Cradle Will Rock
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Hank Azaria (Marc Blitzstein), Rubén Blades (Diego Rivera), Joan Cusack (Hazel Huffman), John Cusack (Nelson Rockefeller), Cary Elwes (John Houseman), Philip Baker Hall (Gray Mathers), Cherry Jones (Hallie Flanagan), Angus MacFadyen (Orson Welles), Bill Murray (Tommy Crickshaw), Vanessa Redgrave (Countess LaGrange), Susan Sarandon (Margherita Sarfatti), Jamey Sheridan (John Adair), John Turturro (Aldo Silvano), Emily Watson (Olive Stanton), Paul Giamatti (Carlo), John Carpenter (William Randolph Hearst), Harris Yulin (Congressman Dies)
At the end of "Cradle Will Rock," a group of actors, vaudeville performers, and dedicated theater goers perform a symbolic funeral procession mourning the death of the Federal Theater Project, an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration program of FDR's New Deal, that was closed down by the government for monetary reasons that conveniently masked political reasons. Holding aloft a casket containing a ventriloquist's dummy and a hand-painted sign noting the life and death of the Federal Theater Project 1934-1937, they solemnly march down the streets of New York. However, when the camera finally pans up, we suddenly realize that we are looking at modern-day Times Square.
This ending, I suppose, is writer-director Tim Robbin's non-too-subtle means of making a statement about the modern state of theater production in the United States. "Cradle Will Rock" is a celebration of theater as a form of righteous social protest, and by ending the film with a shot of Disneyfied Times Square with all its gaudy neon advertising, Robbins is throwing his arms in the air and saying, "Look what has happened! Where once dedicated artists put their careers on the line to make a meaningful statement, we now have theaters showing 'Phantom of the Opera' and 'The Lion King.'"
"Cradle Will Rock" is the first film Robbins has written and directed since the extraordinarily powerful "Dead Man Walking" in 1995, and, although "Cradle" is an entertaining, energetic, and well-made film, it suffers precisely because it lacks what made "Dead Man Walking" so good. In "Dead Man Walking," Robbins tackled one of the most hotly contested topics in American society--the death penalty--without once resorting to preaching, grandstanding, or sentimentality. Robbins is on record as being adamantly opposed to capital punishment, yet his film looked with sincerity and clarity at both sides of the issue and allowed the viewers to decide for themselves. "Cradle Will Rock," on the other hand, is an object lesson in how not to be subtle, and although the good humor and exaggerated performances of the first half of the film balance out Robbin's political exhortations, the second half becomes too self-righteous for its own good.
This is probably most prominent in the last twenty minutes, when the play-within-the-movie, a musical about union strikers in Steeltown, U.S.A. called "The Cradle Will Rock" is finally performed. The performers have been ordered by their respective unions not to perform the play because the government has shut down the Federal Theater Project. Therefore, if they appeared on-stage, they would risk losing their jobs. Eventually, though, as the musical's brave writer, Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), begins to perform the musical on stage alone, the various actors and actresses stand up in the audience and begin joining in.
The sequence is meant to be a grand moment of spontaneity, where social responsibility outweighs monetary necessity, but it is ultimately crass and unaffecting. The truth is, this is more or less how it really happened, with one crucial difference. It is true that the actors played their roles while standing among the audience. But, the film would have you believe that they decided to do so right there in the theater as Blitzstein began playing--as if seeing him alone on stage spoke to their deepest social mindset, monetary consequences be damned.
In fact, what happened is this: Hours before the guerilla performance, the producer-director team of John Houseman and Orson Welles decided to take advantage of a potential legal loophole in rhetoric. The actors has been ordered not to appear on-stage, so technically there was nothing stopping them from performing the musical while standing in the audience. Houseman and Welles asked the actors to do this well beforehand, and they went into the theater with the full intent of joining Blitzstein. So, what we get in the film is a silly, sentimental sequence worthy of a bad Broadway musical, rather than a more deliberate, historically accurate scene that would have maintained the dignity of the actors and the risk they took with their livelihoods without resorting to manipulative melodrama.
And, if this weren't enough, the performance of "The Cradle Will Rock" is only part of a three-way associative montage that cuts together scenes of the musical with scenes of the destruction of a subversive mural by revolutionary Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Rubén Blades) and scenes of Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), media baron William Randolf Hearst (John Carpenter), and fictional steel tycoon Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall) discussing how to exploit the working class while (get this) at a costume party dressed as Renaissance-era aristocrats.
This brief description of the film's climax only begins to hint at Robbins' aspirations. Perhaps because the 1937 musical "The Cradle Will Rock" was such a defiant statement, he felt that his film had to match its ambition. Like Rivera's destroyed mural, which tried to summarize the entire socio-political trajectory of the 1930s on a wall in Rockefeller Center, Robbins' film covers a great deal of ground with great economy.
He includes the story of Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), a homeless naïf at the beginning of the film who ends up singing "Cradle's" opening number. We get to see the behind-the-stage antics of the musical's creation, which includes brief glimpses at the tumultuous relationship between anal producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and prodigious director Orson Welles, played by Scottish actor Angus MacFadyen as a drunken, boastful, and loud-mouthed young visionary.
We see sultry Italian propagandist Margherita Sarfatti (rather unconvincingly played by Susan Sarandon) wooing American capitalists into funding Mussolini's fascist regime. At the same time, ironically, red-baiting Senator Martin Dies (Harris Yulin) is holding Congressional hearings investigating proported communist influence in the theater world, specifically targeting the head of the Federal Theater Project, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones, in the film's most understated and effective performance). The hearings are given fuel by the misguided Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), a federal worker upset at the leftist influence she sees at work (interracial dating!), and she even manages to convince a fading vaudeville ventriloquist, Tommy Crickshaw (nicely played by Bill Murray) into helping her practice her testimony.
And there's still more: John Turturro as an Italian actor who deplores his heritage and the fact that his family still supports Mussolini; Vanessa Redgrave, in the film's most enjoyably lunatic performance, as a wild countess who gets her kicks helping out the struggling theater scene; and, of course, the rise and fall of Diego Rivera's ill-fated mural on the wall of Rockefeller Center. All of these stories are interesting and engaging, but they're all clipped for the sake of time. We get snippets and pieces of these characters' lives, but few of them come out as full-blooded people. So, what we get are mostly caricatures, and if the film had stuck with the comedic approach that characterized the first half, it would have been a breezy, enjoyable comedy.
Instead, Robbins turns up the social pathos in the last half, and it all comes crumbling down. At one point, as Rivera is being forcibly removed from Rockefeller Center so his mural can be destroyed, another character informs the angry artist that he shouldn't be surprised because Rockefeller paid him for his art, not his politics. "They're the same thing!" Rivera screams. You don't have to listen too closely to hear Robbins screaming the same thing, except much louder.
©2000 James Kendrick