From the DVD Shelf: Cradle Will Rock (1999)
Last week I wrote about the disappointingly mediocre Me and Orson Welles, and I commented that the film covered familiar ground as Cradle Will Rock, the 1999 film written and directed by Tim Robbins. After writing that blog post, I realized that it had been years since I’d last seen Cradle Will Rock, and I was in the mood to give it another viewing.
Set in 1937, Cradle Will Rock focuses on the tumultuous production of the musical written by Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), directed by Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and funded by the Federal Theatre Project, a division of the depression-era Work Progress Administration that helped bring theatre to millions of people nation-wide. The play Cradle Will Rock depicted the struggles of working-class union members, and as such was seen as extremely controversial by some. But the sprawling story of Tim Robbins’ film covers far more than just the production of that one play. It also tells the story of the artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades)’s creation of an enormous mural for Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) that was destroyed when Mr. Rockefeller disapproved of the left-leaning imagery of the mural. We also see an elderly ventriloquist’s struggles in the face of the demise of vaudeville, the House Un-American Activities Commission’s assault on the Federal Theatre Project, and more. Through all these stories, Cradle Will Rock tells the stories of artists struggling in the face of economic depression, and the collision between art and politics.
Mr. Robbins has assembled an incredible, enormous ensemble for his film. Each one of these characters could be the headliner in a film focusing solely on them. (If I have any criticism about Cradle Will Rock, it’s that it might have been nice to have spent some more time with some of these characters, had the film had a narrower focus. But they’re each so good, and their characters’ stories so interesting, that I can’t really complain.)
When the film opens, we meet Olive (Emily Watson), a beautiful young singer who has been forced to sleep in movie theatres because she is broke and homeless. She eventually finds work as a stagehand in Orson Welles’ production of Cradle Will Rock. Mr. Welles is portrayed by Angus Macfadyen. It’s a much broader, comical portrayal that that of Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles, and watching these two films in such short succession I found that I preferred Mr. McKay’s portrayal. But that’s no knock against Mr. Macfadyen, who is still one of the best things about Cradle Will Rock. He is a hoot as Orson, loud and vivacious and argumentative and brilliant. It’s a really fun performance to watch. He bounces beautifully off of Cary Elwes as his producing partner, John Houseman. Hank Azaria is compelling in the role of Marc Blitzstein. Though Mr. Azaria is a brilliant comedian (he voices many, many characters on The Simpsons), he actually plays one of the more serious, sad roles in the film. I loved the way that Mr. Robbins brought the character’s inner life to light by showing us how Mr. Blitzstein constantly saw, and was driven on by, his dead loved ones. Though Olive eventually gets cast in Cradle Will Rock, the star of the play is the poor, Italian actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro). Mr. Tuturro has never been better, in my opinion, than he is in this film. This young man’s struggles to make a name for himself in the theatre, while also standing up as an American against his Italian family-members, are powerful. And when it comes for Aldo to step into center stage in the film’s climactic production of the show, Mr. Tuturro blows the doors off. It’s an electric, phenomenally engaging performance.
But I’ve only scratched the surface of this film’s cast! Ruben Blades is compelling as the driven, left-leaning artist Diego Rivera, and John Cusack is a lot of fun as Mr. Rivera’s sponsor-turned enemy Nelson Rockefeller (who the film casts in quite a ridiculous light). More tragic is his sister Joan Cusack as Hazel, a young woman working for the Federal Theatre Project who feels compelled to testify against that agency to the HUAC. She finds herself in a sort-of-friendship with the elderly ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), another sad, lonely individual. Mr. Murray is absolutely wonderful in the film. He is heartbreaking as the formerly-funny man who can do nothing but watch as the world he once knew slips away forever, right before his eyes. Coming right off the heels of his brilliant, sad work in Rushmore (click here for my review), these films signaled an exciting new phase in Mr. Murray’s career.
Cherry Jones is electric as the hard-working, optimistic head of the FTP, Hallie Flanagan. Watching her get railroaded by the HUAC is incredibly sad. (Boy, as I think about it, many of the stories in this film are really quite tragic! It’s a credit to Mr. Robbins’ nimble script and direction that the film is as funny and engaging as it is.) Ms. Jones is enormous fun in her fast-talking portrayal of Ms. Flanagan. Harris Yulin is terrific as her nemesis in the HUAC, Chariman Dies, and it’s fun to see Bob Balaban in a small role as a liason to Ms. Flanagan.
Vanessa Redgrave absolutely kills in her performance of the deliriously upbeat, wealthy supporter of the arts Countess LaGrange. Watching her cheerfully dive into the efforts to save the production of Cradle Will Rock late in the film is one of the greatest joys of the movie. The great Philip Baker Hall plays her husband Gray Mathers, the head of a large American steel corporation. Have I mentioned Susan Sarandon, who plays the Italian Margherita Sarfatti, a Jewish lover of the artists who is also one of Benito Mussolini’s representatives in the United States? Or Jack Black, who plays a young, slightly-doofusy protege of Bill Murray’s Mr. Crickshaw? Or Paul Giamatti, who plays the mustachioed, slightly-doofusy protege of Countess LaGrange? Are you starting to get a sense of the enormous depth and range of this outstanding ensemble?
Cradle Will Rock has a lot to say about art and politics. It’s an unabashedly liberal film, and is not above conflating various different historical events in order to make a narrative point. But I never felt any of that to be a weakness of the film. I found the story to be enormously compelling, and I had no trouble engaging with the film’s broad, slice-of-life look at the struggles of this enormous cast of characters during this one specific moment of American history. The film is witty and silly and fast-moving, even as it tells a number of pretty depressing, heart-breaking stories. While the ending montage (of the opening night performance of Cradle Will Rock, as well as various less-happy goings-on such as the destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural) goes on a little too long, I can’t fault Mr. Robbins’ desire to give us a few extra minutes with all of these characters.
Cradle Will Rock was only Tim Robbins’ third film as a director, but you’d never know that based on the skillfully assembled film on display here. It makes me very sad that Mr. Robbins hasn’t directed any other movies since this film, back in 1999! I think Cradle Will Rock has been pretty much forgotten, these days, but the film is well-worth your time.