No one ever accused Tim Robbins of being
subtle. Of course, no one ever accused Tim Robbins about being less than
sincere and passionate about his causes and his politically-oriented films
either. In THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, a pastiche of 1930's leftist cultural
causes, he has created a film with the virtues of all his passion and
the faults of all his sledgehammer heavyhandedness.
is 1937, and the Depression is still on. Industrial strikes are breaking
out all over. New Deal projects are providing jobs for people, even theatre
professionals, in the form of the Federal Theatre project. The Federal
Theatre is the common thread linking a variety of interlocking stories:
Director Orson Welles (Angus McFadyen) and producer John Houseman (Cary
Elwes) are attempting to mount a production of Mark Blitzstein's union
musical THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones) is the relentlessly
upbeat head of the Federal Theatre Project, always on the lookout for
something new and important.
Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) commissions artist Diego Rivera (Ruben
Blades) to paint a mural in his new Rockefeller Center. Margherita Sarfatti
(Susan Sarandon), a Jew with ties to Mussolini who writes articles for
William Randolph Hearts, sells DaVincis to buy steel for the fascist effort
in Italy. Gray Mather (Philip Baker Hall) buys said paintings. His somewhat
ditzy wife, the Countess LaGrange (Vanessa Redgrave) is a professional
patron of the arts, no matter how trivial. Her current protege is an Italian
aspiring opera singer (Paul Giamatti, looking as if he just stepped off
the set of TOPSY TURVY). Hazel Huffman(Joan Cusack) is a WPA clerk looking
to root out Communists in the Federal Theatre Project, assisted by Tommy
Crickshaw (Bill Murray), a cynical ventriloquist who sees the project
as a threat to vaudeville. Yet the common theme among each of these subplots
is the plight of the working man against the ruthless capitalists, culminating
in a renegade performance of Blitzstein's musical after the project is
shut down by the House Un-American Activities Committee, with armed guards
keeping both actors and audience out..
you catch all that? If not, this is the fundamental flaw in THE CRADLE
WILL ROCK. Robbins has chosen a fascinating piece of history to portray,
and he re-creates both the hope and the despair that was America during
the Depression. However, there is so much going on, and the storylines
cited above are merely the primary ones. There's Theatre Project actor
Aldo Silvano (John Turturro) and his impoverished family, Emily Watson
as homeless aspiring actress Olive Stanton, and a score of others. He
tries to do too much, and overall, ends up doing to little, culminating
in an unsatisfying end. His acknowledged leftist leanings also have the
unfortunate effect of focusing on the most controversial of the Federal
Theatre Project's productions -- Blitzstein's musical and another featuring
musical beavers that's a thinly-veiled attack on capitalism -- which give
the impression that the project really was the hotbed of Communism that
certain Washington politicians believed it to be.
Robbins just doesn't know when to stop, and as both writer and director,
he believes so strongly in his material that he can't discern when he's
creating a powerful scene (as when he echoes the final scene of THE GODFATHER
by intercutting scenes of the destruction of Diego Rivera's socialist-depicting
mural with the triumphant production of Blitzstein's musical) and when
he's hitting you with a sledgehammer (as when depicting Blitzstein's creative
processes as hallucinations involving his dead wife and the ghost of Bertold
said, however, CRADLE is worth seeing as a showcase for some of the best
actors in the business. Collecting all of these A-list talents in one
film is an achievement in and of itself. Hank Azaria, a marvelous actor
who deserves better than just to sing Bob Marley's Jammin' in the
voice of Chief Wiggums on THE SIMPSONS, conveys the conflicts that face
Blitzstein as he faces the possibility of a successful future. Angus McFadyen,
who bears a strong resemblance to Richard Burton in his later, scene-chewing
years, is a surprisingly effective, if drunk, pompous, and temperamental
Orson Welles. Vanessa Redgrave and the ubiquitous Phillip Baker Hall are
marvelous as the steel magnate and his patron-of-the-arts wife, who dabbles
in socialism as a hobby. Ruben Blades seems hardly even to be acting as
the both politically and artistically passionate Diego Rivera, with John
Cusack as a perfect foil, in an interesting interpretation of Nelson Rockefeller
as an amalgam of boyish glee and millionaire spoiled-brat rages. Cherry
Jones is infectiously enthusiastic and passionately committed as Hallie
Flanagan, and Joan Cusack effective as a clerk who inadvertently destroys
the Federal Theatre in her efforts to save it.
Emily Watson and John Turturro do variations of their customary personae.
Watson, who is making a career out of playing psychologically fragile
tragic figures, is somewhat less mannered than usual in her portrayal
of Olive Stanton, the homeless woman turned stagehand turned actress.
Turturro is marvelous -- impassioned and powerful as Aldo Silvano, who
regards his wife Sophie (Barbara Sukowa) as the true artist in the family
for her ability to give him children. His final scenes in this film are
just dynamite. Paul Giamatti, interpreter of the most unappealing characters
in film, is hilarious in the throwaway role of Carlo the protege.
Yet standing out from even this stellar crew is Bill Murray, as cynical
ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw, which is a good thing, because his character
is utterly pointless. Murray has one of the most expressive faces in the
business, as long as the expressions are bemusement, cynicism, disbelief,
exasperation, and exhaustion. Not
since Anthony Hopkins had an entire movie in which to do it in MAGIC has
anyone so vividly portrayed the duality of personality required for ventriloquism.
When Crickshaw, caked with makeup, having ratted out all of his acquaintances
in the business steps on stage to a hostile audience, has even his own
dummy turned against him, it's the most devastating portrait of a group
stoning of a turncoat since Glenn Close's tear in DANGEROUS LIAISONS.
one tragedy in the film, however, is Cary Elwes' portrayal of the late,
great John Houseman as a stereotypical prissy, fastidious British twit
homosexual. Whether it is in good taste at all for Robbins to out Houseman
at this point, regardless of whether his proclivities may have been an
open secret, is beside the point. It's still a broad-brush portrayal,
and frankly, I have to wonder what happened to Cary Elwes. Formerly one
of those pretty English boys who bursts on the scene out of nowhere in
costume pictures such as 1986's LADY JANE, Elwes looked to be a rising
star after THE PRINCESS BRIDE. However, he has not only aged badly, but
hasn't had a good role since GLORY ten years ago.
With its largely terrific acting and a few very powerful moments, THE
CRADLE WILL ROCK could have been a great film. However, it's overly busy
interwoven plotlines and sledgehammer messages make it merely a very good
film. For those who love to watch masters of acting craft at work, however,
this is a real treat.
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