruistic--"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." They didn't yet know how every Communistic society became murderous, oppressive, anti-freedom--Stalin being responsible for more mass murder than Hitler.

IMHO, most artistic people are more sensitive to the injustices in the world than society as a whole, and the reasons for their misguided support of the USSR were benevolent. But there can be no question that the HUAC engaged in activities that were misguided, un-American, and unconstitutional. However, their motives were not evil; their activities were motivated by fear. It appeared that Communism could take over the world. Both sides were mistaken, but neither side could give any credence to the other.

I wonder if that is why we are still so fatally divided between left and right. A British commenter to this blog (Johnny Walker) has expressed astonishment at the way every conversation in the U.S. devolves into a left/right colloquy. It's not like that everywhere.

Chris said...

What was so bad about Hedda Hopper? All I know about her was that she turned up in SUNSET BOULEVARD and did a guest shot on I LOVE LUCY.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Like Ann-Margaret, Helen Mirren gets sexier with age.
Not a fan of Kurt Douglas for reasons having to do with Natalie Wood.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Meant Ann-Margret.

MikeN said...

>Aaron Sorkin could only get work writing Women-in-Prison movies for direct-to-video under the name Candy Apple.

Why do I get the feeling you've already written a sample?

MikeN said...

Jim, not just Stalin- Trumbo supported North Korea too.

All these people whining about Hollywood folks who lost their jobs, it would be nice if they cared even 1% as much about the people who were and are imprisoned in Cuba.

VincentS said...

Saw it at a SAG screening at it's the best movie I've seen all year. Bryan Cranston, Helen Meren, Diane Lane, and the guy who played Edward G. Robinson were there. I got to talk to them - except for Cranston who took right off. And I disagree with you about the Oscars, Ken. I think it will be nominated for a few.

Pete Grossman said...

"A bitch with a capital C" Lovin' that.

RCP said...

The screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ; Dinner at Eight; The Big House) was friends with Hedda Hopper for decades and wrote about her in her wonderful autobiography "Off With Their Heads!" I didn't end up liking Hopper any more than before after reading Marion's loyal but clear-eyed account of her friend's behavior - but she wasn't always the unbearable, self-righteous arch-conservative that she played in public. And one rather amusing difference between Hopper and Louella Parsons was that come Christmastime, when each was buried beneath an avalanche of gifts sent by "affectionate" (read hate-filled and resentful) actors and anyone else whose careers could be destroyed by a pen stroke from one of these harpies, Hopper saw the gifts for the bribes that they were, while Parons apparently believed that the sentiment was genuine.

Michael said...

I think it's possible to attack Trumbo and others who were horribly wrong in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and to defend him and the others when they were deprived of their constitutional rights by a bunch of mini-Trumps in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hedda Hopper supported HUAC and the Blacklist while Louella Parsons appears to have been less political.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Haven't seen this yet, but I'll note that Woody Allen's THE FRONT had a pretty good take on that period in Hollywood. In it, Allen played a guy fronting for four out-of-work screenwriters. Zero Mostel had a part as a circuit comedian who had to take less and less money for gigs because promoters knew he was blacklisted and desperate. For me, the most moving part of that movie was the end credits, which gave the years many of the real-life creators on the picture were blacklisted.

Even Pete Seeger, as beloved as he became in later years, struggled to find work because he was blacklisted (both solo and as part of the Weavers). He remained grateful throughout the rest of his very long life to those who booked him during that time.

wg

cadavra said...

Many people who joined the CP left when they realized the extent of Stalin's evil. Remember the question: "Are you now or have you ever been...?" The Trumbos of the world were just as appalled by what happened in Stalinist Russia as everyone else. (Incidentally, none other than Ronald Reagan tried to join in 1938, but was turned down because they thought he was a dolt. How different recent history would have been had they accepted him.)

As for the B-pictures Trumbo wrote, two words: GUN CRAZY.

TRUMBO is my favorite movie so far this year, and probably my favorite movie moment of the year is when Goodman picks up the bat and drawls, "Yeah, I don't think you an' me are gonna be pals..."

Donald Benson said...

Maybe someday there'll be a movie about right-leaning artists whose careers were snuffed because they endorsed homegrown fascists, corrupt politicians and sociopathic business interests ... If any of that crowd have ever been or ever will be banned from public platforms for being dangerously wrong.

Barry Traylor said...

TRUMBO and SPOTLIGHT are both films I am interested in seeing. The McCarthy period is fascinating as there were so many spineless weasels in congress that let him get away with his lies for so long. Gosh, that sounds rather familiar does it not.

Barry Traylor said...

Looks like you have a spammer here today. Doubt I'll be clicking on the link.

brickben said...

Ho Hum, the House Un-American Affairs commission and Sen Joe McCarthy. Hollywood's Washington Generals. I, along with 99% of America will pass...

McAlvie said...

Yes, it's a very good thing that this story gets told just now, and hopefully it will get told, in one format or another, over and over again. Because people will forget, or decide that this time is different somehow. It would be nice if we could just once learn from the past without going through the pain over and over again.

Anonymous said...

@cadavra
The Trumbos of the world were just as appalled by what happened in Stalinist Russia as everyone else

Some of them.
The problem is a whole lot (including Pete Seeger) didn't.
you could make an argument to be a supporter until 1939. But in 1939 Stalin joined Hitler. Remember that.
Most of these people advocated keeping the US out of the war because they would be fighting against Stalin.
Then a lot of them became "antifascists" when Hitler turned on Stalin during Barbarossa in 1941.
All of a sudden the US should go to war.
But many of them stayed loyal to Stalin well into the 1950's even after the horrors of the gulags.
That doesn't make the HUAC people or the blacklist right. But it doesn't exonerate the "fellow travelers"
Trumbo eventually saw it but it took a while.

vld66 said...


Worth seeing for Cranston's performance and the period detail (if you're into period detail), but parts of the movie seemed true only in a Hollywood biopic kind of way. Trumbo's swimming pool in Highland Park is vandalized after he gets out of prison but didn't he in fact move to Mexico City after his release? Also, did he really run a 'stable' of blacklisted writers for the King Bros. a la 'The Front' or was that just borrowed from the earlier movie? The movie has him churning out scripts for the Kings 24/7 but apparently he wrote only three for them. Near as I can find, Edward G. Robinson never 'named names,' let alone Trumbo's, but the movie would have it otherwise. Louis C.K. plays a 'composite' character that never actually existed and the conflicts with teen daughter Niki seemed to belong in another movie. Trivia note: Steve Martin dated Trumbo's younger daughter Mitzi in the '60s, but she threw him over for John Frankenheimer.

cadavra said...

In a Q&A after the screening I attended, Jay Roach said that the only thing of significance that happened during the family's stay in Mexico was that Trumbo came up with the idea of "The Brave One" at a bullfight. Given the limited budget, they decided that it simply wasn't worth the expense, so they reduced it to a line of dialogue: "When we were living in Mexico..." I doubt anyone missed that scene.

donald said...

Had? That love and fascination is racking today as we speak.

donald said...

Whoops. Rocking.

Peter Locke said...

I saw the movie Saturday and I thought it was wonderful. Great acting and story. Sure, Trumbo was no saint, but the HUAC was a horrible chapter in our history.

John Goodman makes every movie he's in better.