Director: Jay Roach
Major Players: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, John Goodman
Out Of Five: Four
Hedda Hopper. Edward G Robinson. Otto Preminger. Mean anything? Chances are you have to be, as the French would say, a certain age for the answer to be yes. Which could mean that Jay Roach’s Trumbo might not reach the size of audience it actually deserves.
Hollywood loves turning the spotlight on itself, except when it comes to one period in its history and that’s the late forties and early fifties, the days of The Blacklist and The Hollywood Ten. Until now, the best known film about the period is The Front. Made in 1976, it starred Woody Allen, alongside a cast and crew partially made up of people who’d survived The Blacklist. It was, however, a fictionalised account. Trumbo, on the other hand, traces the story of one of The Hollywood Ten, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
An unashamed member of the Communist Party of America, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo sees his successful career come to an abrupt halt in the 50s when he is blacklisted by the government and all the major film studios. He wins two Oscars that he can’t claim, loses friends and his beautiful country house, yet finds a way, alongside other members of The Hollywood Ten, to earn a living. But he never gives up on his principles, despite the cost.
For those too young to have heard of them, Hedda Hopper was a highly influential Hollywood gossip columnist, who was openly anti-Communist, openly supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee and The Blacklist. Edward G Robinson was a successful actor with left wing sympathies who found himself blacklisted and redeemed himself sufficiently in front of the Committee so that the roles started to come in again. And Otto Preminger was the film director who commissioned Trumbo to work on the screenplay for Exodus (1960): this, together with Spartacus (also 1960) marked the start of the resumption of his career.
They’re not the only famous names who appear in the film, making this one a must-see for fans of Hollywood history. There’s Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman, a remarkable lookalike) and John Wayne (David James Elliott, a remarkable soundalike). The casting of Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, complete with tight waisted suits and extravagant hats, is inspired and she clearly relishes every waspish line that comes out of her mouth. And John Goodman channels his Hollywood mogul from Argo in the riotously funny form of B movie director, Frank King.
But on top of it all is Bryan Cranston in a performance that cements his successful transition from the small to the big screen. Trumbo is, undoubtedly, a pain in the neck, stubborn to a fault, but he has heart, loyalty and is committed to what he is doing, regardless of the cost. He’s also a genius with words, spoken and written, which is both his downfall and his saviour. The LFF’s first two gala screenings this year have both been about people who swam against the tide and, despite the price, held onto their beliefs and followed them. Trumbo might not have lost as much personally as the suffragettes or, indeed as some of the other members of The Hollywood Ten, but he certainly sacrificed a lot.
As a film, Trumbo trots along at a brisk pace. It’s polished, slick, intelligent and makes great use of humour to make its point, a nod in the direction of Jay Roach’s comedy heritage (Austin Powers, Meet The Fockers). But this is Cranston’s film, pure and simple, and it’s one that could put him on more red carpets – in the awards season.
Trumbo was screened at the London Film Festival on 8 and 9 October and is released around the UK on 5 February 2016. It’s also reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 15 October.