Writers could learn a lesson from ‘Trumbo’

As Hollywood writers ponder the merits of going out on strike when their contract ends later this fall, there’s a movie for them to see, one that can be seen as either a heroic fable or a cautionary tale about their chosen trade. Simply titled “Trumbo,” it’s a compelling portrait of Dalton Trumbo, one of moviedom’s larger- than-life characters who battled the blacklist as a member of the Hollywood Ten and played a key role in the formation of the first union for screenwriters.

The film, which made its debut Monday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, isn’t just another talking-heads history lesson. Directed by Peter Askin and based on a play by Trumbo’s son, Christopher Trumbo, “Trumbo” is an unusual hybrid -- a documentary brimming with inspired acting performances. Though there is a wealth of archival and home-movie footage, much of the story is told through Dalton’s Trumbo’s letters, as read by a host of top-flight actors, including Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Nathan Lane and Paul Giamatti.

At the end of World War II, Trumbo was the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, earning $3,000 a week. He’d published a much-praised novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” penned a series of hit pictures and had a regular sideline writing speeches, notably one delivered at a founding conference of the U.N. in San Francisco. He was also the first editor of the Screen Writer, the monthly magazine of what was then known as the Screen Writers Guild.

But after being held in contempt of Congress for refusing to discuss his ties with the Communist Party, everything came crashing down. By the end of 1947, Trumbo had been fired by MGM, blacklisted and was headed for prison. What makes “Trumbo” so fascinating to watch is that it captures a writer’s life at the farthest swings of a pendulum. You hear him praise friends for their loyalty as well as bemoan the foolishness of trying to work in exile in Mexico City, saying, “we lived out an old truism -- the first time you see Mexico you are struck by the horrible poverty; within a year you discover it’s infectious.”


Listening to actors read from letters can often be a tedious experience, but these are no ordinary letters. Often written when Trumbo was in desperate straits, they soar and sizzle, capturing the sassy sophistication of midcentury Hollywood movie talk. After receiving an especially playful letter from his father, Chris Trumbo recalls that “the first thing I did was start laughing and the second thing I did was get a dictionary.” Written from his 320-acre ranch in Frazier Park as well as from his tiny prison cell in Kentucky, the letters are, like their author, caustic, uncompromising and combative, whether Trumbo is mocking the FBI or chewing out his daughter’s elementary school principal.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a scene from any of this summer’s movies that has half as much complex human emotion as the letter Trumbo writes to a producer pal after Trumbo has been blacklisted, recounting the joys of being out in Frazier Park after a night of soft snowfall, a sight Trumbo finds “wonderfully soothing and beautiful, no corners anywhere in the world, everything rounded and smooth and immaculate.”

WHEN Askin, a veteran theater director, went looking for actors to appear in the film, he found that basically all he had to do was send along a few Trumbo letters. Soon they were essentially saying: Tell me when to show up.

“Once I’d read the letters that was all I needed,” Liam Neeson, who is seen reading a letter Trumbo wrote from prison, in rhyming verse, celebrating his son’s 10th birthday, told me. “I read a lot of bad scripts, so I know you don’t get to read such great writing very often. Hearing Trumbo’s words, so full of anger and eloquence, is a great reminder of what great film writing was like when directors weren’t scared to just put the camera in front of two characters and let them talk.”


Chris Trumbo’s play began as a two-character piece performed at a series of benefits for the People for the American Way, featuring such actors as Tim Robbins, Ed Harris and Chris Cooper. In fall 2003, Askin directed a version starring Nathan Lane that played off-Broadway. After obtaining financing for the documentary, Askin began digging up archival footage and recruiting acting talent.

Some actors signed on simply because of the great material. Others had more personal reasons. Donald Sutherland had appeared in Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” as a young man and read excerpts from the novel on an anti-Vietnam War tour with Jane Fonda. Michael Douglas had met Trumbo -- who died in 1976 -- when his father, Kirk, produced and starred in “Spartacus,” helping break the blacklist by giving Trumbo a screen credit under his own name.

ASKIN says he was especially impressed by Trumbo’s constancy of belief in himself and his ideals. “I’ve never encountered any evidence that he ever backed down about anything,” he says. “In all his letters, he never appears deflated or willing to admit defeat. A lot of people, both then and now, second-guessed themselves in terms of standing up for their beliefs. But Trumbo was unwavering.”

Trumbo once said that he enjoyed letter writing because “you never really know what you said in the last conversation, whereas if you sit down and write a concise definition of your problem, it commands a man’s attention.” Askin believes the letters pack such a punch because their author had been robbed of his calling by the blacklist. “He needed to write because he had been thwarted from doing what he loved the most. The letters were often the only outlet for what he wanted to say.”


Today’s writers don’t have the specter of a blacklist hanging over their heads. But having heard enough bad movies described as “the film that paid for my house,” I know they grapple with many of the same economic dilemmas Trumbo did. As he once wrote, it isn’t Hollywood that corrupts writers. “All Hollywood does is give them enough money so they can get married and have kids like normal people. It’s the getting married and having kids that really corrupts them.”

Of course, faced with the choice between keeping his cushy studio job or caving in to the House Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo chose to go “heroically broke.” Do today’s screenwriters have the same devotion to their ideals? It’s a question worth considering as a strike deadline looms even if the issues today largely focus on bread-and-butter items like DVD and new media residuals. Long before the blacklist, Trumbo realized that for writers, creative rights were often indistinguishable from economic ones.

“Very rarely does victory for the individual writer raise the freedom level of his fellow writers,” he wrote in a 1946 letter. “The fight for freedom of expression in Hollywood is inextricably tied up with the fight for economic security. . . . But the job will not be accomplished in solitude by even the most gifted individual -- it will be done by organized writers.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the WGA is badly out-gunned by its powerful studio adversaries, who have derided recent WGA contract proposals. Guild negotiators responded by saying “the conglomerates always try to paint us as unreasonable and bellicose.” People said the same thing about Trumbo, who explained: “God knows, I never wanted a fight in my life, but sometimes I think they’re forced upon a peaceful man.”



“The Big Picture” runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail me at