Monday, April 3, 2023

Recasting 2015 (supporting): "Trumbo"

Two years before Judy Davis's Emmy-nominated portrayal of Hedda Hopper in the 2017 limited series, Feud, Helen Mirren managed to score a nomination at almost every major precursor before being snubbed at the Oscars for portraying the same character in Jay Roach's film Trumbo. The film is a biopic centered on Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), a Hollywood screenwriter who becomes blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the early 1950s for being a communist. 

I rewatched the film last week and two things stuck out to me: 1) the fact that for whatever reason watching movies either from or set in the 40s and 50s feels really nostalgic to me (I just enjoy the styling and how everything seems really clean--despite everyone smoking, which I don't mind--and in its place), and 2) I'd forgotten how awful of a person Hedda Hopper probably was in real life. 

Hopper was a gossip columnist who had an astounding number of readers at the height of her popularity in the 1940s. This afforded her some level of power in regard to influencing how folks in the entertainment industry were perceived. I imagine this no doubt affected the behavior of Hollywood stars, even up to the decisions made by studio heads like Louis B. Mayer. 

Those "pissants" are members of the Communist party, who became targets of a witch hunt in the 1950s largely led by senator Joseph McCarthy. Hopper was a huge supporter of the HUAC. It's hard not to see the parallels and similarities to today's political world, where fear-mongering is the name of the game for certain groups, individuals, and even networks. Of course, there's not really much basis in all the effort to excoriate people who are simply demonstrating their constitutional rights of free speech. But there were a LOT of people freaking out in the aftermath of World War II, and anything or anyone in the United States that came close to resembling or sympathizing with the Soviet Union became a huge no-no. It's sort of ironic, considering the attempts to safeguard "American" values by shunning free speech ended up, as far as I can tell, more resembling fascism than patriotism. It was to the point that Trumbo was jailed for close to a year. And after he got out, he had to take lesser work under a pseudonym to make ends meet for him and his family. But the quality of his work continued to make him sought after, in a hush-hush way, by some major stars. 

My understanding is that Hopper had dreams of being a movie star, but as her acting career waned in the 1930s, she turned to writing. This makes me wonder how Meryl might have negotiated this into her character. It's hard not to picture there being some sort of lifelong resentment a person might hold if they were sort of "unwanted" by a group or industry by a certain point, especially when that person ends up acquiring a powerful and poisonous pen. Maybe it'd be part of humanizing Hopper a bit more, in understanding her motivations for her often unsupported and ultimately damaging tactics she implemented in entertaining her readers. That venom and that fear comes from somewhere. 

As referenced above, Mirren landed nominations at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, and SAGs (shocking that she missed BAFTA), and then missed out on the Oscar nom. I suspect Rachel McAdams was the last to squeak in there for Spotlight, which, while probably a better film than Trumbo, McAdams's performance was not in my opinion better than Mirren's (and I don't even think Mirren's was all that amazing--the accent...yikes). Cranston was nominated everywhere but won nothing. Trumbo made no money but was generally well-received by critics, with a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. I can see myself returning to it again in the future, as it contains the aforementioned cinematography I enjoy and is about movies!


  1. I agree with you about the parallels with today's political climate Jeff and I also think Meryl could have been wonderful in this role. I watched this on my first flight to the US in 2016 and while I thought she was okay I remember being underwhelmed by Helen Mirren (maybe as she's a favourite of mine I expected more!).

    Although I don't know very much I do understand she and rival Louella Parsons both played dirty to maintain their position and unfortunately upended more than a few careers in the process.

    This movie overall was good but not great, which was disappointing as it could have been a searing reminder of how badly so many talented and decent people were treated and what could have been if it weren't for political witch-hunting. Cranston does well but I felt he did t have enough to get stuck into. Hopper unfortunately comes off a little bit pantomime to be taken as seriously as she might and played with maybe a little too much charm it disguises her actions.

    I will opt for the Julie Walters small role as Boarding House Landlady Mrs Kehoe in "Brooklyn". I like this movie and feel Meryl could bring something special to what could be a forgettable role in lesser hands than Dame Julie!

    1. I was SO close to choosing the Julie Walters role in Brooklyn! I absolutely love that film, but ultimately favored Mirren's role due to the size. I completely agree with your sentiments on the film, particularly the description of Hopper coming a cross as a bit pantomime in Mirren's portrayal. Would've loved to see what Meryl would've done with it.