Trumbo (and five of the best films about screenwriters)
As one of the most popular films of all time - and the highest-grossing film of the 1960s - even those with only a passing interest in cinema will no doubt be aware of a film called Spartacus. At the very least you will have heard of the film's leading man, Kirk Douglas, while most of you will also be familiar with its director, Stanley Kubrick. If you really know your stuff, you might even know that the screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, a man who had already written two Oscar-winning scripts by the time of the film's premiere in 1960. But back then, you wouldn't have known that. Moreover, if a committee formed in the United States Senate had gotten their way, you probably still wouldn't know that now.
During the early years of the Cold War, communism was considered the greatest threat to the security of the Unites States and the American way of life. Events like the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, as well as the proclamations of public figures like senator Joe McCarthy, had produced a climate of fear and paranoia in the United States, with McCarthy and others asserting that many American industries – and even its government – had been infiltrated by Soviet spies. In the case of the film industry, figures such as Hollywood Reporter founder William Wilkerson had begun to suggest that Hollywood too was being infiltrated, publishing a list of people he accused of being communist sympathisers.
In response, a government group called the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated and began drawing up a blacklist of figures who should be banned from working in Hollywood, starting with a group based on Wilkerson's list that would become known as 'The Hollywood Ten'. Arguably, the most outspoken of these was Dalton Trumbo, and it is his story that forms the basis for Jay Roach's new film.
Born in Colorado in 1905, Trumbo had begun his career as a writer in the film industry in the early 1930s and by the the mid-1940s was one of Hollywood's top earners, having written scripts for a string of hit movies and received his first Academy nomination in recognition of his screenplay for Sam Wood's 1940 film Kitty Foyle. Trumbo made no secret of his support for the ideas of Karl Marx and had become a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in 1943, but he was at pains to point out the distinction between this and the criminal act of espionage and when summoned by the HUAC to testify, he and his colleagues refused, citing the First Amendment and their constitutional right to free speech. They were subsequently charged with contempt, jailed and added to the blacklist, making them practically unemployable as film studios wouldn't hire them for fear of prosecution – except for one.
King Brothers were relative newcomers to the industry and had always been treated as outsiders, so they had little time for the conventions of Hollywood and saw only the chance to get great writers on the cheap, offering Trumbo and the others a way back in on the condition that they would use pseudonyms instead of their own names. Before long, other studios caught on and by the end of the 1950s Trumbo alone had secretly written scripts for nearly a dozen Hollywood movies, winning two Oscars – albeit under false names - in the process. It would take the courage of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger to insist that Trumbo put his own name on the script for Spartacus, marking the end of the backlist and, eventually, the HUAC itself.
Bryan Cranston is predictably brilliant in the role of Trumbo, but he's also surrounded by an excellent cast that includes John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane and Louis C.K., among many others. Roach has made a great film in and of itself, but it's also a fascinating account of one of the darkest periods in Hollywood's history.
You can find the trailer for Trumbo below, beneath that we've picked five other great films on the subject of being a screenwriter...
Released in 1976, Woody Allen's film essentially tackles the same subject as Trumbo, but this time the story of the Hollywood blacklist is played for laughs and the film's protagonist Howard Prince, played by Allen himself, is not a real screenwriter. Prince in fact works in a restaurant and by his own admission “couldn't write a grocery list”, but when a blacklisted friend asks Prince to put his name to a screenplay, the cash comes in handy for paying off gambling debts and he soon finds himself as Hollywood's go-to guy for getting the work of blacklisted writers under the noses of film producers. This is exactly the kind of sharply-written satire you'd expect from Woody Allen and The Front is well worth a watch.
Charlie Kaufmann has earned himself a reputation as one of the most unique and inventive screenwriters working in Hollywood today with films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, but his 2002 film Adaptation took on a slightly meta dimension when he wrote himself into the script. Directed by Michel Gondry, the film sees Nicholas Cage playing both Kaufman and his fictional twin brother, following Kaufman's struggle to adapt a novel called The Orchid Thief. To make things even more strange, he's doing all this while on the set of Being John Malkovich and in several scenes the earlier film can be seen being shot in the background. This one makes the list for creativity alone.
In Bruges director Martin McDonagh's 2012 film sees him hook up once again with Colin Farrell, who this time plays the role of struggling screenwriter Marty Faranan. Marty is trying to finish the screenplay to his latest project, also called Seven Psychopaths, but finds himself caught up in a world of gangland violence when two of his friends (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell) kidnap a Shih Tzu belonging to a notoriously unstable gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). The film has an excellent cast that also includes appearances from Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibe and Tom Waits.
Prick Up Your Ears
Technically speaking, Joe Orton - the subject of Stephen Frears' 1987 film - was a playwright by trade, although many of his plays have since been adapted for the big screen, including What The Butler Saw and Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Written by Alan Bennett, the film tells the true story of Orton's meteoric rise to success before his life was tragically cut short when he was murdered at the hands of his jealous lover and fellow playwright Kenneth Halliwell. Increasingly depressed by Orton's success and his own failures, Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer while he lay in bed before committing suicide himself. Gary Oldman is superb in the role of Orton and Alfred Molina is equally brilliant as the unhinged Halliwell. Frears' recent output has included the much gentler films Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins, but this is raw, gritty and totally absorbing.
Our final pick is this hugely underrated film from the Coen brothers, starring John Turturro as the titular New York playwright who trades in his life on the East coast writing for the stage for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Barton checks into a run-down hotel and meets the head of Capitol Pictures, who assigns him to write the script for a movie about a wrestler, but he immediately starts suffering from writer's block and, to make matters worse, soon finds himself caught up in a murder enquiry when a woman is found dead in his room. Sharp, funny and brilliantly satirical, Barton Fink paints a disturbing picture of the movie industry, but one that is utterly compelling.