Kirk Douglas has insisted for more than a quarter century that he is the man who “broke the blacklist.” By demanding Dalton Trumbo get credit in 1960 for writing “Spartacus,” the screen icon asserts he struck a death blow to a system that forced creatives out of Hollywood, or left them to work in its shadows.
For almost as many years, Trumbo’s family has charged that Douglas — while admirable for disagreeing with the anticommunist witch hunts of the 1940s and ’50s — awarded himself too much credit for a victory that belongs to many people. They have advocated for more recognition of “Exodus” director Otto Preminger, who first called for an onscreen credit for the blacklisted writer.
“Trumbo’s” Toronto Film Festival premiere seemed like an occasion that might renew the long-running feud. Instead, the biopic, starring Bryan Cranston and directed by Jay Roach, uses artful creative license to give Douglas his due, but not in excess — a compromise likely to defuse the kind of furor that has dogged recent historical pictures like “Selma” and “The Imitation Game” for taking too many liberties with history.
“Trumbo” goes to Toronto and a Nov. 6 opening with the blessing of both Trumbo’s daughters and Douglas. “I think the movie gets it right,” says daughter Mitzi. Douglas screened the film at his home last week and was “very, very pleased,” says Fred Specktor, the actor’s agent for three decades.
While peace may be at hand in the Douglas-Trumbo dispute, the historic re-creation, from Groundswell Prods. and ShivHans Pictures, and released by Bleecker Street, could reignite other seven decades-old political fires. The John Wayne character is portrayed as a simpleminded accomplice of ruthless right-wing columnist Hedda Hopper. And a brief newsreel glimpse of actor Ronald Reagan positions the actor as another tool of a government recklessly targeting its own citizens. It’s hard to imagine that conservative commentators won’t offer a rebuttal to the accounts, scripted by John McNamara.
The Douglas case proves that Cold War-era emotions sometimes remain very raw. The 98-year-old Douglas will go to his grave insisting he broke the blacklist. But a good body of evidence will say he played his part, but did not act first, or alone.
Some of the facts now seem clear: In 1947, Trumbo was held in contempt of Congress, blacklisted and later imprisoned when the self-avowed communist declined to identify other leftists to the House Un-American Activities Committee. For more than a decade, the writer continued to scratch out a living by churning out mostly B-movies under a series of pen names. (That period is a centerpiece of “Trumbo,” and daughter Mitzi says Cranston has captured the screenwriter’s essence to the point that “he just seems like my father to me.”)
By the late 1950s, studios quietly had begun to hire Trumbo again. In January 1960, Preminger told the New York Times that he had hired the still-blacklisted writer to author the screen version of Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus,” and that he “naturally will get the credit on the screen that he amply deserves.” The Times also revealed Trumbo had worked on the script for “Spartacus.”
Douglas disliked Preminger, and depicted the director as jumping on the anti-blacklist bandwagon, according to “Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical,” by Larry Ceplair and Trumbo’s son, Christopher Trumbo. Douglas reportedly told his wife that Preminger had “jumped into the front car and claimed to be the engineer” of the push to recognize blacklisted screenwriters.
Eight months after Preminger restored Trumbo to the public domain, Universal acknowledged him as the screenwriter of “Spartacus.” The classic paean to human liberty was released in October 1960, the first film in more than a dozen years in which Trumbo received an onscreen credit. When “Exodus” debuted in December, true to Preminger’s word, it also carried Trumbo’s name.
In 1991, Trumbo’s widow, Cleo, declined to attend a Writers Guild event honoring Douglas for his actions during the blacklist era, because the group declined to also give an award to Preminger. In 2002, Motion Picture Producers of America boss Jack Valenti chastised the Los Angeles Times for not giving Douglas enough credit as a blacklist nemesis. Cleo responded with a letter to the editor calling Preminger and Douglas both “men of principle and courage,” but reiterating that it was the director who first publicly said he would give credit to her husband. Douglas did not waver. According to Ceplair’s Trumbo biography, the actor wrote to Cleo Trumbo: “Your letter to the L.A. Times made me very sad … I’m very proud of the fact that I was the first one to break the blacklist.” His lawyer makes the same assertion after seeing the new movie, and says Douglas enjoyed the way the story unfolds in the film, with his character played by actor Dean O’Gorman.
In his 2012 book, “I Am Spartacus!” Douglas further alienated the Trumbo clan by claiming that he, not Dalton Trumbo, had conceived the iconic “I am Spartacus!” scene. Ceplair, after reviewing draft’s of Trumbo’s script, says the screenwriter clearly conceived the notion of other slaves adopting their hero’s name.
Mitzi Trumbo, a now-retired 69-year-old photographer, once decried the “inflated” role Douglas gave himself. But today, she and her sister, Niki, appear to have come to peace with the new screen version of Douglas. “It’s hard to find a way to do justice to both Otto Preminger and to Kirk Douglas,” says Mitzi Trumbo. “They both did very brave things, and my father was always grateful and so close to both of them.”
Most importantly, she feels “Trumbo” will remind Americans about the danger of persecuting citizens for their political beliefs. “My father never expected this kind of attention,” she adds. “He would be stunned, just stunned. And I think it’s important this film is out there, and this story is being told.”
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