Dalton Trumbo: The Oscar Winner Who Couldn’t Get His Award

We look back at the Oscar-winning screenwriter who couldn't get his award...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Back in 1953, Roman Holiday was a raging success. The Audrey Hepburn-headlined romantic comedy picked up seven Oscar nominations, and its box office run brought in $12 million off a $1.5 million budget (if you go by inflation-adjusted totals, that’d be receipts of well over $150 million). Furthermore, come the night of the Academy Awards, further riches were to be bestowed on the film. Audrey Hepburn took home Oscar gold for Best Actress, while the costume designer, Edith Head, was rewarded for her work.

The film collected a third Oscar too, for its screenplay. The named writers were John Dighton and Ian McLellan Hunter. The only problem? Ian McLellan Hunter did not write a single word of the film. The man who did was Dalton Trumbo, but if his name had been on the credits, the film would likely have never been made at all, yet alone the recipient of gongs. For Dalton Trumbo was one of those on the Hollywood blacklist, and it wasn’t until 2011 that his name was posthumously restored to the credits of Roman Holiday, over 40 years since his death.

Trumbo would win another Oscar too, and this time, there would be no alternative to claim the prize. His script to the 1956 drama The Brave One won an Oscar for Best Story (the last to do so, before the category was retired). In this case, it was written under the pseudonym of Robert Rich, with Academy voters backing the film, the majority unaware that Trumbo had anything to do with it. When Robert Rich’s name was called on Oscar night, nobody came to the stage. Trumbo would not get that gong until 1975.

Ad – content continues below

The Early Days

Trumbo was one of the best and most prolific screenwriters of his era. Starting his writing career penning articles for magazines, he then moved to novels, his first being published in 1935, before taking to screenplays a few years later. Within a decade, he was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, earning $70-80,000 a year at his peak. In 1939 and 1940, six different movies bore his writing credit.

Over time however, even though the rate of his writing barely faltered, his name dropped off movie credits, with other writers fronting for him, or his work going out under pseudonyms. Between 1950 and 1960, Trumbo’s screenplays bore names such as Guy Endore, Ben Perry, Robert Rich, and Sally Stubblefield, amongst others. But for a long time, not his own.

Why? Well, Trumbo was one of the victims of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crackdown on communism in the United States. Trumbo joined the Communist Party in 1943, and in 1947, the House Committee of Un-American Activities called him and nine others to testify. Trumbo refused to hand over any information, and was duly convicted of Contempt Of Congress. He was sent to prison, serving 11 months.

Senator McCarthy took things from there, and the witchhunt – so damningly realized in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible – took hold. Trumbo, along with many others, found himself blacklisted, and unable to work on Hollywood films. Or at least tell people he was. With a bunch of other writers putting their names on his work to help protect him, Trumbo was just about able to make a living, but it would be some time before he would break free of the blacklist.

I Am Spartacus

It was Kirk Douglas who would prove instrumental. Douglas was in a race against time to bring his planned production of Spartacus to the screen. No matter that he didn’t have a director until late on, he was struggling with the script and the clock was ticking. Howard Fast, who had written the original novel, had a go at the screenplay, and it did not go well.

In his book, I Am Spartacus, Douglas describes how he was desperately trying to get the film into production before a rival project, The Gladiators, could beat it to the screen. There was already badwill between the projects, not least when United Artists – the studio backing The Gladiators – trademarked the title Spartacus as a possible name for its film. That was eventually amicably resolved.

Ad – content continues below

However, Douglas was still in trouble, and thus took a meeting with a man called Sam Jackson. Douglas was well aware that Jackson was indeed Trumbo, but noted “I didn’t give a damn about his politics.” The two had a meeting (at Trumbo’s house, well away from Hollywood), Douglas left him a copy of the book. Within 48 hours, Douglas had an outline. Trumbo had cracked how to bring Spartacus to the screen, and would proceed to write the extensive screenplay – and its many revisions – at a rate of knots. It wasn’t always easy, not least when Douglas at once stage allowed some tinkering with Trumbo’s words, causing a fall-out between the pair. But again, this was resolved, with Douglas backing down. 

Spartacus shot for well over a year, having replaced original director Anthony Mann after a week (some of his footage remains in the film) with Stanley Kubrick taking charge (although not getting final cut). But the question then arose: whose name to put down on the credits as a writer? During the filming, Trumbo’s name was covered up, even though Douglas’ book makes it sound like a reasonably well known secret. Yet as he recalls the story that, after a discussion that saw Kubrick at one stage suggesting he took part screenplay credit, Douglas left a pass at the gate of Universal Pictures for Trumbo, and the blacklist started to fall apart. The secret was out, and it was a monumental moment: a blacklisted writer had been given credit on a huge motion picture. Dalton Trumbo was the writer of Spartacus.

The problems didn’t go away overnight, and nor did the blacklist. Although its credibility had been hit, Spartacus was still picketed by protesters on its initial release. Yet Dalton Trumbo’s real name was on the credits, and the film went on to become a huge blockbuster. When then President John F Kennedy effectively crossed the picketline to see Spartacus in 1961 – as Douglas recounts in his book – the days of the blacklist were all but over.

Yet it still took time for Trumbo to get his credits back, and he wouldn’t live to see his name fully reinstated on all of his work. He did live to receive his Oscar for The Brave One, however, and after the black list, he would return to writing and directing.

Many others who were blacklisted never did.