Revered screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) is the most famous of the Hollywood Ten — the Tinseltown scapegoats blacklisted in 1947 after refusing to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities — probably because his own life sounds like a movie he scripted. For 13 years, the verboten Trumbo worked for pennies, selling scripts through friends who “fronted.” His uncredited titles included Roman Holiday and The Brave One, the latter resulting in an Oscar his nom de plume Robert Rich — actually, the name of a producer’s nephew — couldn’t accept. Then, in 1960, the respective producers of Exodus and Spartacus dared to credit him, ending a long professional exile and culminating in the belated delivery of that Oscar.
The documentary Trumbo, based on a play by the screenwriter’s son, dramatizes this riches-to-rags-to-riches story using staged readings of his letters, performed by well-known actors. Paul Giamatti and Nathan Lane do justice to Trumbo’s wit, but the rest of the cast — including Joan Allen, Josh Lucas and Michael Douglas — do their actorly thing, implicitly congratulating themselves and their industry, and thus missing the point entirely.
Indeed, Trumbo raises the question of what gets lost in elevating a single victim from a wider tragedy. As Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s definitive Red Hollywood (1995) showed, there were other heroes in this period, but their stories didn’t necessarily have such a happy ending. Where, for example, is our documentary about actor John Garfield, who was electric in the Trumbo-penned (through front Guy Endore) They Ran All the Way? Garfield died of a heart attack in 1952 at age 39, just a few years after HUAC had ruined his career, permanently.
Opens June 27