Posted: 12/14/1999


Cradle Will Rock


by Jon Bastian

Tim Robbins combines a raft of colorful historical figures with a few made-up ones, stirs in art, money and the uncertain mood of the 1930s, and comes up with a virtuoso piece that should get plenty of notice at Oscar time.

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Tim Robbins new film, Cradle Will Rock, ends with the biggest cinematic gut-punch I’ve seen in a long time. A single image says more than a thousand words while teleporting all the issues of the film right into our laps. And what a raft of issues. This ambitious production deals with the interlocking roles of art, politics and money, and rather than take a single story and play it out in “Movie of the Week” detail, Robbins weaves multiple stories together. Each separate tale is about some aspect of the art/politics/money triumvirate and, while it may seem for the first two thirds that these strains are not related, by the end, they come together with impressive results. It’s supremely ironic that this movie is the twenty-five million dollar child of Touchstone Pictures, a division of The Walt Disney Company. I can’t say why it’s so ironic without giving away too much, but after the film, you’ll wonder if the folks at Mouseschwitz ever read the script. In effect, Robbins does to Disney what the character of Diego Rivera does in the film to Nelson Rockefeller, except that Robbins gets away with it. Such is the land where art and commerce meet. Sometimes, the artists catch the capitalists napping and sneak something wonderful by. Cradle Will Rock is such a film.

Robbins’ point of view seems to be that mixing art and money is dangerous and will always cause political problems, because the money people are never neutral. When we first see the theatrical company that figures in the story, it’s in rehearsal for Orson Welles’ production of “Faustus.” Yes, this is an historical fact, but it’s also an artistic decision that automatically brings “Faustian bargain” to mind. Add in early references to everyone being prostitutes, and the presence of Welles’ himself (one of the greatest artists and biggest whores of the 20th Century, and I mean that in a good way) and Robbins’ point seems clear. It may seem contradictory, given that Robbins and wife Susan Sarandon are two of the more prominent neo-liberals in Hollywood, but arts funding is one of those gray areas where liberal and conservative goals overlap for opposing reasons. The conservatives would prefer to cut arts funding to shut up the artists; liberals would prefer no public art funding in order to free the artists. Both sides of this coin are tossed in Cradle Will Rock. In one case, a great work of art is reduced to dust before our eyes. In another, a group of artists takes matters into their own hands, because it’s the only way they can create the art they envision.

The central story of the film is the ill-fated 1937 production of the Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) musical play, “The Cradle Will Rock.” Green-lighted for production by the FederalTheatre Project, a government funded unit of FDR’s Work Projects Administration, to be directed by a 22 year old Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen), it became the victim of brewing controversy around the Federal Theatre. The day it was to open, the government padlocked the theatre. Welles and his producer, John Houseman (Cary Elwes) scrambled to find a new theatre, then literally parading the audience down the street for the show. If this capsule makes Cradle Will Rock sound like a cheesy 42nd Street story, it’s not. The issues in the film are not black and white, and while we follow “Cradle” from its creation, through its rehearsals and to its final performance, we also follow a gallery of other players in and around this story.

Other critics have faulted the film for dealing with too much, but I think they just weren’t paying attention. As noted above, at first it seems like we’re watching five stories. Beside the production of “Cradle,” we have Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), a bitter, fading Vaudeville ventriloquist with conservative leanings who feels screwed by the Federal Theatre. He sees an opportunity to get even when Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), a sincere but misguided WPA employee who wants to end Communist influence at the organization, bumps into his life. We have the hilarious but ultimately dark encounter between young robber baron Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) and Mexican muralist and communist Diego Rivera (Rubén Blades). The former hires the latter to paint a mural at his soon to be opened Rockefeller Center. When Rivera inserts a likeness of Lenin in the work, Rockefeller is, to say the least, not a happy camper.

There is also Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall), owner of one of the “little steel” companies — that is, a rich industrialist, but playing in a league below people like Rockefeller. Mathers’ wife, Countess LaGrange (Vanessa Redgrave) is a giddy socialite whose politics (if she really has any) differ from her husband’s. Toss in Mussolini’s ex-mistress cultural ambassador, Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), William Randolph Hearst (John Carpenter) and an art sale that may not be about oil paintings, and it’s obvious that Mathers and LaGrange are going to bump heads at some point. Finally, there’s the saga of Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), head of the Federal Theatre, who winds up in the center of controversy when Texas congressman Martin Dies (Harris Yulin) does some pre-McCarthy witch-hunting.

It is a rich stew, but by the end, Robbins cooks up a very filling meal for the mind, and pays off all the stories. He also gives us a substantial slice of Blitzstein’s play and songs, and Welles’ impromptu staging of it. At the same time, every story and every element plays into Robbins’ main theme. It’s all about the art, and it’s all done very artfully.

Our opening titles announce that this is “a (mostly) true story.” Surprisingly, it is. Most of our characters are real people. Notable exceptions are John Turturro’s Aldo Silvano, who I assume was created for dramatic purposes. Also, Gray Mathers and his wife are probably composite characters. Where Robbins plays fast and loose with history and doesn’t tell us, it was clearly to heighten the drama. For example, the congressional hearings before which Hallie Flanagan appears did not occur until the year after “The Cradle Will Rock” was presented. Likewise, the number of people being thrown out of work by funding cuts is exaggerated — in the film, three thousand; in fact, one thousand. Still, given the dramatic impact of both events in the story, these tweaks are quite forgivable. Incidentally, there’s one thing that may seem anachronistic but is not: several characters very readily admit that they’re gay. You might think this is a 90s overlay on 30s history, but theatre of the time was one arena in which people were quite out of the closet and quite accepted. Anti-gay paranoia didn’t really get rolling until the end of WWII and the rise of McCarthyism. (More people were gay and/or socialists in the 30s than ever admitted it in the 50s.)

The performances here are strong all-around, with particular kudos to Bill Murray, whose penultimate scene alone should be enough to get him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. As his character performs a public act of professional self-immolation, the words come (in song) from the ventriloquist’s dummy, while the emotions that pour across Murray’s face are wrenching. He’s a pathetic character who comes to a pathetic conclusion, and yet does so with a strange dignity. Equally effective is Rubén Blades as Diego Rivera, whose performance, consciously or not, owes a lot to Anthony Quinn as Paul Gaugin in Lust for Life. In fact, with his perma-smirk and squinty eyes, Blades is frequently a dead ringer for Quinn.

Angus MacFadyen bears a passing resemblance to Welles, at least when made up as Faustus, and sounds not at all like him, but he captures the energy of the man perfectly well, and his introduction, in mid-tantrum, is hilarious — and on the nose. Elwes’ prissy Houseman is Welles’ perfect foil. Where Welles fires off all guns, Houseman puts people in their place with the perfectly subdued bon mot. Cherry Jones is the image of strength as the government official presiding over impending chaos, and the Cusacks - Joan and John - each turn in multi-dimensional performances of characters who could have easily been played as cardboard villains.

Ultimately, that is the strength of this film: there are no villains (except maybe Hearst), there are just people. While the things the self-righteous say against art or unions may sound paranoid at times, Robbins also makes us understand why these people feel as they do. After all, it was an era when to promote fascism abroad meant one was against communism. It was still respectable to openly support Hitler or Mussolini. Our participants did not have the advantage of hindsight. By the end of the film, Robbins lets us know that we don’t have that advantage either, but we should at least have the vision to realize that the historical struggle portrayed in Cradle Will Rock still goes on, and will go on, as long as art, money and ideology must co-exist.

Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.

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