Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hollywood History 101

Where most would see "Breaking Bad," I saw "From Under My Hat."

The plan was dinner and a play with a friend, at least right up until the e-mail came saying tonight's performance was cancelled. I dithered about what to do, only deciding on a movie 35 minutes before showtime.

Good thing the theater's in the neighborhood.

"Trumbo" was showing, and that's a film I knew I wanted to see since I first saw a preview for it. Tonight, there weren't any previews - not necessarily a bad thing in this era when all the very best moments are divulged in the trailer - to sit through. I sat down, a guy sat right next to me (odd since there were so many empty seats elsewhere) and the movie began. Zoom.

I admit that although I knew vaguely about Dalton Trumbo (Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted), it was only from reading books about others or about the era, so I really didn't know a lot. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" seems to me a phrase we've all heard at some point, but beyond that, I was clueless.

Of course, I didn't know the actor who played Trumbo - Bryan Cranston - from Adam, unlike the couple behind me who immediately began by identifying hims as the "Breaking Bad" guy, which meant nothing to me.

Regardless of his prior work, he did a masterful job in this role, cigarette holder constantly in his teeth, glass of Scotch in hand, and always typing, whether in the bathtub or at his desk, ashes falling where they may, conveying the drive and ambition of a man who loved to write.

But what fascinated me was the character of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with real vitriol and pseudo-patriotism by Helen Mirren. She came across as an awful person, eager to exact punishment on every member of the Hollywood 10, while using her clout with studio heads and directors to ensure nobody worked if she didn't want them to.

You see, a few years ago I'd been given an autographed copy of "Under My Hat," Hopper's 1952 autobiography of her acting (who knew?) and writing career and reading it, I'd been charmed by a woman I'd previously only known from an episode of "I Love Lucy."

But after seeing "Trumbo," I realize now how much personal ugliness and reprehensible behavior she left out of her book. The Congressional witch hunts that ruined the careers of so many talented people in the film industry were aided and abetted by this nut case, who used her multiple platforms - columns, radio and TV  - to spew venom and lies.

That one woman wearing crazy hats (literally and metaphorically) had so much power in the industry is almost inconceivable in the crowd-sourced world of today.

For the most part, period details were terrific, although occasionally, dialog skewed modern. "Her timing was always amazing," doesn't sound like anything that was said in 1948, when the word "amazing" wasn't the go-to adjective. Thankfully, no one used "awesome" or I'd have thrown popcorn at the screen.

Watching Trumbo literally cut and tape sections of his screenplays together served as reminder of how much more technically difficult the rewriting process used to be on a typewriter.

You know how I love a good history lesson.

I was surprised at how much the film's themes continue to resonate given that we're still trying to figure out where to draw the line between intrusion into people's personal lives and protection from the bad guys, and not wearing nearly as stylish clothing in the attempt.

That Trumbo went to jail for almost a year and then had to write using other people's names (earning two Oscars along the way) to earn a living reminded of what a shameful period in our country's history this was.

Back when I'd been reading "Under My Hat," I'd mentioned it to a few people and most of them had no idea who Hedda Hopper was. Now I realize what a good thing that is.

The shame is that more don't know who the brilliant Dalton Trumbo was. It would be wonderful to think this movie might change that.

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