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What's Up For Today?

New York Cool - Ask Miss Wendy

New York Cool - Interview

Wendy R. Williams Talks to Peter Askin, Christopher Trumbo, Josh Lucas and David Strathairn of Trumbo
Regency Hotel/New York City
June 19, 2008

Opposite Photo:
Josh Lucas and David Strathairn
Photo Credit: Wendy R. Williams

 

 

The story of the Hollywood Ten has always resonated with me. Ten writers who refused to "name names" when they were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was a story of courage and hardship, and the "plot" of this story is being repeated again and again, most recently with the Bush Administrations "tarring and feathering" of the Dixie Chicks. Such stories always bring up the question, would I be willing to give up my livelihood for my freedom of speech? Or would the call of creature comforts win the battle? What kind of men and women would have the courage to simply say no to oppression, no matter what the cost to themselves, economically and socially? What makes a Trumbo and what makes a Kazan?

So I was intrigued when I got an invitation to review Peter Askin's new documentary Trumbo, based on a play of the same name by one of the Hollywood Ten's son - Dalton Trumbo's son Christopher Trumbo. I saw the film and then attended the press roundtable. Here is my review of the film. Be sure to scroll down for the interviews with director Peter Askin, writer Christopher Trumbo and actors Josh Lucas and David Strathairn.




Dalton Trumbo

Peter Askin's
Trumbo
Opens Friday, June 27, 2008

Starring: Joan Allen; Brian Dennehy; Michael Douglas; Paul Giamatti; Nathan Lane; Josh Lucas; Liam Neeson; David Strathairn; and Donald Sutherland. With interviews with Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Periodically our nation goes out on a collective bender. Something happens and we get scared and some "strong" man exploits our fear and we go mad and do abominable things like: President Franklin Roosevelt fanning the fear of the "yellow peril" by incarcerating United States citizens of Japanese origin during World War II; or (in the fifties) Senator Joseph McCarthy exploiting our fears by telling us that there was a Communist under every bed and then holding Congressional hearings to find them; or more recently, President George W. Bush exploiting our fear of Al Queda with a regime of torture and secret prisons. And after everything is over, we wonder - how could that have happened? What made a nation that was founded with such extraordinary ideas about the rights of man (and woman too, we hope) stoop to such a despicable level. And our children read about the "bender" in their neatly synopsized history books and think, "Oh, that was the past; it will never happen again." Hmm.

Playwright Christopher Trumbo had such a "national bender" story to tell - it was about his father, the writer Dalton Trumbo, and what happened to him in the fifties when he was ostracized by Hollywood for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether he had ever been a Communist and most importantly for refusing to "name names" by telling the Committee who was also a Communist. The supposed motivation of the HUAC was to weed out Communist sympathizers from Hollywood so they could not subtly twist our national psyche by their "left leaning" words. The motivation of the Hollywood establishment was appeasement.

Christopher wrote a play about his father's life, Trumbo, which played off Broadway from 2003-2004. The play told the story of Trumbo's life through Trumbo's letters, long wonderful letters in which Trumbo told his friends and business acquaintances the "diary" of his life. And the play (with its letters) has now been turned in a documentary-style film.

Here is a quote from the press release for the film. "Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters in the 1940s, penning films such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kitty Foyle (for which he received an Academy Award nomination). In 1947 he was called before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and, after defiantly refusing to discuss his political affiliations, was thrown into prison as one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten.” Upon his release in 1950, he moved with his family to Mexico, where he continued to write screenplays – including Roman Holiday and The Brave One – under various pseudonyms. When his script for the latter won an Academy Award for Best Story, the Oscar went suggestively unclaimed. Finally, in 1960, he was given full screen credit for his work on Exodus and Spartacus, thereby ending his professional exile."

The film tells the story of what Dalton and the other members of the Hollywood Ten did, how they refused to state whether they had ever been member of the Communist Party and how they also refused to give the names of other members of the Communist Party (many had flirted with Communism in the 30's when Russia was our ally against the Nazis, but gave up their memberships after World War II). And for refusing to testify, they were ostracized and their children were ostracized. And this ostracizing went on for almost ten years. For after Dalton Trumbo was released from prison, his real punishment was imposed by the Hollywood establishment, who refused to let him work under his own name until finally in the early sixties, Otto Preminger insisted on hiring him and giving him screen writing credit for Exodus. Kirk Douglas also insisted on hiring him for the film, Spartacus, which has the famous scene where the slaves are told that their lives will be spared if they produce the slave called Spartacus and rather than "name names," they all stand up and proudly declare, "I am Spartacus."

The film tells a serious story, but it is also fun because Trumbo's letters were fun, outrageous and passionate. And the actors do them justice; Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, and Donald Sutherland bring Dalton to life through his own words - his letters. And newly minted dirty-man-around-town Nathan Lane (see Lane's foul-mouthed turn in David Mamet's November) brings down the "movie house" when he reads a letter Trumbo wrote to his son about the joys of masturbation.

Our 1950's Hollywood 10 bender was a bender about the fear of words, and this fear of words was exploited by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. And these were and are our words, words that are protected by our own Constitution in our own First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

 



Christopher Trumbo and Peter Askin
Photo Credit Wendy R. Williams

The Interview with Peter Askin and Christopher Trumbo


Question to Peter Askin about how he decided to approach the film:

Peter Askin: The spin was [Trumbo’s] the letters. There was also a lot of visual footage, photos and film clips. Chris [Dalton Trumbo’s son Christopher] and his sister are both photographers. There was a lot of old film footage with interviews with Trumbo; we searched a lot of film archives. And there was the recording of Ring Lardner Jr.’s memorial speech [which starts the film]. [Ring Lardner Jr. was also a member of the Hollywood Ten.]


Question to Peter Askin about the casting of the actors and whether some of the actors had also been in the play:

Peter Askin: Some of them were – Paul Giametti and Nathan Lane were in the play. It was a two person play and two actors played all the parts.

Question about why Peter Askin choose to cast many actors to read the letters [as opposed to the two in the play].

Peter Askin: That decision was drive by latent commercialism. We wanted to have a variety of well known actors in the film.

Question about why the actors agreed to sign on:

Peter Askin: Most of them said they were attracted to the rich, dramatic language.

Christopher Trumbo: My father wrote his letters in three acts.

Question about the political message of the film and how now that era is summed up in our history books as being a witch hunt that all thinking people reject:

Christopher Trumbo: Not all, there are even now historians who say that McCarthy was right.

I wanted to contextualize the time and not tell history as a series of flash cards. [I wanted to tell the history] through the story of one person who lived through it.

Question about Elia Kazan and the controversy when Elia Kazan was awarded an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement:

Christopher Trumbo: My father and I both felt that Kazan’s testimony [before the HUAC where he “named names”] was blown out of proportion. He never should have been asked those questions in the first place. Also, Kazan was not active in Hollywood at that time and the names he gave were of New York actors, he did not name the “Hollywood Ten.” But the actors Kazan named were not able to work at all because they could not work [like the writers] using a pseudonym.

Question about the effect of George’s Clooney’s film, Good Night and Good Luck [which depicted the McCarthy story from the viewpoint Edward R. Murrow at CBS]:

Peter Askin: After 9/11 there was all of this [knee-jerk] reaction. Bush and Ashcroft were villainizing groups like the Dixie Chicks. Tim Robbins has talked about how after 9/11 when he spoke out against the war, his film Bull Durham was pulled from Cooperstown [The Baseball Hall of Fame]. Tim and Susan Sarandon [who spoke out against the war] said that it was hard for them to find work.

Then as now, the black list was a function of the industry, not the government.

Christopher Trumbo: There was also a green list [in the fifties] of people that Hollywood was suspicious of for things like, “I am not sure about that person. She/he likes Roosevelt too much.”

Question about why writers were singled out by McCarthy:

Christopher Trumbo: They are more vulnerable. There was also this fear that they would [insidiously] plant communist ideas through their words.

Question about whether the country is smarter now than it was in the fifties:

Peter Askin: We are all exhausted because of the last eight years. I hope this film reminds us of our history.

Christopher Trumbo: One of the reasons that the tale of the black list is told as such a cautionary tale is so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Question to Christopher Trumbo about being the child of a celebrity:

Christopher Trumbo: I never thought of myself as the child of a celebrity. It was the reverse. My father was in jail so it was more like I thought of myself as the child of a jailbird. We were ostracized.

Even in 1997 when I put the play together for the first time [Trumbo], I thought it would be open for only one night. I was astounded at the level of interest. The reaction of the audience totally surprised me.


Josh Lucas and David Strathairn
Photo Credit Wendy R. Williams

Interview with Josh Lucas and David Strathairn

 

Question about why they were attracted to the project:

David Strathairn: I love doing big pieces that are informative, especially something like this where the issues are repeating themselves. [It is a way to] keep these people who set standards alive.

[Plus] The letters themselves are so colorful.

Question about reading the letters for the film:

Josh Lucas: The director [Peter Askin] told us to now worry about trying to be like Trumbo. The material speaks for itself in my humble opinion. Each actor brings his own style.

David Strathairn: Trumbo had such an ear for the human condition. You might think that he had carefully crafted his letters, but there is such passion and flow that you know it just streamed out of him. This is a man who was not at all shy. He did not censor himself.

Question about Elia Kazan:

Josh Lucas: Elia Kazan wrote a fascinating book about his life [Elie Kazan: A Life], but only one paragraph dealt with his testimony before the HUAC. He basically said, “You can’t judge me.” And that was all. McCarthy was the true villain. Trumbo’s take [that Kazan should have never been asked to name names] is the most humane.

Question to David Strathairn about the correlations between his work playing Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Look and his work in Trumbo:

David Strathairn: History repeats itself. Murrow and Trumbo were different creatures but they were carrying the same banner.

Question about whether they had seen the HBO miniseries John Adams with its story about the founding of our country and the writing of the Constitution and Adams' fear that if there were no strong Constitution , the American people would give away the liberties they had fought so hard to achieve:

David Strathairn: Paul [Giametti] and Laura [Linney] were really incredible in that series. And that [fear of loss of our liberties] is why you need people like Trumbo and Murrow and Adams.

Question about whether they know of other writers who have the same passion and commitment as Trumbo:

David Strathairn: Director Alex Gibney (check back in July 2008 for the New York Cool interview with Alex Gibney re his new documentary, Gonzo) has done some amazing stuff [Academy Award winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side].

Josh Lucas: I really admire Sean Penn. He had the courage to go to Iraq (see San Francisco Chronicle) to see for himself what was going on. There are also artists such as Susan Sarandon [who spoke out against the war] who have talked about how limited their opportunities have been because of their activism.

In the period of time that Edward R. Murrow and Dalton Trumbo were speaking out, they were huge media presences. Today with all of our cable channels, voices are more diluted. There are one hundred and eight commentators on cable news.

David Strathairn: Back when Trumbo was writing, the constituency was really small.

Josh Lucas: [Regarding people who are speaking out today]. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann is speaking out against the war.

Question about what you are doing next:

David Strathairn: I will be acting in a Playwrights Festival in Philadelphia.

Josh Lucas: I am working on some independent films.

Question about the pending SAG strike coming right after the writer’s strike was settled:

David Strathairn: I can always come back to the theater, but you can feel the fear. People are losing their homes because no big films are launching.

Josh Lucas: The timing is having a tremendous effect, no matter which side you are on. It is affecting the florist, the caterers.

I have been trying to get a play because of this uncertainty. David and I are lucky because we can work, but a lot of other actors are losing everything [because of the just resolved writers strike and the pending actor’s strike]. I know someone who is being foreclosed on.

Question about whether these strikes are worth it:

David Strathairn: Yes. I know that is a knee jerk reaction but is always good when people stand up. And it will have to be like this until the means of production are more equally distributed. With the new technology and the internet, it is easier to make an inexpensive film, but then the means of distribution are not available.

Josh Lucas: It is always good anytime you stand up for yourself. And one of the effects of the writer’s strike is that the community as a whole came together.

 

 

 

 



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