Saturday, 20 April 2019

Spartacus writer’s fight for freedom

BACK in the Forties, Hollywood was in a state of cultural flux, writes Nick Earl.

BACK in the Forties, Hollywood was in a state of cultural flux, writes Nick Earl.

It was scorned by the political right for its permissive social liberalism, yet also critiqued by the leftist pool of Californian scribes and intellectuals for its conservative, antiquated studios and hierarchical financial structures.

Tinseltown became a key battleground for the identity of America itself.

Jay Roach’s new film Trumbo is set in a decade home to everlasting classics such as Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life, yet the same period was synonymous with political turbulence and social volatility — America struggling with the aftershock of the Second World War and unable to properly reconcile the disparate political strands of its Congress. This is where Dalton Trumbo, the eccentric and misanthropic though eminently quotable Hollywood screenwriter comes to the fore.

A supreme wordsmith whose membership of the Communist Party and support for organised labour were open secrets, at one point he was earning $80,000 a year off the back of such acclaimed films as Kitty Foyle (1940) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).

But he was to be brought to his knees during the McCarthy era by the House  Un-American Activities Committee, the Supreme Court, and a Hollywood blacklist that took him to the verge of financial destitution.

Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame puts in an Oscar-nominated turn as Trumbo, whose professional success draws resentment from within the film industry and suspicion from elaborately dressed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by Helen Mirren.

Subpoenaed by Congress and asked to testify to his political views and the nature of communist propaganda in films, he refused to comply and became one of the Hollywood Ten outlawed from the motion picture industry.

Trumbo depicts his struggles in prison, his blacklisting from studios, and his financial struggles, all of which prevented him from working and left him abandoned by many of his former liberal friends.

Choosing to fight back, he wrote scripts under various pseudonyms — including the 1953 masterpiece Roman Holiday.

His exile was to last until he was approached by Kirk Douglas to adapt Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus for the screen. President-elect John F Kennedy crossed picket lines to see the 1960 film, helping to end the practice of blacklisting.

Trumbo is showing at the Henley Regal Picturehouse from today (Friday).

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