Trumbo sisters took part in telling the story of their Communist Party member father
Nikola and Mitzi Trumbo were red-diaper babies, the children of Communist Party members in the U.S. Their father: screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, an Oscar winner for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One,” and one of the high-profile members of the party.
During the 1940s, Trumbo was the highest-paid screenwriter working in Hollywood, best known for such MGM hits as 1943’s “A Guy Named Joe” and 1944’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” But he also was a political activist who vocally supported unions, equal pay and civil rights. His career came crashing down in 1947 when he and other writers, directors and producers known as the Hollywood Ten were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
They all refused to answer when asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
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During a recent interview with her sister in Beverly Hills, Nikola Trumbo, 76, said her father “always asserted that it was no one’s business if he was a Communist or not.”
“And that he had the perfect right to his political beliefs and his privacy,” added Mitzi Trumbo, 70.
Bryan Cranston plays their father in the new biopic “Trumbo,” directed by Jay Roach and penned by John McNamara. The film, which opens Friday, also stars Elle Fanning as Nikola and Diane Lane as the girls’ mother, Cleo.
Roach insisted that the Trumbo sisters be involved in the production. After he and McNamara had a draft of the script that they liked, they sent it to the sisters.
The political part was really important to me. He was a Communist. I think it was really important that was stated.
— Nikola Trumbo
“We dealt with all of their thoughts and notes,” McNamara said. “They were incisive and smart and detailed and honest.”
Maybe a bit too honest.
Mitzi Trumbo recalled that when she first read the script, “I had so many complaints. I was kind of noisy.”
“The political part was really important to me,” Nikola said. “I didn’t want — what’s the word where you hop over something and pretend it didn’t happen? He was a Communist. I think it was really important that was stated.”
The film, Mitzi said, “showed he was just his own kind of unique person. He joined the party, quit the party, he joined the party and he quit the party. He was very involved in union organizations, civil rights, all the progressive issues of the day. Dinner conversations were all about politics, and we were encouraged to think and talk and participate.”
Dalton Trumbo ultimately was blacklisted for more than a decade.
“Looking at the movie, I can see how much the blacklist really affected daily living because Trumbo was so edgy and driven and so focused,” said Nikola, a family therapist in Seattle.
Having a blacklisted father led to problems in grade school. Mitzi said that the PTA began to have secret meetings to keep their mother from attending. “So this filtered down to the kids, and for a few months I was treated pretty badly,” said Mitzi, a retired photographer living in Northern California.
“Once my parents found out, they took me out of school and put me in a different school the next year, and I just stayed quiet.”
Trumbo’s refusal to cooperate with House Un-American Activities Committee landed him in prison for nearly a year, leaving the family home quite different.
“He took over when he was around,” Nikola said. “That is where all the energy was.”
Added Mitzi, laughing: “He was the biggest person in the room, and he wasn’t that tall.”
Though the sisters say their father could be hysterically funny, Mitzi noted that he was a “tough guy. He was quick to get angry. He was also really loving; he just had a hard time expressing himself.”
Despite the blacklist, Trumbo kept working, writing scripts for low-budget films either under pseudonyms or with another writer as a front. He wrote 1953’s “Roman Holiday” and 1956’s “The Brave One” while banned from the major studios. It wasn’t until 1960, when director Otto Preminger announced that Trumbo wrote the script to his popular film “Exodus” and Kirk Douglas also revealed that Trumbo penned the classic epic “Spartacus,” did the blacklist crack. Trumbo died in 1976.
Both sisters spent time on the “Trumbo” set observing and talking to the cast, especially Cranston and Fanning.
After watching the film, Nikola recalled doing a double take during one scene with Cranston.
“At that moment I thought I was watching Trumbo,” she said. “I thought Elle did such a good job. There’s a moment where she’s angry and sad at the same time. She did it so beautifully.”
Nikola said being ostracized and isolated as a family during the blacklist gave them strength.
“In today’s world of pop a pill and your sad feeling will go away, that is not real,” she said. “What we lived was real. I think it gave us fortitude, understanding and compassion for other people who continue to be in the same situation. It is important to experience that kind of isolation we experienced, isolation from the mainstream. It creates better, stronger people.”
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