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In Cradle Will Rock, his third directorial outing, Tim Robbins takes on an almost insurmountably ambitious project: re-creating an era by weaving characters imaginary, obscure and famous into a tapestry that represents the texture of the time. It's a tall order. E.L. Doctorow was able to pull off a similar undertaking in his novel Ragtime, but even an estimable talent like Milos Forman couldn't fully bring that to life on the screen.
In fact, Robbins has set himself an even tougher task. The era he deals with, the '30s, is fresher in memory after 70 years than the pre-World War I period of Ragtime was when Doctorow's book came out after a similar time lapse. One can suggest a number of reasons: Thanks to sound movies, we have a fuller, more accessible record of the '30s, and the turbulent political issues of the time are still active, with acrimonious debates between the left and right as to what really happened in the period. It goes without saying that the likes of Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley will accuse Cradle Will Rock of being a left-wing whitewash.
But more than anything, the reason the '30s stick in our collective memory is that, even 70 years later, nothing has overturned our culture as totally as the Great War and the two decades that preceded it.
Robbins hangs his film on a central historical event: In 1937, 22-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles (played by Angus MacFadyen in the film) was staging the premiere of Marc Blitzstein's anticapital musical The Cradle Will Rock under the auspices of the WPA's Federal Theater Project. A day before the show's scheduled June 16 opening, government guards locked the company out of its theater to enforce a temporary hiatus on new projects, owing to funding cuts. Welles and his associate John Houseman (Cary Elwes) located another theater 20 blocks away and asked the audience to walk to the new location, where the show would be performed without sets or costumes, which were locked up at the first theater. After a frantic but successful attempt to find a piano, Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) began to perform the show himself to his own accompaniment; the cast members, who had been forbidden by their union to appear on stage for the impromptu engagement, began chiming in from the audience. The night is reported to have been magical, and the show probably garnered greater publicity than it would have if the original production had gone on unhindered.
The event has obvious dramatic potential. In fact, in the year before his death, Welles was planning to direct Rocking the Cradle, a film based on the events. Ring Lardner Jr. had written a script, which was extensively rewritten by Welles. As so often occurred during Welles's career, the funding fell through. Welles's version of the script was posthumously published in a hard-to-find edition; early announcements of Robbins's film listed the Lardner-Welles script as its basis.
Robbins, however, has presumably strayed significantly from the original concept, enough at least that the Writers Guild awarded him a solo screenwriting credit. In his hands, the story becomes a centerpiece for a broader look at issues of freedom of speech; government funding of the arts; the uneasy alliance of artists, leftist intellectuals and labor unions; the links between big business and big government, between big business and fascism; and a dozen other topics that continue to have relevance today.
While the staging of the musical is the focus, Robbins introduces several other plot threads, both real and invented. Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), fancying himself an art connoisseur, hires Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center. A WPA clerk (Joan Cusack), obsessed with Communists in her workplace, testifies before the prototype for HUAC. She is romanced by a ventriloquist (Bill Murray) who is embittered over the death of vaudeville. A charming emissary (Susan Sarandon) from Mussolini presents art treasures to American industrialists in return for material aid to the fascist cause. One of her beneficiaries is a steel magnate (Philip Baker Hall) whose high-spirited wife (Vanessa Redgrave) is sympathetic to the theater company. Blitzstein wrestles with memories of his late wife and his attempts to introduce Brechtian concepts into American theater. A seemingly untalented singer-actress (Emily Watson) longs to break into show business; an Italian-American performer (John Turturro) struggles to stay on stage while supporting his wife and kids and dealing with his pro-fascist extended family.
Robbins juggles several worthwhile ideas here. One only wishes he had done it more deftly. While the film has its pleasures -- how could a movie with such a cast fail to? -- it reaches so far and wide that it feels chaotic. It suffers from the pitfalls that often hobble films with multiple protagonists: There is no one on whom the audience can hang its sympathies for very long.
While not immediately obvious, it becomes clear after a while that Robbins wants the form of the film to embody those very Brechtian ideas that Blitzstein strove to incorporate in the original musical. But such techniques have rarely (if ever) worked as well on-screen as on the stage, and from what we see of the Blitzstein show, it's hard to believe that they worked very well on stage, either. Indeed, it's symbolic of the film's failings that the climactic presentation of the musical never re-creates the frisson that presumably ran through the audience on that night 63 years ago. In fact, The Cradle Will Rock (the musical) comes across almost as a parody of left-wing art, with ham-fisted symbols and embarrassingly earnest proclamations instead of human characters and memorable melodies.
Some of the casting and performance decisions are also less than perfect. For example, Robbins, so good at playing goofy characters, would have made more sense as Rockefeller than does his friend Cusack. For that matter, Robbins's slightly puffy good looks might have made him a better candidate for Welles, too, though by all rights Vincent Philip D'Onofrio, who played Welles in Ed Wood (with voice dubbing by Maurice LaMarche), should have a lock on the character forever. MacFadyen doesn't look much like Welles, but that's not the only problem: He plays him at constant full-tilt flamboyant, as though Welles never relaxed his theatricality for a moment, even in private. The usually perfect Elwes similarly turns Houseman into a caricature, so much so that he and MacFadyen seem to have wandered in from a Preston Sturges film.
In the end, Cradle Will Rock is just too damned much. It's more exhausting than edifying. Robbins seems to be aiming to bring back the '30s through sheer force and momentum, to actually bully us into the period. It's a shame. His heart's in the right place: The issues he brings up are still important; the conflicts of the era are still too much with us; and the activists of that time and place, no matter how dangerously naive they may seem in retrospect, have been too shallowly vilified and mocked for years. Their stories deserve to be told. If only Robbins had told them better.
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