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Academic studies gossip columnist

Academic studies gossip columnist she first discovered in childhood

As a child growing up in California Jennifer Frost loved watching re-runs of the 1950s television sitcom I Love Lucy.

Now the Associate Professor in History at the University of Auckland has ended up writing about one of the programme’s most flamboyant guest stars and real-life “gargoyle of gossip”,Hedda Hopper.

“Re-runs of the show were on every afternoon in the 1970s, and I first encountered Hopper in an episode built around her,” Jennifer says.

“The Hedda Hopper Story” episode originally aired on CBS on March 14, 1955 and featured Lucy and musician Desi Ricardo attempting to win Hopper’s attention and, thus, coverage in her column during a visit to Hollywood. As Hopper was known for her extraordinary hats, hat jokes and gags filled the episode. “Craziest hat you’ve ever seen and Hopper will be underneath it,” Desi declares, leading to a situation where they mistake a platter of fruit carried by a waiter for a Hopper hat.

Hopper played herself in the episode and made a big impression on Jennifer.

“I was probably about eight or nine-years old. I thought it was hilarious and I still can see that scene with the waiter in my head. It definitely made me curious about her because Desi and Lucy were so desperate to get Hopper’s attention. But I also thought her fashion attire with the hats and her exaggerated behaviour was way over the top and very old fashioned in the context the 1970s.

Jennifer is the author of HeddaHopper's Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism,which was named one of the Five Best Books on Hollywood and Politics in the Wall Street Journal.

“I knew Hopper was a powerhouse of golden age Hollywood, but her impact on the movie industry often went unrecognised in earlier histories. I wanted to fix that, but I also saw her as a forerunner for today’s merging of celebrity entertainment and American politics.”

Now Jennifer is looking forward to seeing how Hopper is portrayed by English actress Helen Mirren in the upcoming film Trumbo.

Unlike I Love Lucy, the film Trumbo will show Hopper’s behaviour was not a comedy in real life. The film is about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played by Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston) and the blacklist in Hollywood during the Cold War.

For 27 years, beginning in 1938, Hopper wrote her movie gossip column. Her mass media gossip—or as she put it “snooping and scooping”—drew over 30 million readers to her column at its height in the 1950s.

“Hopper used her journalistic platform to promote her conservative politics and traditional values,” Jennifer says.

“She attacked members of the film industry who departed from her political views and moral standards, and mobilised her readers into letter-writing campaigns and movie boycotts.”

Hopper is featured in the film as Trumbo’s political nemesis, as indeed she was. Rather than dismissing the conservative, anti-communist Hopper as “a crank” who engaged in “pinko purges”—as did earlier portrayals—the film takes her formidable role in mid-20th century American popular and political culture seriously.

Once the blacklist was established in late 1947, with Trumbo on it, Hopper felt it was not enough and demanded further blacklisting. In 1950, Hopper accused MGM of continuing to employ Trumbo under a pseudonym, a warning to other studios to maintain the blacklist.

“The establishment of the Hollywood blacklist in late 1947 signalled the stifling of social criticism and political dissent in Cold War America. As the new movie Trumbo makes clear, Hopper helped make this so.”

Trumbo has recently received critical acclaim at the Toronto Film Festival. It recently opened in the UK and is due for general release in the US on 23 October. Jennifer is keen to see the film for herself when it opens in New Zealand on Boxing Day.

“I can’t wait to see how Helen Mirren brings Hopper to life on screen. From the trailer, it seems she gets Hopper just right in terms of voice and mannerisms, and she looks great in the hats.

“I also think she gets the complexity of Hopper: her enthusiasm for gossip and politics which made her both a popular character of her time, but also a destructive person in society.

“There is no doubt Hopper’s portrayal in Trumbo will be very different from the I Love Lucy portrayal I saw so many years ago.”


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