Trumbo was one of the stalwarts of the Hollywood communist left in the 1940s, a longtime member of the Screenwriters Guild (SWG), and a spokesman in 1946 and 1947 during the labor struggle between the militant Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), whose leaders had long been cozy with the studios. Herbert Sorrell led the CSU out on strike in the spring of 1946, and after six months, the strike exploded into a street fight between CSU members, replacement workers, and hired strikebreakers. Although the CSU eventually “won” the strike, in September of 1946 the studio heads colluded with IATSE to reassign CSU’s skilled craftsmen into journeymen jobs. Dogged by charges of involvement with known Communists like Trumbo, Sorrell led his members out for one last time in 1946, but after striking for 13 months, he accepted the defeat of his financially impoverished union and told them to return to work. Emboldened by this crushing victory for the studios and the passage of the pro-business Taft-Hartley Act, the anticommunist crusaders in Hollywood intensified their attacks on leftists.
I have added an asterisk, then, because the union struggle is in the background of Trumbo, but it is only referred to elliptically. Unions do not matter much in this post-union film for post-union times. It begins with a montage of posters of films that Trumbo (played to perfection by Bryan Cranston) had scripted and awards he had won superimposed on a close-up of him at his typewriter, accompanied by the percussive fury of his two-fingered attack. The montage credits him as a screenwriter; the shot of him clacking at the keys of his machine noisily insists that he is a worker. The scene economically establishes the tension between the celebrated writer who has reaped the rewards of a well-paid occupation and the pieceworking laborer (or prisoner or slave), who is intent on meeting a deadline set for him by those who will soon attempt to destroy his livelihood and deprive him of his ability to support his family. The opening montage dissolves from Trumbo’s typescript to a soundstage where it is being filmed at Metro — a noir directed by the conservative Sam Wood (John Getz) and starring Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). The scene on the soundstage ends with Wood’s denunciation of Trumbo as a “swimming pool Soviet,” to which Trumbo equably replies, “The strike is over, Sam. You won.” The enraged Wood retorts, “It’s never over with you people.” And it’s definitely not over for Wood, whose side may have won the union battle but who remains armed and ready for war.
The violent jurisdictional struggles between the IATSE and the CSU, then, are evoked as a dim backstory in a fast-paced narrative that leaves unionization as a subject behind to feature the irreconcilable antagonism between two very different kinds of organizations. On the right is the ferociously anticommunist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), which had been formed in 1944. Led by Sam Wood, the MPA has been strengthened by the visible and vocal support of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the IATSE leader Roy Brewer, and industry executives such as Walt Disney and Jack Warner. On the left is a group of 19 employees of various studios, who, with a few exceptions, are current or former communist members of the Screen Writers Guild. Fingered by FBI plants and MPA informants, their futures are imperiled and their fates are bonded in 1947 by the subpoenas they each receive from the desk of J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont), ambitious Republican chair of the resurrected House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), summoning them to testify regarding suspected affiliations with the Communist Party. The hearings end with contempt of Congress convictions and jail sentences for the so-called Hollywood Ten: Trumbo and nine other blacklisted screenwriters.
We are first introduced to Congressman Thomas and to the names of his Hollywood targets, as all Americans were, in a newsreel reeking with praise for the committee’s patriotic mission of sterilizing the studios. With commentary provided by the gossip columnist and notorious red-baiter Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), the newsreel is screened before a feature at a Los Angeles theater with the Trumbo family in attendance. There is no need to wait for a Gallup poll to test the impact of Hopper’s campaign. While leaving the theater with his family, Trumbo is assaulted by a Coke-wielding patriot who has been primed to recognize the commie in “our” midst.
During a subsequent strategy session of the subpoenaed witnesses at Edward G. Robinson’s home, Trumbo, who has the floor (he’s a man who always has the floor and rarely yields it), advises his fellow unfriendlies, “Let’s not demonize people we don’t really know.” It’s good advice that Trumbo himself forgets at the HUAC hearing, when, having been dismissed after his testimony of refusals, he shouts out that “this is the beginning of an American concentration camp — for writers.” That sounds merely provocative until we get to know the zealous Thomas a little better at a news conference where he promises “to introduce legislation so in the event of a national emergency, all Communists will be sent to internment camps.” This would seem to justify demonization, except that Thomas’s announcement is quickly followed by a whispered warning that the government has discovered that the beneficiaries of his nepotism have paid no taxes on their salaries. Very soon the once fearsome, gaveling demon will complete his transformation into a pathetic jailbird.
It’s probably fair to say that “don’t demonize” is not advice that any successful Hollywood screenwriter can afford to take fully seriously. That applies to John McNamara, the screenwriter of Trumbo, who, in the last stages of his composition, apparently felt the need for a serviceable villain other than John Wayne. Wayne was villainous, of course. A veteran of multiple World War films, he served as an obstreperous and super-patriotic president of the MPA. When leafleting an MPA meeting, Trumbo confronts Wayne and exposes him as a draft-deferring, celluloid warrior. But Wayne’s immunity from opprobrium is dramatized during a film screening at a Kentucky prison, where Trumbo was incarcerated for contempt of Congress. During an evening of entertainment, the hero of the 1949 Sands of Iwo Jima (but not the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima) is cheered by all the inmates except Trumbo. John Wayne is John Wayne. But Hedda Hopper is not. The filmmakers of Trumbo apparently felt that they knew Hopper well enough to demonize her. A former second-tier actress who became Hollywood’s most powerful and reactionary gossip columnist, Hopper becomes the true villain of the movie, portrayed as an unscrupulous woman, who was, perhaps, the most brutally effective and merciless of those in the industry who collaborated with HUAC. McNamara’s choice of villain has considerable dramatic payoff. Unfortunately, though, in this man’s picture, where only two adult women have speaking parts, as if in a 1950s melodrama, Hopper, the career woman and public scourge, is aligned with evil, whereas Cleo (Diane Lane), the lovely and serenely domestic wife of Trumbo, is aglow with the feminine mystique.
As the confrontation with the Hollywood Ten witnesses approaches, Congressman Thomas appears on screen uttering the two sentences that Irving Thalberg most feared to hear, “Movies are the most powerful form of influence ever created. And they are infested with hidden traitors.” Acting on those insights, Thomas expertly propelled himself and his committee into the movies. As Otto Friedrich has observed, “To say that Thomas was a publicity seeker, which he was, misses the point that publicity is the blood of politics.” Trumbo takes that point and then displays how Hopper (whose presence is insignificant in the two most prominent biographies of Trumbo) deploys publicity or its threat as a murderous weapon in her column, on screen, and in person.
In Trumbo, the newsreeled Thomas plays John the Baptist to the true savior of America’s purity, the televised Joseph McCarthy. Hopper’s sense of possibility is just as keen, for she accurately perceives that the studios’ dithering about the status of their leftist employees leaves them vulnerable to attack from the right. In her column, she promotes the heroic Congressman who bravely forced the Reds to the witness table; she shares the dais with Wayne and Brewer as a spokesman for the preservation of American ideals, even if it means destroying American lives. Perhaps most impressively, she stands toe to toe with L.B. Mayer, staggering him with threats to publicize the original Eastern European names of the Jewish studio heads, if he does not join the others in proclaiming a blacklist of known or suspected Communists.
No one in Hollywood in 1947 needed a newsreel to be convinced that Dalton Trumbo was a Communist. He never denied it. But what made him a Communist? Carrying the party card? Agitating on behalf of the workingman and the unemployed blacks who could not find decent jobs? Standing up as a spokesman for a union disfavored by the studios and IATSE? Sympathizing with the Soviet Union despite Stalin’s crimes and betrayals? Preaching Marxist Leninist doctrine? All of the above, except the Marxist part. There was plenty that was doctrinaire about Trumbo, but the doctrine was largely his own, developed in his working-class youth in Colorado and later at UCLA, where he began his trajectory toward Hollywood.
The movie makes Communism a simple matter — as, indeed, Trumbo was wont to do. On a walk with her father soon after the confrontation at the movie theater, the young Niki asks him if he is a Communist. He admits that he is. She asks if she, too, is a Communist:
TRUMBO: Let’s give you the official test. Mom packs your favorite lunch …
TRUMBO: … and you see someone at school with no lunch — what do you do?
TRUMBO: You don’t tell them to get a job?
TRUMBO: Offer a loan at six percent?
TRUMBO: Then just ignore them.
TRUMBO: Well, well. You little Commie.
That ethical commitment to sharing what one has with those who have little or nothing may not involve the overthrow of the government, but it has serious political and economic implications, as Huey Long — who almost rode the slogan “Share our wealth” to the White House — had already shown. Like Trumbo, Long had no interest in Marx. He was a populist who made his name in Louisiana at the beginning of his career fighting Standard Oil, as Trumbo would restore his by fighting the studios.
During the opening noir scripted by Trumbo (and apparently concocted by McNamara), Robinson stands over a cringing gangland opponent in a dark alley and delivers the crucial line: “We all want the same thing, to not die young, poor, or alone.” For Trumbo, sharing is the only credible bulwark against that dreaded end, as he indicates to Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), a struggling writer, who is reluctant to embrace the First Amendment defense that Trumbo and their lawyer have convinced the Hollywood Ten to employ. Trumbo renews his pitch behind the spacious house near the large, lovely pond that sets off his ranch. Hird protests that he can’t afford to lose his livelihood. Trumbo replies, “I’ll cover you.” After hearing Trumbo’s offer, Hird, a struggling “Soviet” screenwriter without a swimming pool, suspiciously replies, “You talk like a radical, but you live like a rich man.” Trumbo counters that, yes, like a rich man, he is not “willing to lose it all, but [he is] willing to risk it all.” And he concludes with a characteristically chiseled aphorism, pronouncing that he aspires to act with “the purity of Jesus [… and] the cunning of Satan.”
Hird surrenders, and Trumbo keeps his word. He does cover Hird and others by lending them money to get them through the bad times ahead. Indeed, “covering” becomes the predominant activity in which he engages after the blacklist deprives him and his colleagues of their contracted employment. He transforms his radicalism from a commitment to a statist Communism to the ingeniously entrepreneurial formation of a “black market.” He begins by seeking cover from sympathetic friends who will front with their names the scripts he writes for the studios and who will share in the proceeds — as does Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), who fronts the script for Roman Holiday and, with some embarrassment, wins the Oscar for screenwriting in Trumbo’s name. When those same friends suffer blacklisting, Trumbo adopts aliases of his own and turns his home into something of a factory where, fueled by Benzedrine and Scotch, he hammers out script after script, ruthlessly overseeing the labor of his wife and children as bookkeepers, telephone answerers, and messengers.
Trumbo also develops a relationship with the independent production company owned and operated by the King brothers, who are unapologetic purveyors of exploitation films — or “shit,” as Frank King (played with gusto by the Rabelaisian John Goodman) describes their product. He respects Trumbo as a “great writer,” but he hires him for low wages and high output. Soon Trumbo has attained a position writing and rewriting “shit” scripts that enables him to share assignments with his friends, begin to pay back his debts, and make more loans. He has organized, with diabolical canniness, a community of those who did not name names and who share in what wealth there is by covering for each other in an eccentrically populist enterprise held together by the purity of their collective loyalty.
Trumbo does not pretend that this is the best of all possible worlds. Robinson, a non-communist friend and benefactor of the Hollywood Ten, is blacklisted for that association. As an actor, whose career, he says, “is his face,” he could not be covered and could not work. To revive his career, he submits to the HUAC committee’s humiliating ritual of betrayal, admitting what its members want him to admit and naming the names that they already know. Nor can Trumbo’s cover save Hird, who loses his family to his political integrity and his life to cancer, dying young, poor, and alone. Trumbo, too, almost loses his family to his totalitarian mania and to his resentment at his own relentless labor. When, during the HUAC hearing, Congressman Thomas insists on his “Are you now or have you ever been” question, Trumbo indignantly explains his refusal to answer with the comeback that “many questions can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ only by a moron or a slave.”
The fear of becoming a slave surfaces again in an angry response to his daughter’s intrusion on his bathroom office. McNamara has Trumbo, who is writing in the tub and bathing in self-pity, like a Marat courting the knife, angrily whine that he has become “the family slave.” No one in the family dares quarrel with that self-characterization despite their obligation to submit to Trumbo’s transformation of their home into a factory. They also slave, waiting to be posted at any hour across Los Angeles to deliver one script after another to a front or a complicit filmmaker. Tellingly, the system reaches its crisis when Niki refuses her father’s appointed errand because she insists on attending a Civil Rights protest. She leaves, and her compliant brother cancels his date to run the errand in her stead. But the issue is not settled until Trumbo has faced the fury of his customarily acquiescent wife, who accuses him of having become a bully, whose rages are destroying the family. Her speech works, and Trumbo is shocked into an unaccustomed acquiescence.
That scene is less important for its infusion of a taste of neo-Sirkian melodrama into the late 1950s masculine world of financial desperation and round-the-clock labor than it is for the reference to Niki’s destination when she quits the house. She has clearly given priority to the politics of black people over her father’s economics of the black market. To his credit, the chastened Trumbo travels to her meeting and accompanies her home. He tells her how afraid he is.
TRUMBO: Afraid, that is, of scarring you, all of you … and what if it’s all for nothing? How do I live with that? So I fight. It’s all I know how to do anymore, just … rage … at anyone in my way … But you’ve never been in my way, Nikola, not once … and never could.
NIKI: It’s crazy how mad you make me, since all I ever wanted is to be just like you.
TRUMBO: You are. Which I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
There is no discussion of the Civil Rights protest. Trumbo has no time for another cause. The film’s references to this generational and racial divide are respectful of a biography in which, after HUAC, Trumbo’s political activism had to be subordinated to economic survival. Yet once the perspective of Civil Rights activism is introduced, it becomes necessary to adjust one’s perspective on “slavery” — not only on Trumbo’s loaded usage of the term at the HUAC hearings and at home, but on the usage of slavery as a subject for the epic drama that will serve as the climax of Trumbo’s career: Spartacus.
For the Civil Rights activists, slavery is part of an indelible heritage of repression, formally ended by the 14th Amendment but maintained by the segregation of schools, lunch counters, unions, buses, and the theaters where Hollywood motion pictures were shown. For Trumbo, slavery is a metaphor for intolerable governmental and industrial restrictions on a man’s freedom to work and to obtain the credit and money that such work deserves. “Slave” is Hollywood hyperbole, particularly applicable and therefore congenial to screenwriters. Think only of Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of the earliest films about a screenwriter, whose Joe Gillis is held captive to a former star, her former director, and his own self-loathing. The Screen Writers Guild was born out of Hollywood screenwriters’ drive to acquire and regulate screen credit for their labor. But as important as credit is in Hollywood, its stature dwindles in comparison to the dominion of ownership.
Trumbo’s confrontation with his wife and daughter cues the timely appearance of Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) with an offer for Trumbo to rewrite Howard Fast’s jumbled screenplay for his novel Spartacus, the story of the legendary revolt of slaves against their Roman owners. Douglas will star in and produce the film, which is scheduled for imminent production by his own company, Bryna Productions. Soon afterward, Trumbo is visited by the charming autocrat Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), who has somehow heard about the deal with Douglas. Preminger practically imposes a contract for a speedy composition of a script for Exodus, the story of Holocaust survivors on a ship headed for Palestine, to be produced and directed by Preminger himself. Trumbo accepts Preminger’s offer — conditional on his meeting his deadline for Spartacus. More money, more anonymous labor, with Preminger pressing, watching, often reading the pages as soon as they are removed from Trumbo’s typewriter, and with Douglas waiting impatiently for his due. Although the movie does not suggest this, Trumbo doubtlessly appreciated the all but uncanny coincidence of receiving two scripts about the exoduses of victims, both led by liberal Jewish stars, at practically the same time.
It is hard to imagine that when Trumbo was writing the script of Spartacus and began plotting the end of the blacklist, he did not identify with the man who freed slaves from an oppressive regime. He no doubt took considerable pleasure in composing the Spartacus scene in which the gladiators stop using their weapons against each other and turn them against the representatives of the Roman state. There is an implicit exaltation of the Hollywood Ten when the film’s hero, nearing death, transforms refusal into something like a revolutionary act. He instructs his comrade Antoninus (Tony Curtis): “When just one man says, ‘No, I won’t,’ Rome begins to fear.” That’s the kind of hyperbole that got under Hird’s skin. Not long before his death, Hird had cautioned Trumbo, “Don’t pretend that you getting your career back is part of some great crusade.” It was good advice that Douglas’s commission enabled Trumbo to ignore. Writing the epic Spartacus, Trumbo could pretend on a grand scale and imagine succeeding in reclaiming his career, as if, indeed, obtaining screen credit for his work meant completing a great crusade. Uncharacteristically restrained, however, Trumbo continues to apply himself diligently to the formidable challenge of completing two massive screenplays for two demanding directors by firm deadlines. It is advice from his daughter that leads to Trumbo’s final scheme to gain credit for his work. Niki joins her father as he sits smoking on the porch:
NIKI: Trumbo? Mind if I stick my nose in?
(She calls his attention to their hostile, snooping neighbor, pruning his bushes.)
NIKI: He knows. He sees Kirk Douglas in and out of here and Otto Preminger in his Rolls. He’s an idiot, but he’s not stupid. Has he called the FBI? Congress? No. Because everything they can do, they’ve done. That Oscar belongs to you. Get it.
TRUMBO: Good God, you’re nothing like me. (Delighted.) You’re worse.
“Worse” because her experience with Civil Rights activists gives her advice a new authority and urgency. Niki helps Trumbo realize that he has little to fear except losing a credit he doesn’t have, and perhaps a job for which he has already been well paid. Niki has leagued herself with people, black people, who have nothing to lose because everything has already been taken from them: their freedom, their families, their chance to earn a decent living, and their self-respect. They can see no way to redeem the promise of the 14th Amendment except to risk the little they have, their lives. They must march, sit-in, and submit to being sprayed with fire hoses and beaten by billy clubs because they have no access to people in power whom they can manage or whom they can even vote out of office, for they have systematically been denied their constitutional right to vote. No one in 1959 would have learned this at the movies. Like just about everyone else, the Trumbos watch the Civil Rights movement unfold on the television in their living room, in documentary footage that is uncredited to any writer or cameraman. Neither Trumbo nor Trumbo draws explicit comparison between the Hollywood blacklist and the black rights movement. But the movie has the touch to enable its viewers to observe the infiltration of race into the picture, to notice, for example, that the first man in Spartacus who says “no” is a black gladiator — the only black gladiator, indeed, the only black man in the film — who sacrifices his life as the good, Hollywood Negro always must, to save his white friend.
No one, including Niki, would expect Trumbo to make those connections. They would expect him to behave as he does, cannily manipulating Preminger and Douglas into a competition that convinces Douglas to concede Trumbo screen credit and seduces him to believe that his crusade has ended the blacklist. Trumbo does not affirm or deny that accomplishment. It does, however, show that identifying with Spartacus is a tricky deal. Trumbo’s ability to inspire that identification is memorably replayed in the scene where the Roman General Crassus (Laurence Olivier) promises to spare all the defeated slaves if only they turn over Spartacus to him. Just as the commander of the slaves is going to speak up, he is silenced by the shouts from man after man: “I am Spartacus,” a collective choice of death over the betrayal of their leader.
Any or all of us, including the screenwriter, are invited to take up the declaration and to squeeze from the chorus of identifications whatever satisfaction we can. Yet, as J. Hoberman has acutely observed, those slaves who are named in the movie are performers. Spartacus is a gladiator, as are his lieutenants. His sidekick, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), is a ballad singer. They are performers, as are the men who portrayed them on screen. The threat to a Rome governed by ancient, corrupt, and mostly feckless senators, who rule by legacy or by purchase, is a rebellion led by men who perform for a living. So, as the 1950s fade, is the threat to the geriatric rulers of the Hollywood studios: new men are attaining power, having acquired celebrity and wealth by performing before cameras long owned by others.
Regardless of what Trumbo thought, this is the allegory that matters in the film because it serves as the opening of a new front, strengthened by a liberation ideology in an increasingly powerful rebellion against the studios’ monopoly on film production. Spartacus may be a fiction crafted by writers about actors who shake the foundations of Rome, but, more importantly, it is a major performance by one star who was usurping the power of the moguls. Trumbo’s employer, Kirk Douglas, has capitalized Bryna, his production company named for his mother, by starring on the screen, not by typing on a Remington. It is a fact that Douglas plays Spartacus. It is a more important fact that he owns Spartacus.
It is juicily ironic that, in the end, Hopper, the demon who thought of herself as an agent of conservatism, is disclosed to be the unwitting instrument of the rebellion. For in undermining L.B. Mayer’s authority, Hopper has been a catalyst for the fragmentation of the studio system, which enables runaway productions such as Spartacus to flee Hollywood to Europe or Africa or even West Texas and elude studio control — to succeed where the slaves of Rome failed. Hopper gets the studios’ weaknesses right, but she misjudges who would be the beneficiaries of their fall. Newsreels had long been shadowy supplements to motion pictures, but times and technology change. By 1960 it is television that brings the Civil Rights struggle into America’s living rooms, and it is television that brings the news to Hopper that her expiration date has arrived, as, alone in her apartment, she watches President Kennedy leaving a showing of Spartacus and stopping just long enough to say that he liked the movie. In a single sentence of praise by a charismatic leader, broadcast nationally, she instantly recognizes the destruction of her ideological apparatus, as if it were one of her floral hats wilting in the sun.
Trumbo may or may not have ended the blacklist — most of the Ten never worked in Hollywood again. Trumbo may or may not be the first Hollywood movie about the Hollywood unions, but it is certainly the first biopic of a screenwriter. Trumbo earned his biopic because, in Spartacus, he wrote the allegory of his own imagined emancipation of his brethren as an epic. Some victories are imagined, and they win Oscars. Some victories are real, however, and they win power. In the end, this movie makes the convincing case that it is only Kirk Douglas, star on the screen, boss of the screenwriter, bane of the moguls, and chief of his runaway production, who, when the lights go on, can truly say with the purity of ownership and the cunning of history, “For better or worse, I am Spartacus.”
But who claims ownership of Trumbo? Who can say, “I am Trumbo?” We know with some certainty who made the film. IMDB credits it as a coproduction of the recently formed, Los Angeles–based Groundswell Productions and the even more recently formed, New York–based ShivHans Productions. Both companies have only an attenuated genealogical connection to a major studio through Andrew Karpen, CEO of the New York–based Bleecker Street Media, which, all sources agree, is the distributor of Trumbo. Karpen founded Bleecker Street after he left his position as Co-CEO at Focus Features, a subsidiary of Universal Pictures. Karpen left the company when Universal decided to close Focus Features’s New York office. That’s probably too much information. Even so, it’s not enough, because nothing on IMDB indicates who holds the copyright on Trumbo. Groundswell didn’t know, but a contact at ShivHans said that the copyright was held by Trumbo Film, LLC. Businesslookup.com lists Trumbo Film, LLC as an inactive company with no agents or executives — no human names attached. The company was a corporation chartered in Delaware and registered as an entity in New York State. Its entity type: FOREIGN LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY. No one formerly at Trumbo Film, LLC is naming names. I cite this foreign company not because its anonymity is suspicious, but because it is peculiar — a rare example not of a runaway production but of a runaway and hidden corporate author, who, for better or worse, refuses to speak the words, “I am Trumbo.”
Jerome Christensen is a Professor of English at the University of California Irvine. His books include Romanticism at the End of History and America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures.