James Dalton Got His Oscar
What could have been a human- and Hollywood-interest film turns out to be a not very successful experiment. With intended lessons for the present, Peter Askin’s Trumbo “follows a more traditional path: inspired acting performances of letters, film clips, interviews and archival material,” than the adapted Christopher Trumbo off-Broadway play from which it originates.
The expanded archival footage is effective in imaging a dark period in the U.S. in general and the filmmaking community in particular. In newsreel black-and-white, familiar faces flash on both sides as the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed and investigated “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.” It was 1947, the Red Scare, and this first round, four years before a second and its frantic naming of names, eventually cited ten for contempt of Congress in refusing to bare past or present affiliations. Convicted the next year in a Federal court, the Hollywood Ten were each given a maximum of one year and a thousand-dollar fine. Aided by the American Legion, vigilante group Aware compiled a physical list, but many industry talents were simply denied employment. Unofficially blacklisted through collusion, they worked, if at all, outside the country or under various guises like the borrowed screenwriter fronts of Ian McLellan Hunter and Robert Rich, whose 1953 and 1956 Oscars for, respectively, Roman Holiday and The Brave One were in fact earned by Dalton Trumbo.
More films than one might realize have derived from the purge, from informers Schulberg and Kazan’s On the Waterfront, where Terry Malloy is not Judas but a Christ figure, to Woody Allen’s “Blacklist Made Palatably Commercial” The Front, made by many whose pariah years are indicated in the final credits. Among clips in the current film are moments from Trumbo-scripted Spartacus -- the stirring if sentimental slaves’ refusal to identify their leader -- and soupy Papillon, in which the writer is cast as the Commandant and Steve McQueen refuses to rat.
Such historical and feature footage supplies background on the times and Trumbo’s talents. And, while the usual anecdote and fond reminiscence, the current interviews do include son and author Christopher and daughter Mitzi, the former with frank personal and researched knowledge of his father’s life and the latter professionally interviewed for the first time. The appearance of Kirk Douglas is moving as, speech and movements still impaired, he recounts his insistence that the screenwriter’s real name be credited on Spartacus the same year that Otto Preminger did likewise with Exodus (both 1960 releases unsuccessfully picketed by the American Legion).
Trumbo’s Colorado childhood and young manhood in Southern California are sketched, along with his early unpublished fiction, his long loving married life with Cleo, their beloved ranch, the acclaimed film scripts and World War II service. Old interviews with Trumbo himself reinforce what comes out in the others’ words about the recognizably mustached man: loyalty to family, friends and self; cantankerous humor and stubbornness; idealism and financial impracticality; and an individualism that yet flirted with group-oriented Socialism and Communism.
Were this the total package, the hour-and-a-half would be just another in a line of pedestrian documentary lives. But what sets it apart, and drags it down, is “the dramatic spine of the film,” readings from Additional Dialogue, a 1970 collection of his 1942-62 letters.
In close-up against severe black, seated at a plain table with only a glass of water, reading glasses and some sheets of paper, nine stars emote separately from the correspondence, much of it written from the Ashland, Kentucky, Federal penitentiary.
Last year Nanking fiddled, too, with actors’ bare-stage headshot readings from letters and diaries. But whereas that documentary balanced its static non-cinematic deadpan with smuggled-out, shocking visuals of war agony in China’s then-capital, Trumbo calls attention to its stage paternity in excess readings that drip overwrought sincerity but lack the electricity of live performance. Not that, for example, Michael Douglas is bad, but his stint and others’ pale alongside father Kirk’s fumbling for, and spontaneously finding, the right felt words. For gender PC, Joan Allen looks screen-down and reads the condolence letter to a wartime friend’s mother.
Action self-consciously halts while mostly blue-shirted names recite to illustrate the very real complaints and woes, or his contempt for rather than of the legislative and judicial, his heart, humor and human grudges. Donald Sutherland comes off best; with white mane and twinkling eyes, he is the one to have played, as opposed to mouthing, the irascible subject who agreed with Thoreau -- the letters have been compared to the naturalist-author’s Journals -- that in an unjust society jail is “the proper place to-day” for the just man, and that young soldiers die for old politicians.
Actually, the one who should have been allowed to play the lead is Dalton Trumbo himself. His wit and integrity are seen to advantage nowhere so well as in his own archival appearances. On a not-included TV show, he spoke delightedly of discovering one of his persecutors working in the prison library at the beginning of a sentence for malfeasance as he, Trumbo, was winding up his ten months; no need to spell out that in the end the world works itself out in mysterious ways.
(Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and rated "PG-13" for a sex-related commentary.)