Trumbo review

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 8 07:37:53 MDT 2003

An intellectual in screenwriter’s clothing.
New Yorker Magazine, Issue of 2003-09-15
Posted 2003-09-08

 From the sound of it, Dalton Trumbo—the screenwriter for such movies as 
“Kitty Foyle,” “Spartacus,” “Roman Holiday,” and “Papillon”—must have 
been one of the most divine dinner companions ever to grace God’s green 
earth. He smoked. He was, when he wasn’t typing in the bathtub (his 
preferred workplace), a natty dresser. He was never self-obsessed. And 
he had a propensity for living beyond his means, which suggests that he 
was probably most comfortable in the role of host, raising topics that 
were meant to enlighten or amuse, while tactfully steering his guests’ 
attention away from the check. Born into an unremarkable middle-class 
family in Montrose, Colorado, in 1905 (he died in Los Angeles in 1976), 
Trumbo was a natural aristocrat who lived as if one could not and should 
not put a price on the supreme pleasure that life has to offer: 
discourse, the outgrowth of the active mind. What did it matter to this 
autodidact, who was as confident discussing Saint-John Perse as he was 
Ginger Rogers, if twelve bottles of very good wine had to be bought and 
consumed in order to uncork a companion’s insight into this or that 
hitherto unknown passion? In short, Trumbo was both a sentimentalist and 
a snob, with more than a touch of the poet. (“I’m perfectly willing to 
go anywhere that I can live not, perhaps, in peace, but certainly in 
luxury,” he once wrote to a friend.)

At least, these are some of the impressions one is left with at the 
close of Christopher Trumbo’s moving and evocative stage portrait of his 
father, “Trumbo” (at the Westside). Based on a series of letters that 
Trumbo wrote to his family, friends, and enemies, the two-character 
play, starring Nathan Lane as Dalton and Gordon MacDonald as 
Christopher, focusses on the years from 1947 to 1960, during which time 
Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, was accused of Communist leanings by 
the House Un-American Activities Committee and banned from working in 
his chosen field. When he refused to name other “Communists,” he was 
sent to prison for ten months for contempt of Congress. From his cell in 
Ashland, Kentucky, Trumbo wrote letters home, many of which he signed 
“From Daddy. Dalton Trumbo. Prisoner #7551.” This was both a joke and a 
lesson to his wife, Cleo, and their three children. In a world where 
your views, political or otherwise, were punishable by law, he implied, 
you were no longer just a father and a husband, and you certainly 
couldn’t afford to be a child.

Onstage, Lane reads Trumbo’s letters, and MacDonald, as Christopher, 
provides the narration that binds them together. Christopher makes it 
clear that Trumbo, from the time of his right-minded, high-handed 
appearance before huac to his return to screenwriting under his own name 
in the nineteen-sixties, got by without compromising his beliefs. 
Delicately, he taught his children the beauty inherent in freedom of 
choice. “Early on, my parents decided that they would be as truthful as 
possible with my sisters and me,” Christopher says. “There would be no 
secrets—not about our situation, the possibility of jail, about 
politics, or work.” He goes on:

They told us to ask any questions we wanted. My sister Nicky was eleven, 
I was nine. Mitzi, only four, wasn’t ready for these family briefings. 
Nicky and I wanted to know about Communism. It was explained to us that 
Communism was a system where people were provided for on the basis of 
“from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” 
Capitalism was explained as a system where one person hires a second 
person to perform some task and then sells the product to a third person 
for profit. From politics we moved on to the idea of God and the major 
religions. At the end of this session, my sister stoutly declared that 
when she grew up she would be a Communist and a Jew. More modestly, I 
expressed a desire to become a Capitalist and a Catholic.

A kind of West Coast Atticus Finch, Trumbo was as much an educator as he 
was a writer. Self-expression was, for him, armor against the armies of 
the night. He was an intellectual in screenwriter’s clothing, a thinker 
in an industry suspicious of thought. And yet he stayed, and worked 
hard, even after that industry had seemingly turned its back on him. Why 
had he embraced it in the first place? He had a family to support. He 
was highly paid. And he enjoyed the life style that his fame afforded 
him before the blacklisting. He never quite made it as a novelist—he was 
not possessed of a singular vision, and he knew it. So he wrote what he 
wrote best—a kind of populist-minded fiction—and he treated the industry 
that employed him with the contempt that it ultimately earned.

As played by Lane, under Peter Askin’s assured direction, Trumbo is an 
aging chorine with a love of wisecracks and show. The small set 
alternates between Trumbo’s various studies and his prison cell, while 
video screens on either side of the stage supplement the text with 
newsreel footage from the huac hearings. Seated center stage behind a 
desk, in a dark suit and with his hair neatly combed, Lane twinkles. He 
uses his distinctive eyebrows—sometimes raised, sometimes lowered—like 
quotation marks around the more ironic passages in Trumbo’s letters. At 
the same time, he eschews much of Trumbo’s imperious irascibility; he’s 
far too adorable. In Lane’s rather superficial reading, we barely 
glimpse the complicated and sometimes difficult man that Ring Lardner, 
Jr., his friend and fellow-member of the Hollywood Ten, eulogized this 
way: “At rare intervals, there appears among us a person whose virtues 
are so manifest to all . . . who lives his whole life in such harmony 
with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone 
with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.” Trumbo 
was known, on occasion, to use his prized wit against his friends. In 
1951, Lardner sent Trumbo a copy of his novel “The Ecstasy of Owen 
Muir,” hoping for his comments. Trumbo responded by describing his 
reaction to a novel by Albert Maltz, another blacklisted screenwriter:

I read it and found two or three major things I didn’t like. Cleo read 
it and found two or three other major things that she didn’t like. I was 
so chagrined at having overlooked her points . . . that I went back to 
the book and read it most thoroughly again, taking many notes. The 
result was that our combined efforts found absolutely nothing in the 
book, aside from a couple of minor speeches, that we did like. Having 
gone out of our way for Albert, we certainly wish to do no less for you.

Instead of allowing the humor—and hostility—in this speech to build 
naturally, Lane preens and guffaws loudly in anticipation of the joke to 
come. He’s in love with the Big Finish. This is not only 
distracting—it’s cloying. MacDonald, at least, is dry, affable, and 
subtle, a perfect antidote to both Lane’s cuteness and Trumbo’s 
sometimes overwhelming id.

In what is essentially a biographical one-person show, an actor should 
convey not only the character’s history—the history we see onstage—but 
also the life that followed. In 1971, Trumbo wrote and directed a film 
based on his best-known novel, “Johnny Got a Gun,” the story of an 
American soldier wounded on the last day of the First World War, who 
loses his limbs, eyes, ears, mouth, and nose and has no way to 
communicate with the people around him. The movie is fascinating both 
for the poetic, nearly silent-film-style performance of Timothy Bottoms 
and for the way in which Trumbo was able to marry his linguistic 
facility to an almost surreal visual style. After what he had lived 
through, the surrealism of Trumbo’s later work makes sense. One can’t 
help wishing that he were around now to distill this nation’s current 
wars into something just as sharp, curious, and uncanny.


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