Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Trumbo’ and the (Gossip) Queen of Hollywood

trumbo-02Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston star in Trumbo (Bleecker Street)

To review movies for Women’s Voices for Change, I often travel fairly far afield. My own seaside town has a small two-auditorium theatre that plays youth-centric blockbusters like Hunger Games, Jurassic World, The Avengers and soon the new Star Wars. There’s a multiplex a few towns over, but more screens doesn’t necessarily mean more variety or diversity — and certainly doesn’t guarantee more films by, for, or about women. Typically, I drive 45 minutes into Cambridge, where I can find documentaries, foreign films and independents. (They also have a rather eclectic selection at the concession stand. But, to date, I’ve resisted the steamed edamame and stayed with the more traditional corn of pop.)

For the past few decades, the movie house has been named for its location. But, I wonder if they should consider changing the name to the Dame Helen Mirren Cinema.

You see, some Mirren vehicle or other can be found there more often than not. From Gosford Park and Calendar Girls, to Tempest, The 100-Foot Journey, Woman in Gold and, of course, The Queen. A preview for her upcoming Eye in the Sky is running now. In it, she’ll play Colonel Katherine Powell, apparently torn up by an ethical decision involving a drone strike and hula hooping collateral damage. I’m quite certain she’ll be wonderful.

The current Mirren vehicle is Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach. While Dame Helen is not the film’s star, she does turn in a memorable — often scene-stealing — performance as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, known appropriately enough, as “The Queen of Hollywood.” In Mirren’s hands, Hopper is an exacting, vengeful monarch who breaks careers as swiftly (and with more relish) than she makes them. A passionate political conservative in the early days of the Cold War, she specializes in fear-mongering and paranoid patriotism.

Trumbo tells the story of “The Hollywood Ten,” a group of screenwriters blacklisted by the studios in the late 1940s and through the 1950s for their alleged affiliation with the Communist Party. Dalton Trumbo, at the time one of Tinseltown’s highest paid writers, was the group’s de facto leader and spokesperson. He refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was imprisoned for “contempt of Congress” for nearly a year. After his release, he continued to write under a series of pseudonyms, eventually winning two Oscars for Roman Holiday (credit went to another writer) and The Brave One (awarded to the fictitious Robert Rich).

Given the subject matter, Trumbo screenwriter John McNamara had big shoes to fill. He must have felt pressure to live up to his protagonist’s mastery of the written word, and he’s done a wonderful job capturing the man’s confidence and warranted cynicism. For example, Trumbo runs into one of his prosecutors (the formerly self-righteous) J. Parnell Thomas in prison for tax evasion.

Thomas: Look at us. Just a couple of jailbirds.

Trumbo: Yes, but only one of us committed a crime.

The film’s release is timely. Despite the costumes and settings (as well as prodigious cigarettes), some of the issues debated sound remarkably, alarmingly familiar. At what point does freedom of speech or religion or political affiliation become a threat to national security? When does our collective fear of “others” intrude upon our nation’s promise of inclusion and asylum? Trumbo and his fellow writers could as easily have distributed their pamphlets on the First Amendment last week as they did 65 years ago. “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” is still a familiar question, but it doesn’t carry with it the actual horror of that era. Careers, homes, families, livelihoods and even lives were lost in that media-fueled mass hysteria.

Bryan Cranston, one of today’s most versatile actors, plays Trumbo with aplomb. It’s a demanding role, not only in terms of screen time, but measured in intensity and purpose. The real man was a character: brilliant, opinionated and vocal. If you go to see the movie, be sure to stay through the credits. There are some archival interviews and clips of Trumbo. You’ll be even more impressed by Cranston’s ability to capture such a larger than life figure without making him a cartoon character.

As the film’s title would suggest, Dalton Trumbo is at the center of its story and message, but Cranston is surrounded by top-notch talent. The movie balances behind-the-scenes Hollywood with the impact the Communist witch-hunt had on each target’s family. Diane Lane delivers, as usual, as his supportive wife; she’s long-suffering but nobody’s victim. Ellen Fanning is impressive as his “commie” daughter, extending her father’s ideals into her own activism for integration.

A number of actors portray silver screen legends. Each is compelling (although none of them can really be described as a doppelganger). David James Elliott is John Wayne; Dean O’Gorman is Kirk Douglas; Michael Stuhlbarg is Edward G. Robinson; Christian Berkel is Otto Preminger; and Richard Portnow is Louis B. Mayer.

John Goodman is particularly fun to watch as the B-movie executive Frank King who gives Trumbo a second chance. Suffice it to say, he doesn’t give a damn about politics and if anyone threatens his wildly profitable movies, he won’t be taking any prisoners. Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk are standouts as other writers, blacklisted and not.

And then, of course, there’s Dame Helen. One of Hopper’s nicknames was “The Hat,” and Mirren glories in a difference example of outrageous millinery in her every scene. The columnist once quipped, “If you wear a crazy hat, no one notices the tired face beneath it.” When it came to fighting the “red menace,” Hopper was indefatigable. She cajoled and bossed and eventually threatened superstars and studio heads alike. In the film, she and Trumbo have nurtured a particularly nasty antagonism, and the two actors sink their teeth into every scene they share.

Trumbo is a compelling portrait of an intelligent man’s fight during a time when irrational fear had this country in its grip. Helen Mirren, as Hedda Hopper, personifies all of the discrimination and petty ignorance that fueled it. It was a great pleasure to watch her in my favorite — albeit less than convenient — movie theatre.

Which brings me back to my initial point. Really, they should consider changing the name. It sounds good, doesn’t it? “The Dame Helen Mirren Cinema.” I don’t know about you, but I’d buy a season pass.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.