Why Hedda Hopper Belonged on the Journalist Blacklist

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.”

Popular on Variety

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.

More Voices

  • Oscar Statue Oscars Placeholder

    Oscars 2020 Predictions: Who Will Get Nominated?

    The Oscar race is on. And it’s about to get a lot more intense when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for the 92nd Oscars on Jan. 13. Golden Globes shutout “The Irishman” is favored to earn several nods, as will “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which went home [...]

  • Golden Globes Analysis Oscar Race

    Why Golden Globes Will Likely Have Little Effect on Oscar Nominations (Column)

    With the Globes now behind us and Oscar noms rapidly approaching on Jan. 13, what should we be paying attention to in Hollywood’s biggest film awards race? Surefire bets are Globe winners Renée Zellweger (“Judy”), who already has one Oscar, and Brad Pitt, who should garner his third acting nomination for his work in Quentin [...]

  • Renee Zellweger "Judy" Pathe

    Golden Globes Predictions: Who Will Win in the Film Categories?

    With the Golden Globes just around the corner, there’s only one thing that seems inevitable: Renée Zellweger will win for best actress in the drama category when the awards are handed out on Jan. 5. Besides that, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. can go in so many different directions, as the Globes are arguably the [...]

  • Joe Talbot Jimmie Fails Last Black

    Want a Career in the Arts? Build a Community (Guest Column)

    Last November, 400,000 writers from around the world agreed to spend a month with their friends writing novels. They met in libraries and cafés, cheered on by 1,000 volunteers. One writer, a 20-year-old college student, recently signed a two-book publishing deal. Previous novelists have had their books turned into Hollywood movies. And it wasn’t just [...]

  • Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in

    Can 'Little Women' Recover for Oscars After SAG Nominations Shutout?

    Where in the world was “Little Women”? That was the big question this morning when the 2020 SAG Award nominations were announced. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel was completely shut out by Wednesday’s nominations. It comes on the heels of “Little Women” snagging just two Golden Globe noms for Saoirse Ronan for lead [...]

  • Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is

    Golden Globes: Six Things to Know About the Film Nominations

    Most of Monday morning’s Globe nominations didn’t come as a big surprise. “Marriage Story,” “The Irishman,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Parasite” have been ruling awards season – their many nominations were expected. But Globe wins don’t necessarily translate to Oscar gold — about half of best pic wins have been in sync [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content