A vibrant evocation of a rare moment in American history when art and politics were dynamically forged on the same anvil, “Cradle Will Rock” succeeds far more often than not in delivering a credible, kaleidoscopic portrait of creative, and often famous, individuals. Erring mainly in its occasional tendency toward caricature, this is Tim Robbins’ ambitious attempt to make his own “Reds,” a deeply felt homage to a time when artistic activity was driven by passionate commitment much more than by dreams of profit or celebrity, despite the financial perilousness of the Depression. With the feel of a high-end Miramax film rather than of a studio picture from parent company Disney, pic should attract a following among discerning upscale audiences upon its autumn release, but would need a full-bore Miramax-style promo push to move much beyond that.
Film’s title, curiously minus the initial definite article of its source of inspiration, refers to the polemical musical drama, “The Cradle Will Rock,” written by Marc Blitzstein in 1936 for the Federal Theater.
Taken on by a 21-year-old Orson Welles and John Houseman at the height of their celebrated theatrical collaboration in New York, the play enjoys a unique place in legit annals due to the dramatic circumstances of its premiere: With right-wing politicians on the attack and its theater abruptly shut down by authorities on the day of opening, the company led the public on a 21-block march through Manhattan to another venue where the actors, forbidden by their union from setting foot onstage, spontaneously began performing their roles from various spots in the auditorium to the accompaniment of Blitzstein on piano. Result was a politically charged triumph for the beleaguered Federal Theater.
Fashioning his screenplay from scratch, Robbins uses the “Cradle” episode as just one of several thematically related artistic ventures to create a larger picture of the dynamic cultural landscape during a tumultuous and exciting period.
Many of the characters involved were well known at the time and have since become legends, and one of the most imposing challenges Robbins faced was getting the viewer past the name-dropping problem; among the personages here are Nelson Rockefeller, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. Although there are legitimate quibbles about the way these people and others are handled, Robbins mainly pushes through the difficulties by virtue of bold confidence.
Appropriately enough, however, tale begins with a down-and-outer, vagrant would-be actress Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), who’s caught some sleep behind a cinema screen on which a newsreel helpfully presents a panorama of major world events. With judicious speed, opening stretch introduces any number of diverse New York characters: Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), as he tries to compose his revolutionary musical; arts doyenne Comtesse LaGrange (Vanessa Redgrave), who enthuses about Welles’ Negro “Macbeth” while her industrialist husband, Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall), colludes with Mussolini’s beautiful emissary and former mistress, Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon); Works Progress Administration clerk Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) furtively posting anti-Federal Theater proclamations; and vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), reduced to trying to teach two upper-class twits how “to be funny.”
Using sharp, indelible strokes, Robbins and ace lenser Jean Yves Escoffier forcefully bring the period to life while shuffling all the characters onstage. Impressive location scenes in which Olive walks the streets and stands in lines filled with countless job seekers deftly evoke the anxious desperation of the Depression, just as the lives of the privileged are summoned up by the Comtesse’s well-intended dilettantism and frequent glimpses of the exclusive restaurants and salons patronized by the rich and powerful. Beyond the expository value, intercutting of these sequences implicitly sets up the dialectic that informs the political convictions of many characters, as well as Blitzstein’s musical.
Welles is first seen onstage, in rehearsals for his production of “Doctor Faustus,” and while the contagious creative fervor emanating from the charismatic Boy Wonder is convincing, the man himself is seen exclusively as a flamboyant egomaniac with an unquenchable thirst for booze. Angus Macfadyen plays him mainly by lurching about, flailing his arms and making sure he speaks louder than anyone else.
Contrasting starkly with the rambunctiousness of Welles & Co. is the parched, constricted world of those who oppose the prevailing sociopolitical currents of the time. While professionally devoted to placing applicants in work programs, Hazel is ideologically devoted to curtailing the Federal Theater due to what she views as the elitism and political agendas of its leading lights. A meeting she calls of potential allies draws a pathetic collection of timid souls, one of whom, Tommy, helps her rehearse the testimony she hopes to deliver to the government committee headed by the conservative Congressman Martin Dies, who is trying to put the screws on the Federal Theater for what he believes is heavy red influence under the leadership of the indefatigable Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones).
Other major story strand is the commissioning of exiled Mexican painter Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) by Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) to create a giant mural for the lobby of the latter’s new Rockefeller Center. At first quite friendly — they even carouse together drunkenly with some models and the artist’s wife, Frida Kahlo — the two are nonetheless destined for a collision, and their relationship effectively encompasses the contentious political and artistic polarities of the time — communism vs. capitalism, artistic genius vs. the purchase or co-optation of artistry.
Broadening the picture even more is an Italian element represented by the elegant Sarfatti, on the one hand, and on the other by Aldo Silvano (John Turturro), a committed actor in Welles’ company whose relatives are loyal fascists.
Robbins divides the story, which begins in the fall of ’36, into three acts divided by four-month intervals. Climax of the convulsive premiere of “The Cradle Will Rock” is effectively intercut with the destruction of Rivera’s masterful mural, which, with its portraits of Marx and Lenin as well as images of capitalist-created bacteria infecting the workers, finally proved too much for Rockefeller to tolerate (Rivera actually painted his mural in 1932, but it’s an example of chronological license legitimately taken).
Aside from the broad way in which some characters are presented, pic’s one other letdown was perhaps unavoidable, in that it stems from the shortcomings of Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” itself. Composer is amusingly shown at intervals with his artistic hero, Bertolt Brecht, creatively egging him on, and the fact remains that his pageant of a worker rebellion against corporate America is obvious and derivative both politically and musically.
Many of the performances are splendid. Particular standouts include Jones, Turturro, Sarandon, Blades, Murray and Redgrave, while Cary Elwes does a nice job of catching John Houseman’s refined snootiness; Houseman and Welles can barely stand to be in the same room with each other, and yet the collaboration worked.
Robbins and his team have impressively gotten a big period picture on the widescreen for $32 million. Richard Hoover’s production design and Ruth Myers’ costumes are big plusses, as are Escoffier’s nimble cinematography and Geraldine Peroni’s sharp editing. This is a rare Hollywood-backed venture, a politically committed picture about committed people, one that goes a long way toward bringing a convulsive period alive for audiences more than 60 years later.