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1 item from 1999

Cannes Film review: 'Cradle Will Rock'

19 May 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

After the bold and successful death-row drama "Dead Man Walking", writer-director Tim Robbins goes back to his provocative theatrical roots and commands a star-studded "actors gang" in a provocative, searingly intelligent and uniquely entertaining film. A strong buzz for the main competition entry started with pre-festival screenings and "Cradle Will Rock" might just come up a winner when "the final wind blows" here on Sunday.

Loosely based on real events and containing only bits and pieces of Orson Welles' final screenplay published in 1994, "Cradle" is one of the most radical movies ever to be released under the Disney banner (with Spike Lee's latest still to come in the Director's Fortnight) and presents a marketing challenge if it's going to achieve more than just modest success at the box office when it's released later this year.

Extremely democratic in its allotment of screen time, "Cradle" has 13 major characters, about half of which are based on real people. The title refers to Marxist composer Marc Blitzstein's 1936 Workers Progress Administration-sponsored, Federal Theatre Project musical that became a victim of early anti-Communism crackdowns by reactionary politicians in Washington. Several of the songs and some of the scenes are performed in the course of the movie proving this now obscure work still has an infectiously subversive but not doggedly revolutionary spirit.

In Robbins' lively take on the times and characters, Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) is haunted by the specter of Bertolt Brecht as he creates his anthemic but gritty fable of workers and ordinary people joining together to get the attention of the ruling class. Eventually brought together with 22-year-old Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and John Houseman (Cary Elwes), Blitzstein is the passionate author of what amounts to a job to the likes of anti-fascist Italian actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro) and vagabond Olive Stanton (Emily Watson).

But the film is much more than a recounting of the famous first performance in June 1937 of Blitzstein's "Cradle" that involved changing theaters at the last minute, with actors and crew walking 20 blocks without the many props and some of the cast, who by the actors' union rules were forbidden to perform the play at the new location. Suffice to say, that in the climax the magic of this moment is relived but Robbins achieves an even more compelling result by including a wide range of subplots.

The disastrous collision of art and politics, of truth and ideology, infuses much of the film, but there's a zany spin on just about everything and everyone. Indeed, within this film is a personal competition by the superb cast that is arguably won by Bill Murray playing a fading vaudeville ventriloquist, who falls in love with an anti-Communist Federal Theater employee (Joan Cusack) with an amazing scene where, through his dummy, he sings a surprising tune.

Pressing the argument that the Federal Theater Project is a landmark era in making new and inventive stage works more accessible, overworked Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones) has to fight to keep it alive against a firing squad of smug senators. Another kind of advocate and purveyor of priceless masterpieces is a one-time Mussolini mistress (Susan Sarandon) who tries to raise funds for Italy's war preparations from a wealthy industrialist Philip Baker Hall). She also introduces Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) to another of her old comrades Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades).

Robbins goes all the way with the Rockefeller-Rivera conflict, which centers on a mural the Mexican artist creates for the tycoon's office building lobby. The pair embark on a spirited debate about the visionary work, which is reproduced from the photographs taken of the original, and then smashed to bits as it was in real life.

This direct example of conservative capitalists sharing the same intolerant attitudes as the book-burning dictators soon to threaten the world is repetitive given the saga of Blitzstein's creation. But for those who recall the mid-1980s productions of the Robbins-co-founded Actors Gang, this is a widescreen, $35 million-version of those freewheeling, usually wickedly funny stage works in which one was enchantingly unsure what would happen next.

And in his bid to make every scene a "wonderland tour," Robbins succeeds triumphantly with just a few minor quibbles. Macfadyen overdoes the wild mannerisms of a Welles already intoxicated frequently with more than his dawning sense of personal destiny. Plus, the actor's just too small to carry off the illusion. The pacing is also sometimes problematic, with scenes fragmented and sequences interwoven throughout the film. Occasionally one expects a point has been made or it's time to move on only to have the movie seemingly backtrack.


Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Touchstone Pictures

A Havoc production

Writer-director:Tim Robbins

Producers:Jon Kilik, Lydia Dean Pilcher

Director of photography:Jean Yves Escoffier

Production designer:Richard Hoover

Music:David Robbins

Costume designer:Ruth Myers



Marc Blitzstein:Hank Azaria

Olive Stanton:Emily Watson

Hazel Huffman:Joan Cusack

Margherita Sarfatti:Susan Sarandon

Aldo Silvano:John Turturro

Orson Welles:Angus Macfadyen

Tommy Crickshaw:Bill Murray

Diego Rivera:Ruben Blades

Hallie Flanagan:Cherry Jones

Nelson Rockefeller:John Cusack

John Houseman:Cary Elwes

Gray Mathers:Philip Baker Hall

Countess LaGrange:Vanessa Redgrave

Running time -- 133 minutes


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