By Tanya Ishikawa
GRAND JUNCTION-Information provided a sense of control over events, even when the reality was that not much can be controlled. This idea shared by Nikola “Niki” Trumbo to describe her childhood is often applied to the world in general – information is power or at least provides a sense of power, according to teachers, activists and others throughout the ages.
Niki and Melissa “Mitzi” Trumbo are two children of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was born in Montrose, raised in Grand Junction and became one of the “Hollywood Ten” who were investigated, blacklisted and even imprisoned for his allegedly unAmerican political views by a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1940s and ‘50s. The daughters shared their memories and insights of their father and those difficult times in email interviews, in between traveling between premiers of the new big-budget, star-studded film about Dalton Trumbo this fall.
“Trumbo” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12, followed by the Los Angeles premiere on Oct. 27 and the New York premiere on Nov. 2. “All this attention has been an extremely bizarre experience for me. I have been deeply missing my brother Chris and my mother Cleo, remembering how remarkable my father was, and wondering what their reactions to this movie would have been,” explained Mitzi.
For Niki, the premiers have been like participating in a wonderful celebration, reconnecting with the cast and crew members who she met during the filming and have become like her extended family.
The nationwide theatrical release of the film began on Nov. 6 and will be in Colorado theaters on Nov. 20, but Grand Junction will host a special showing of the film this Friday, Nov. 13. At the Avalon Theater, the film will be introduced by special guests Nancy Escher and Dominic Taylor, local members of the Trumbo family, and Larry Ceplair, author of the book on which the film is based. The event was put together by Trumbo family members and The Legends of the Grand Valley, a group originally named “The Dalton Gang” that was responsible for commissioning a sculpture honoring the famed screenwriter in 2007 and since has installed historic sculptures throughout downtown Grand Junction.
Infotainment has power
Packed with popular actors and actresses including Bryan Cranston, Hellen Mirren, Diane Lane, and John Goodman, the movie is sure to draw large audiences to be entertained but also informed about the dark side of U.S. government activities and their impacts.
Both Niki and Mitzi hope theater-goers will come away with a greater understanding of that period of American history, free speech and other issues raised by the film. “I hope that people who watch this film learn to think independently and to stand up for their rights and the rights of others,” added Niki. “I hope they can link the anti-communist hysteria of the ‘50s and ‘60s to current political issues like Black Lives Matter and Latino immigration issues and learn to respect and listen to divergent voices like Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers.”
Mitzi said that while her parents’ story is a compelling example of what happened, she regrets “that the stories of all the others who suffered can’t be told as well. There were hundreds who lost their livelihoods, careers, marriages, even their lives during this repressive period.”
She shared a quote from her father from a partial transcript of a 1959 interview: “The power of the government to assert that it can control the minds of a man, the writings of a man, his thoughts, his beliefs, his affiliations…it’s power, and that’s the evil…the real problem all over the world, here, there and everywhere, is this immoral assertion of power over the most private thoughts of men, and the assertion by government that it has the power to compel men to tell, to recant, to disgrace themselves, to swear they were idiots, to revoke their past and to spit on their work – this is what government wants in greater or less degree all over the world, and this is what nobody – nobody – can do.”
Mitzi recommends the 2007 documentary by Peter Askin, also called “Trumbo”, as a great resource for seeing actual events in her father’s life. Her favorite scene in the new narrative film is her father’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, because “it was what really happened, and I find it very powerful. The consequences of those hearings should always remind us of how fragile our freedoms are, and how vigilant we must continue to be to protect them, now and in the future,” she said.
Niki, who along with her partner Karen Fite shared ideas and critiques with screenwriter John McNamara as he worked on the script, has many favorite scenes and commented that both McNamara and Cranston, who had the role of Dalton Trumbo, did amazing jobs. “One reviewer somewhere said that his performance was a bit over the top and I wanted to write the reviewer and say. ‘No, Bryan’s acting was perfect – that WAS my father,’” she said.
For her, one of the most powerful scenes is when Trumbo is being inducted into prison. The sight of him naked and being told by a guard to open his mouth is such a shock when we are used to seeing him invincible, dapper and almost unassailable, she explained.
The strength of family
In addition to what is shown in the movie, the family shared in many hardships due to prejudice and fear generated by the committee’s accusations. “My father was attacked and beat up at the front steps of the house late one evening, I was publicly humiliated by a history teacher who I had thought was sympathetic, my brother was thrown into a furnace by other children, my sister was also singled out at her school, we lived with the threat of wire-tapped rooms both at home and when visiting friends, and with the ongoing threat of FBI surveillance, and we carried many secrets we had to hold on to,” Niki recalled.
She and her sister and brother appear in the film many times, performed by several actors since it covered 13 years of their lives as growing children, “but it is Trumbo’s relationship with Niki that serves to illustrate Trumbo’s single-minded focus on his work and on breaking the blacklist. Niki is portrayed throughout the film as being like him – political and outspoken. I was like that and had many arguments with him during my adolescence while, not surprisingly, at the same time I felt very close to him,” she said.
The sisters agreed that their father was a great, loving presence in their lives, though he was very passionate about his work and left family matters mostly to his wife, Cleo. They also concurred that the blacklisting and prison experience directed even more of his energy to his work, standing up for his beliefs and earning an income to survive.
Their parents talked to them about what was happening, and explained why they had to be secretive about her father’s work when he was writing under a pseudonym. “We were well informed, and I think that is why we were able to handle it as well as we did,” Niki said.
The experience, though difficult, made them a stronger, closer family. Mitzi revealed, “I have no regrets, and enormous respect for the hard decisions that my father and mother had to make during those years. I wouldn’t want it to have been any other way. I am enormously proud of them and their decisions. I only wish they were here to see the accolades.”
Niki added, “It’s a wonderful gift that this film has been made about my father. To us he was always a hero, but to much of the rest of the country he was a traitor. Things have now come full circle and he can become known to the rest of the country as the hero he truly was. It is important to me to have him seen as a model of courage that others can aspire to, because this film portrays him so well as one human being with flaws and strengths who stood up for his beliefs.”
A strong foundation
Both women grew up in California, except for a couple years spent in Mexico after Trumbo was released from prison. Though their father spoke about Grand Junction and his two years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, his children never made it to Grand Junction until recent years during his sculpture unveiling and other events celebrating and remembering him.
Niki, a CU graduate, said she loved wandering around the town and seeing places where her father must have gone. Mitzi remembered emotional moments during her first visit in 2004, “stepping off the airplane, taking a long moment to breathe in the the clean, crisp air, seeing for the first time the beautiful Grand Mesa that my father had so often described, and stopping in my tracks, thinking of my father’s deep connection to this town,” she said.
She believes Grand Junction formed her father’s his independent spirit, as well as his love of freedom and open spaces. “He often talked about his heritage – his grandparents, his beloved aunts, his father’s garden, his paper route. Grand Junction meant a great deal to him. His experience at Grand Junction High School made him encourage all three of us kids to join debate teams in high school, which he said was the most valuable skill he had ever learned,” she recalled.
She visited again in 2007 to celebrate the unveiling of her father’s sculpture in front of the Avalon Theater and the republishing of her father’s first novel, “Eclipse”, which is about a town called “Shale City” that is very much like Grand Junction. She revealed that on this second visit, “I drove back to the theater at dawn the next morning before I left town, to see the sculpture one more time and to put a flower in the cup my father was holding. It was hard leaving him alone there in the cold, but I knew it was the perfect place for him to be.”