'Trumbo' tells a great story and demands to be seen

trumbo-mirren-cranston.jpgHelen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in "Trumbo."

At a screening of "Trumbo" at the Sherman Oaks Galleria last week, screenwriter John McNamara told an Omygod! story about how the movie came into being.

It seems that a producer was visiting him and noticed Bruce Cook's biography of Dalton Trumbo on his bookshelves.

"I knew him," the producer said.

"You knew Dalton Trumbo?" McNamara asked

"No, I knew Bruce Cook. Who's Dalton Trumbo?"

McNamara repaired this astonishing breach of institutional memory so effectively that a mere seven years later a movie based on Trumbo's encounter with, and eventual victory over, the Hollywood blacklist opens in theaters Friday.

The movie is a triumph on a number of levels, but two stand out. Bryan Cranston, who plays the title role, trades in his "Breaking Bad" crystal-meth lab for one that produces pure Oscar-worthy gold, and Hedda Hopper is consigned to the lower regions of hell she so richly deserves to inhabit.

McNamara had to go off-script as it were to work Hopper into the movie. She does not appear in Cook's biography of Trumbo, which is credited as the source for the movie, nor is she mentioned more than briefly in several of the standard texts on the blacklist. But her role as chief cheerleader for the grand inquisitors who ran the blacklist can not be overstated.

For a while I found myself wondering if Helen Mirren, who plays Hopper with all the venom at her considerable command, took the role mainly so she could wear the wonderful hats the costume department has provided her with. Later, I winced in disbelief when she announced Hopper had 35,000,000 readers.

Hopper's power to inspire fear and end careers was unquestioned, a fact that McNamara may actually have underestimated when he shows her losing a battle to John Wayne, a fellow officer in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which served as the blacklist's in-house enforcer. The movie shows a confrontation between Wayne and Hopper, who insists that Edward G. Robinson should not be allowed to resume his career after he has recanted his left-wing views before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Wayne overrules her and Robinson goes back to work.

But exactly the opposite thing happened when Larry Parks testified before the committee a few months later. Parks, who had been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Jolson Story," was on the verge of a long leading-man career, and after his testimony, Wayne said, "I'm sure they'll give him a second chance. The American public is pretty quick to forgive a person who is willing to admit his mistake."

Hopper responded by chastising Wayne publicly, first at a meeting of the Motion Picture Alliance and later in her column in which she said she was shocked Wayne would dare say such a thing. Wayne apologized and Parks' career was ruined, along with, to a slightly lesser extent, that of his wife, the actress and musical-comedy star Betty Garrett.

One question I have is why Trumbo's fellow writers, and fellow jailbirds, on the Hollywood Ten are barely mentioned in the movie. Instead, Louis C.K. impersonates a fictional screenwriter with whom Trumbo trades quips and debates strategy. And while it is true that Louis B. Mayer resisted the blacklist at first, I wonder if even Hopper would have addressed him with that most hateful of anti-Semitic epithets to force him to go along with it. Maybe she did.

But why nitpick? "Trumbo" tells a great story with great verve. It also contains one of the funniest lines in the movies this year. It comes when Kirk Douglas responds to an ultimatum given by a studio head on the set of "Spartacus." I won't spoil it for you. This is a movie that demands to be seen, whether you know who Dalton Trumbo is or not.

Ron Rapoport is the author, with Betty Garrett, of Betty Garrett and Other Songs: A Life on Stage and Screen.

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