I was always a bastard, you just never noticed. Kirk Douglas to Hedda Hopper in the HBO movie TRUMBO, 2015
Perhaps one of the most defining incidents in blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s life concerns the film Spartacus (1960), starring Kirk Douglas. Spartacus has a lot of Hollywood mythology associated with it: off-screen Tony Curtis allegedly quipped, “Who do I have to fuck to get out of this film?” Spartacus, based on the novel by Howard Fast, was produced by Kirk Douglas’ production company, and marked the reunion of Douglas and Kubrick who had worked together previously on the universally acclaimed film, Paths of Glory.
It has been postulated that Kirk Douglas hired the 30 year old Kubrick just as much for his talent as much as for Douglas’ belief that he could bend that talent to his will. During an interview with John Osborne on the Turner Classic Movie channel (TCM), Tony Curtis called Kirk Douglas diabolical. But with regard to Dalton Trumbo, Kirk Douglas is seen as supremely heroic, because, as the legend would have us believe, he alone decided to credit Dalton Trumbo on-screen as the writer of the script for Spartacus, thus breaking the blacklist ban on Trumbo and, as a consequence, ending the entire blacklisting system in Hollywood.
At the time Spartacus was being produced, Trumbo was still blacklisted. He was all set to use one of his many pseudonyms: Sam Jackson. As a result of acknowledging Trumbo, Kirk Douglas could have been blacklisted along with everyone who worked on the film because of the guilt by association logic of the Communist hunters within the right-wing Hollywood Alliance. In the HBO movie Trumbo (2015), founding member of the Hollywood Alliance, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, portrayed brilliantly by Helen Mirren, reminds Kirk Douglas, played with wit and vicious charm by New Zealand actor Dean O’Gorman, of this very real and unsettling fact.
Although HBO’s TRUMBO has its faults, it does attempt to temper mythology with fact with regard to Kirk Douglas, Spartacus and the restitution of not just Trumbo’s good name, but his name period. In the HBO film, Kirk Douglas’ decision to give Trumbo on-screen credit was motivated more by the need to out-maneuver director Otto Preminger. At the same time Spartacus was ending production, Preminger credited Dalton Trumbo on screen as the screenwriter for Preminger’s film Exodus (1960), which was adapted from Leon Uris’ book and starred Paul Newman. So, although Kirk Douglas did give Trumbo a huge leg-up at the time, it was Preminger, an Austrian, who was the first to do so.
One of my favorite scenes in HBO’s TRUMBO (written by John McNamara and based on Bruce Cook’s biography) is set during a screening of the dailies for Spartacus, where Kirk Douglas orders his press agent to give Dalton Trumbo screen credit as the writer of Spartacus, and Ed Muhl (Mark Harelick) a studio production executive says, “Either you get rid of Trumbo or I will!” Kirk Douglas reminds Muhl in no uncertain terms that if Muhl gets rid of Trumbo, Douglas walks, which means basically the whole film will have to be scrapped. “You see, Ed,” Douglas says, “for better or worse, I am Spartacus.”