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The Big Picture

When Writers Really Were Nobodies

Hollywood's blacklist forced many to pen scripts anonymously, until the '57 Oscars began to turn the tide.

March 13, 2001|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The Oscars have become the movie industry's version of the Super Bowl. For months leading up to awards night, the media airwaves are clogged with such an onslaught of hype, horse-race analysis and million-dollar ad campaigns that the Big Event has begun to feel dismayingly anticlimactic.

With all this media overload, by the time award night rolls around, there are few surprises left. So imagine the unthinkable--what if someone won an Oscar who was an impostor?

Let me take you back to the night of March 27, 1957, when an unknown screenwriter named Robert Rich failed to show up to claim his statuette for best motion picture story (a category long since abandoned) for the 1956 film "The Brave One."

At the time, his absence seemed innocent enough. After actress Deborah Kerr called out Rich's name from the podium at Graumann's Chinese Theatre, Writers Guild of America executive Jesse Lasky Jr. hurried onstage and accepted the award on his behalf, saying that his "good friend" was at a maternity hospital where his wife was giving birth.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 16, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Film title--The Academy Award for best adapted screenplay in 1957 went to "The Bridge on the River Kwai." The title was reported incorrectly in an article about blacklisted writers in Tuesday's Calendar.

As it turned out, Rich wasn't anywhere near a hospital; in fact, Lasky had never even met Rich. But looking back nearly half a century later, you could say that giving birth was almost the right metaphor. For what became known as the Robert Rich affair was no Oscar gag, like Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups. It turned out to be the beginning of the end of the notorious Hollywood blacklist, which had destroyed the careers of hundreds of talented writers, directors and actors who were labeled as Communists or left-wing sympathizers.

In reality, Robert Rich was a screenwriter's invention--a pseudonym for Dalton Trumbo, a gifted, irascible writer who, as a member of the Hollywood Ten, had gone to prison in 1947 and had been unable to work under his own name for a decade before his unlikely Oscar win.

When Kerr called out Rich's name, Trumbo was sitting at his Los Angeles home with his family, watching the Oscars like millions of other movie fans. "We obviously knew he'd been nominated, but no one expected him to win," recalls his son, writer Christopher Trumbo. "It was a total surprise. I remember my father staring at the TV screen, saying, 'Well, I'll be . . .' "

What followed was half Marx Brothers farce, half Kafkaesque drama. For a decade, the Hollywood Ten had been professional dead men, as Trumbo once put it. They'd been fired from their studio jobs. They were unable to work under their own names. Most moved to Europe or Mexico to find work. Trumbo, who'd been making $3,000 a week before the blacklist, scrambled for jobs that paid him $3,500 for an entire script.

Taking home an Oscar was out of the question. The same year Rich won, Michael Wilson, another blacklisted writer, was an almost certain adapted screenplay nominee for "Friendly Persuasion," which, in keeping with the bizarre nonperson tenets of the time, had been released without a screenwriter credit. Not wanting to be embarrassed, the motion picture academy secretly passed a new bylaw banning blacklisted writers from being eligible for prizes. When Wilson earned a nomination, the academy immediately disqualified him.

However, the academy had overlooked the possibility that someone could win an Oscar using a pseudonym. They also didn't count on Trumbo's indomitable spirit and public-relations savvy. Knowing it was too early for him to step forward and take credit for the script, which would only cause trouble for the King brothers, the movie's producers, Trumbo instead staged a guerrilla-style media blitz, staging interviews and events that would be the envy of any of today's multimillion-dollar Oscar marketing campaigns. For Trumbo saw the Rich affair as a golden opportunity to embarrass the academy and embolden others to push harder to crack the blacklist.

The uproar began the day after the Oscars, when the WGA discovered there was no guild member named Robert Rich. Hedda Hopper called every obstetrics ward in town but came up empty. A day later, a real Robert Rich--a nephew of the King brothers who worked in their offices and was the inspiration for the pseudonym--visited the academy, eager to confess that he had not written the movie. Flush with victory, the academy rushed out a press release saying the writer of "The Brave One" had denied authorship of the film.

The move backfired. Seeing an Oscar there for the taking, all sorts of Robert Riches surfaced. One, saying he was the nephew of a deceased Robert Rich, told Variety he was flying down from San Francisco to claim the statue. Before long, the Oscar was subject to a bewildering array of claims, lawsuits and counterclaims by everyone from Orson Welles to documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty.

Soon Hollywood was in a tizzy, with Variety reporting that "for the first time in the 29-year history of the academy, the identity of a winner is clouded by such doubt and mystery that the Board of Governors will have to meet to decide what to do about it."

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