The best news about Hedda Hopper is that few remember her. Hedda was a journalist (of sorts), who famously wore exotic hats and devoted herself to destroying the careers of anyone she identified as being communist, gay or otherwise reprehensible. Among her victims were Charlie Chaplin, Dalton Trumbo and numerous writers and artists caught up in the notorious blacklist era.
I met Hopper in the 1960s, when she scolded me for writing admiringly about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter. Last week I was vividly reminded of Hopper’s dark rhetoric when I saw the compelling new film titled “Trumbo,’ in which she is portrayed in all her bristling nastiness by Helen Mirren.
Directed by Jay Roach, “Trumbo” superbly re-creates the political paranoia that gave rise to the congressional witch hunts, a dark era that ruined the lives of scores of artists, and revealed the hypocrisy of Hollywood’s studio hierarchy. Now, decades later, it is clear that it was all about nothing. There were a few avowed communists around, there were even communist cells, but at no time did an effective conspiracy take shape to contaminate Hollywood films with communist ideology.
In the film, Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) comes across as a brilliant but obstinate figure who led fellow writers in defying the witch hunters. After serving jail time, he spent years grinding out B-picture scripts and, later, writing studio films under fake names. It was not until 1960, thanks to the advocacy of Otto Preminger, Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis, that he was aptly credited on “Spartacus” and “Exodus.”
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The decision to credit Trumbo spurred threats of boycotts and demonstrations from self-styled patriotic groups, and Hopper kept hammering at the studios in her columns and on radio and TV. In the film, Mirren as Hopper threatens to ruin the careers of stars like Edward G. Robinson and Douglas. She also went after MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who coined the expression “Hedda Hell.” Blacklist supporters like John Wayne and James Arness even co-starred in a film titled “Big Jim McLain,” playing investigators tracking down communist sympathizers.
By the mid-1960s when I left the New York Times to join Paramount, blacklisted writers were still struggling to get studio assignments, even though credit was no longer an issue. I decided to be both opportunistic and idealistic; here was a pool of talented writers available at reasonable rates.
Meeting with blacklisted writers was a challenge, however. These were men who loved writing and loved movies, but who had grown to hate the system. Even though I was a youthful newcomer to the studio structure, and was dispensing work, I represented a symbol of the hierarchy and, as such, was someone to distrust. Further, when the conversation merged into politics — and these were very political people — the dialogue quickly became antagonistic.
Not that I cared. I admired their talent, not their politics, and proceeded to hire a few of them. The work was not good. Even though they hated the studio system, they still instinctively wrote studio movies — old-fashioned studio movies. I soon moved on to younger writers, some of whom had never heard of the blacklist, but who understood that the movies of the ’60s were searching for a new sensibility.
I met Trumbo himself a couple of times and he, too, embodied that anger and distrust of the studios, but he also reflected a humanity and dedication to his craft — traits vividly reflected in Cranston’s extraordinary performance. Trumbo would have loved the movie.
But it would have ended up in Hedda Hell.