The Winner

updated 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FOUR DECADES AGO, ELIZABETH WAS crowned, Hillary scaled Mount Everest, and Roman Holiday, the spun-sugar chronicle of a princess (Audrey Hepburn) who visits the Eternal City and falls for a journalist (Gregory Peck), was lining them up at the box office Nominated for 10 Oscars, the movie ultimately won in three categories: Best Actress for Hepburn, Best Costume Design for Edith Head and Best Motion Picture Story for Ian McLellan Hunter, the only one of the trio not to pick up the statuette at the March 25, 1954, ceremony. Why was Hunter a no-show? The question was finally, and officially, answered this week, as the 1953 Oscar was awarded posthumously to a man whose name, until now, never appeared in the credits for Roman Holiday: Dalton Trumbo.

This is not a case of disputed authorship. While Hunter had written much of the script, the actual story for Roman Holiday came from Trumbo. He was a gifted novelist (Johnny Got His Gun) and a prolific screenwriter (Kilty Foyle and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo), but also a man whose membership in assorted left-wing organizations made him a tall target for red-bailing Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Trumbo was in fact the most famous member of the "Hollywood Ten," a group of writers blacklisted by the film and TV industries for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 if they were members of the Communist Party. Blocked from earning a living, Trumbo had asked Hunter to front for him on Roman Holiday and pass along the $50,000 paycheck. That much his friend did, though he was unwilling to extend the charade to Oscar night.

Perfect justice is no longer possible—Trumbo died of a heart attack at age 70, in 1976—yet poetic justice still may be. Scheduled to accept the award at a May 10 ceremony in Beverly Hills was the woman who sat beside him at the '47 hearings—his 77-year-old widow, Cleo, a photographer—and their three children: Nikola, 54, a psychotherapist; Christopher, 52, a screenwriter (Brannigan); and Melissa, 47, a photographer. "It is a vindication," says Christopher.

For Cleo, though, the experience is more like a catharsis. During the blacklisting period, she recalls, "we were broke"—Dalton's fee per script plummeted from $75,000 to $2,000—"and we weren't invited anywhere. People dropped away." Despite all of this, her husband, observed fellow blacklistee Ring Lardner Jr., "had a way of seeing the comedy in situations." After completing a 10-month sentence at the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Ky., for contempt of Congress, Trumbo pushed ahead, for years turning out B-movie scripts under assorted aliases, and working long hours—often, as was his wont, in the bathtub. "The best description of him is an American original," Christopher Trumbo notes proudly.

To be sure, the "American original" had his dark side. Always a drinker, he increased his consumption as his way of coping with stress and the exhausting work schedule he was forced to set for himself. Still, he won another Oscar—as "Robert Rich"—for The Brave One in 1957. Then as McCarthyism receded, Trumbo finally "came out of the closet" in 1960. With the support of Spartacus star Kirk Douglas and Exodus director Otto Preminger, he put his real name on those scripts, once and for all signaling the end of the blacklist.

Trumbo was able to claim his Brave One Oscar in 1975, but his role in Roman Holiday remained a tight secret until Hunter revealed the truth in 1989, two years before he died. Last year the Writers Guild officially changed the credits on Roman Holiday. "That was the important part," says Christopher. "The Academy Award is secondary." But, says Cleo Trumbo, "he'd be very pleased by this Oscar. It puts everything in order."

JOANNE KAUFMAN
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles

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