Hollywood loves to make movies about Hollywood. From Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to Robert Altman’s The Player, the people who put the stories on film can’t resist the chance to tell tales about tinsel town. So it’s no surprise that the journey of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would become the latest story about someone behind the screen.
On its surface, Trumbo looks grand. With glamorous costumes, lavish sets and exaggerated characters, the film recreates a time gone by when many considered movies the most powerful communication tool in the country. This pleases the people who make the movies but not the politicians who fear Communist infiltration. And that’s because, back in 1947, leaders in Washington start to pressure movie moguls to blacklist anyone who might be a Communist.
As the film and the hunt begin, Dalton Trumbo rides the crest of movie success. With a happy family, big house and strong reputation, he is the “go to” writer for any studio that wants to make a hit movie. But he’s also an outspoken champion of workers’ rights, a position that doesn’t set well with the big shots. Using archival footage, including some clips of future President Ronald Reagan, the movie paints Trumbo as a candid, intelligent voice who openly discusses politics and his membership in the Communist Party. But, as the movie quickly reveals, not everyone ready for that story.
Like many biopics, Trumbo tries to cover too much time in too little time. But In the hands of Brian Cranston — much as he accomplished as LBJ on Broadway in the play All the Way — Trumbo emerges as a complex, compelling man of conviction. The actor creates a three-dimensional character from what could have emerged as caricature given how the screenplay races through significant events. Cranston doesn’t let the words on the page limit his impact.
While the narrative can make light of substantive situations, Cranston slows the pace to reveal a man devoted to his work and grounded by his beliefs. The actor makes us believe how someone may have to choose to survive no matter his conviction for what is right and wrong.
Because the camera stays on Cranston for most of the film, other actors have little opportunity to make impressions. Diane Lane sincerely suffers as his devoted spouse while Michael Stuhlbarg inconsistently imitates Edward G. Robinson. Funny man Louis C.K. does a nice turn as Trumbo’s friend Arlen Hird while Helen Mirren chews scenery as columnist Hedda Hopper. But they all dress windows. Cranston is center stage in a bravura performance that reaches beyond clichés to make us believe in Trumbo’s cause. If John McNamara’s screenplay shortchanges other characters to cover a lot of history in two hours, his words inspire Cranston to deliver a memorable portrayal.
Despite the highs and lows of the script, the movie shares important insights about the lasting impact of the Hollywood blacklist. Trumbo suggests that we look at the long-term effect of any short-term propaganda that plays on what people fear. As we learn from this trip to the movies, there may be more important things to discuss than what people find popular to fret about.
- Content: Medium. Movie buffs will enjoy this recreation of the Hollywood blacklist era. But it’s a lot of story to cover in a couple of hours.
- Entertainment: High. Thanks to Bryan Cranston’s dynamic performance as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the film works better than it should.
- Message: High. The message of free speech is important at any time, especially when politicians try to make sense of uncertainty.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to examine a meaningful moment in history can prompt discussion between parents and older teenagers.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. Despite its rapid storytelling, the film can give parents and older teenagers something to talk about.
(Trumbo is rated R for “language including some sexual languages”. The film runs 124 minutes.)
3-1/2 Popcorn Buckets
How movies focus on movies
The recreation of Hollywood history in Trumbo joins a number of movies about tinsel town. While filmmakers love to make films about films, some are more memorable than others. Take a look at a few of the best.
Singin’ in the Rain. The classic musical from 1952 rises to the top of the list with its precise parody of how Hollywood handled the transition to talking movies. Even though Gene Kelly dances up a storm as the hero, and Debbie Reynolds charms as the heroine from the chorus, the film belongs to the supporting players. Jean Hagen creates the ultimate dumb blonde while Donald O’Connor leaves us chuckling with his rendition of Make ‘Em Laugh. All this lunacy comes from the creative Broadway writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Greene.
Sunset Boulevard. This thriller from 1950 looks at the same transition – from silent to sound movies – through the lens of tragedy as a vain diva of yesteryear tries to hold on to her grand illusions. Gloria Swanson’s mannered portrayal of the doomed Norma Desmond becomes too real to imagine when her reel journey begins to resemble the real challenges of Swanson’s own career. Newcomer William Holden offers just the right mix of ambition and selfishness as a man who loves the riches too much to avoid the risks.
The Player. Director Robert Altman digs to the core of greed in the movie business in this thriller about a screenwriter’s threats when a studio rejects his script. With a richly layered script by Michael Tolkin (from his novel), an engaging lead performance by Tim Robbins, and cameos by a collection of actual movie stars, Altman has a great time creating a fantasy that we believe from start to finish. And the movie begins with a great sequence – an extended opening shot that never seems to end – to introduce just about every dimension of making movies.
A Star Is Born. While the 1937 version of this classic Hollywood tale features the sincerity of Janet Gaynor and the 1978 rendition centers on the singing of Barbra Streisand, the 1954 interpretation is the one to savor. Judy Garland delivers the performance of her career and one of the great musical portrayals committed to film. We totally believe in the magic this shy woman creates when she sings and the heartbreak she experiences when the man she loves turns out to be less than she deserves.
The Bad and the Beautiful. Kirk Douglas – who figures into the story of Trumbo – is at his selfish best as a brash movie producer who encounters a writer, a star and a director. What makes this 1952 film so memorable is less the contents of its story than how the story unfolds, in flashback, under the watchful eye of director Vincente Minnelli. Lana Turner and Gloria Grahame (who won an Oscar) are the women in the director’s life in a movie containing one of the best lines of the movies of the day, “I took you out of the gutter . . . I can fling you back!”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Two veteran actresses – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – have a great time chewing scenery as two veteran actresses in this thriller from 1962. While Davis has the showier role – as a child star still trying to adjust to the realities of diminished fame – Crawford delivers the film’s performance as a woman who savors the memory of her past while trying to survive her present. How the stars fought during filming is the stuff that legends are made of!
Postcards from the Edge. Shirley MacLaine captures the essence of Hollywood glamour in a role that may or may not have been inspired by screenwriter Carrie Fisher’s recollections of life with mother Debbie Reynolds. No matter the source, or the level of accuracy, the observations of life in front of and behind the camera ring pitch perfect in a comedy with a lot of heart. MacLaine and Meryl Streep find a marvelous rhythm to bring mother and daughter to life in a tale of ego, resentment and bitterness.
Of course, not every movie about the movies works as a movie! My Week With Marilyn gives us little more than an interesting portrayal of the star by Michelle Williams in a film that makes us hungry for a real movie about this great star. The late Jill Clayburgh tries to bring energy to playing Carole Lombard in Gable and Lombard but is limited by working opposite James Brolin’s wooden performance as famed actor Clark Gable. Chaplin may offer a penetrating performance by Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role, but the film doesn’t help us get to know the movie giant. And Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top turn take on the legendary Joan Crawford turns Mommie Dearest into a horror movie like the ones the actress made at the end of her career.
Maybe making movies about movies isn’t as easy as it looks.
See you at the movies.