Washington might be Hollywood for ugly people, but in "Trumbo," the new movie about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the ugliness of politics comes straight from the movies' dream factory.
For star Bryan Cranston, the chance to tell Trumbo's story was a "really important part of American history, of Hollywood history, that was a blemish on our Constitution," he told CQ Roll Call. Far from a distant episode, Cranston said the attitudes that pushed such political attacks mid-century haven't exactly been banished. "I think that kind of polemic is dangerous. And that’s what we see in politics right now," he continued. The blemish he referred to started with the Hollywood elite imploring Congress to probe the industry for communists. Walt Disney, Hedda Hopper, Ayn Rand and others congregated under the aegis of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and encouraged the House Un-American Activities Committee to root out their political enemies.
"They actually wrote the letter to Congress. Congress didn’t come out on its own, the HUAC Committee. It was inspired by a large, a fairly large number, of people on the right in Hollywood to come out and clean up the town," said Jay Roach, director of "Trumbo."
Roach's biographical picture stars Cranston as Trumbo, picking up the story in 1947, just as the Red Scare was gripping the nation's capital and Southern California, and the high-flying Trumbo and many others were about to be dragged down by the one-two punch of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the studios' close-the-ranks conservatism.
Trumbo and his fellow Hollywood 10 were just the most visible targets. When they refused to answer questions about whether they were affiliated with the Communist Party, they were held in contempt of Congress, eventually imprisoned and blacklisted from working in an official capacity in Hollywood. In concert, the studios put scores of other actors, directors, writers and other industry stalwarts on the blacklist.
The committee, which failed repeatedly to find any sort of illegal activity, wielded contempt charges to put leftists in the judicial system. But it was the blacklist the studios maintained — egged on by stars such as John Wayne and the likes of Hopper — that kept people such as Trumbo in the shadows.
Not that the blacklist stopped people from working; it just forced them underground. In a supreme irony, Trumbo the communist demonstrated the efficacy of the free-market system.
His talent undisputed, he churned out screenplays under pseudonyms for everything from schlock horror to prestige pictures — winning two best screenplay awards under other people's names for "Roman Holiday" and "The Brave One."
After the Red Scare began to wane in the 1950s, the blacklist limped along until Hollywood heavy-hitters finally openly defied it and began hiring Trumbo transparently, most notably Otto Preminger for "Exodus" and Kirk Douglas for "Spartacus."
But you don't have to strain hard to hear contemporary echoes of the HUAC, which was renamed the Internal Security Committee in 1969 and disbanded in 1975.
Anytime a member of Congress grandstands, insists on "yes or no" answers to complex questions, mocks a committee witness for asserting constitutional rights against self-incrimination or freedom of speech, or impugns a public official's patriotism, the witch hunt isn't far behind.
And although one may be tempted to cheer on Trumbo's statement in the movie that only a "moron or a slave" should be compelled to play the game, speaking truth to power, particularly in witty and sarcastic fashion, can come with a heavy price.
Such a scenario was wrong then, Cranston argued, and it would be wrong now. When asked about conservative pushback to the film, Cranston said that was all in the spirit of a vibrant debate.
"In the true spirit of Trumbo, let’s talk about it. We’re not afraid of an opinion or an ideology that opposes ours. In fact, it’s intriguing and curious. And there’s room for all ideas. That was the whole point of the movie," he said.
"Trumbo" opens Friday in Washington at Landmark's E Street Cinema and in Bethesda, Md., at Landmark's Bethesda Row.
Correction 5:25 p.m. A previous version of this article misspelled Cranston's first name.