Now that summer blockbuster season is over, it’s time for some real-life heroes. Dalton Trumbo, one of America’s greatest screenwriters who chose jail rather than ratting out his friends, will be brought brilliantly back to life this November when Trumbo, starring Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, opens in theaters.
The movie tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, a central figure in the “Hollywood Ten”—a group of screenwriters who were blacklisted from the motion picture industry from 1947 to 1960. Before the McCarthy era, the scribes were charged by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for their links to the Communist Party. Trumbo, who openly defied the committee, wound up serving 11 months in a federal penitentiary for contempt of Congress in 1950.
Trumbo was one of the era’s most prominent screenwriters, and in 1956, working under an assumed name, he won an Academy Award for The Brave One. He was the first of the blacklisted writers to see his real name back on the screen in 1960 for his work on Exodus, one of the year’s biggest hits. Trumbo’s credits also included the films Roman Holiday, Spartacus, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Kitty Foyle and Papillon. Trumbo died in Los Angeles in 1976.
Before he died, however, Trumbo worked with veteran critic, journalist and author Bruce Cook on the biography upon which the new movie is based. The book, Trumbo (Grand Central Publishing; September 8, 2015), tells the extraordinary story of the man’s life, from his hardscrabble upbringing in Colorado to his days as a bootlegger in Los Angeles to his heyday as one of Hollywood’s top-paid (though often broke) screenwriters.
As fascinating as Trumbo’s life was, the story of his partnership with Cook on the autobiography is just as interesting. “The two were born writers and Dalton Trumbo saw in the younger man the energy and intensity that he himself had as a writer,” recalls Judith Aller about the unique bond her late husband forged with Trumbo as they collaborated on the project. (Cook passed away in 2003.)
“Essentially, Bruce’s family was from Iowa and he experienced hard times. Trumbo’s family was from Colorado, and had experienced hard times and continued to, as the book reveals,” Aller said. “One was a very quiet man in many ways. That was Bruce Cook. The other was characteristically a more demonstrative sort, and a talker. [Trumbo] was really a great talker. He was a raconteur, perhaps one of the greatest in Hollywood.
“Bruce’s style as an interviewer was extraordinary. He was able to open the conversation as softly as a dove,” Aller said. “That dove penetrated Mr. Trumbo from the very moment their eyes met. It was, in my own words completely, a kind of love affair.”
Trumbo’s singular place in Hollywood history served as both a point of fascination and inspiration to Cook. “Bruce was a born social historian, and his concept of social justice began as a young boy,” Aller said, adding that Cook saw Trumbo as “an exemplar of a certain set of American virtues,” including “hard work, straight talk and loyalty to principles.”
That relationship allowed Cook to navigate some of the dicier questions he had for his subject about politics while writing the book. “That is dealt with in a most charming way in the book, when [Cook] finds himself in an embarrassing situation where he’s pussyfooting around that question,” Aller said. “He’s looking at this man that he obviously has deep respect for. Then he realizes, ‘I’ve got to ask you the question: why did you join the Communist Party?’ But Trumbo answers that question many times over in the book, and he answers it eloquently.
“Trumbo was larger than life itself and those moments with Dalton Trumbo shaped the rest of Bruce’s life,” Aller said. “Trumbo, as a model, as a kind of inspiration, led Bruce to the many works that he wrote afterwards as a novelist. There’s no question.”
Aller has seen the new movie and feels that it not only holds up as a tribute to her husband’s work, but to Trumbo’s legacy as well.
“I loved it,” she said. “There is a deep association and an honorable one with all the people who made the movie, including Mr. Cranston. The involvement of those people was deep and sincere and one-of-a-kind.
“Bruce would be very happy,” she said.