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Although ultraconservatives will undoubtedly dismiss `The Cradle Will
as blatant leftwing propaganda, the rest of us will see it as a
rumination on the intricate relationship that has always existed between
politics and art. Writer/director Tim Robbins, whose left-leaning
sympathies are common knowledge in the film industry, has managed to
a screenplay of amazing complexity and depth, functioning on an enormous
number of levels - political, historical, aesthetic, personal - without
losing clarity and focus. He has set up a dizzying array of characters,
each one is fleshed out with enough depth and particularity to make him or
her a vital part of the overall tapestry.
Set in the turbulent 1930's, Robbins' tale focuses on the National Theatre Company, an organization set up by Roosevelt during the Depression to provide out-of-work artists a vehicle through which to ply their trade and culture-starved audiences a chance to revel in the glories of live theatrical performances. Unfortunately, it was also a time of great civil and political upheaval, with Communism and Fascism battling for supremacy abroad and many Americans divided along similar lines in their loyalties. With passions running deep, it was only a matter of time before many in the United States Congress began suspecting the NTC of Communist sympathizing - and it was a short road from there to the eventual dismemberment of the organization. The film centers on the production of a controversial musical play called `The Cradle Will Rock' that portrays the glorious coming of unionism to a steel factory, a scenario that parallels the events in the lives of several of the characters in the film.
Given this fascinating historical background, Robbins has filled his film with a rich assortment of characters, from Orson Welles, as a fledgling young actor who sees unions as the ruination of artistic purity, to Nelson Rockefeller, as a well-meaning art patron who balks at the mural Diego Rivera has painted for him only after Rivera refuses to remove the image of Lenin from Rockefeller's monument-to-capitalism lobby. In fact, the cast of characters is so enormous, with each one taking a crucial part in the narrative proceedings, that it is quite impossible to mention them all here. Suffice it to say that Robbins covers the social spectrum from industrialists and capitalists to union workers and the unemployed, from sympathetic patrons and patronesses to the little people eager to root out the seeds of Communism even at the expense of their own ostracism. And not a one is uninteresting.
Robbins has assembled an all-star cast that reads like a who's who of contemporary movie acting (albeit of a non-blockbuster variety). Although at the beginning of the film, the casting of such familiar faces seems a bit disconcerting - leading to what critic Judith Crist refers to as the `hey there' syndrome, i.e. destroying the verisimilitude of a work by parading too many recognizable people before the camera - this technique actually helps the audience to differentiate the many characters who might otherwise pass by in a confusing and disorienting blur. Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Cary Elwes, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro and Emily Watson comprise this truly fine cast.
Liberal as his leanings might be, Robbins is able to focus on the bitter ironies that abound on both sides of the political spectrum. For instance, while Susan Sarandon portrays a Jewish ally of Mussolini, abandoning her pro-worker principles to act as his capitalist representative in the States, Ruben Blades plays a Diego Rivera who has subordinated - if only temporarily - his own revolutionary ethos to the power of the almighty buck. Also, there is a certain paradox to the fact that, when the government has decreed the theater closed and thereby forbidden the premiere performance of the play, it is the actors' UNION that threatens the performers with firing if they carry out their plan to stage it furtively. Robbins is even somewhat evenhanded in his treatment of the `enemy' - the rich capitalists and the anti-communist members of the theatre organization - portraying them with good-natured humor and pathos. Joan Cusack, as a clerk at the employment office and Bill Murray, as a vaudeville ventriloquist, seem like decent people, only hopelessly misguided and lonely. (Unfortunately, Murray's sudden change of heart at the end seems inexplicable and unmotivated). As for the elite in the story, Robbins does a lovely job of spoofery at the end of the film; as the play is finally being performed at a nearby theatre - representing the triumph both on stage and in the world at large of the common man over the oppressive tyrants of industry - the tycoons, dressed in masquerade ball costumes of the 18th Century aristocracy and Catholic hierarchy, mull over their plans to retain control of the art world by bankrolling only those paintings depicting the scenes of utmost blandness and banality. Thus, these men of corporate power are portrayed more as amusingly quaint pests than malevolent or malicious despots.
There is certainly no denying that `The Cradle Will Rock' is, at heart, a bit of a leftwing diatribe. However, it is not a cruel or unreasonable one. And Tim Robbins' extraordinary skills as both a storyteller and filmmaker make this clearly one of the most interesting and impressive films of 1999.
Tim Robbins is a good actor. Not great, but it is clear in his acting that
he has a passion for the theater. Now he has written and directed something
that elevates him to world class.
The simple first: Tim has learned from Altman how to make a camera move in such a way that the viewer becomes part of the action. Some of his long, multithreaded action shots are breathtaking. More, this is used to tie together dual threads and multiple stories. Altman again, but even Altman is inconsistent in this.
But Tim can do something Altman cannot. He tunes this ensemble so tightly it seems that they are siblings. Many individual performances deeply charm, reach high.
That alone makes this a must see. But there's more. This is yet another play about a play, a common enough genre that has a very specific set of pitfalls. Robbins the writer cleverly avoids this with a facile trick. Uncareful viewers will see this as a simple, left-leaning story about artistic McCarthyism (Jesse Helms anyone?). But that is a ruse. The story is just the excuse.
Watch it again and look for why the play couldn't be put on. It was the unions, as much coopted by the system as Rockefeller that was the real threat and who the players defy at the end. This ahistorical fact was inserted for a reason.
Also watch for how the whole thing is nested in Faust, with a deeper recursive level with the players as the puppets in Faust. The puppet thing is worked a few other ways with Murray of course, but also so many others until we feel that the only non-puppets are the actors.
I think this is one of those cases where Robbins exceeded his own intellect, but it still works as a deeply recursive self examination, even of itself, because he trusted his instincts as dramatist (and presumably the actors' instincts as well).
I rate this high for intelligence. It achieves what Altman has not. Some seem to object that some of the characters are silly: Wells and Houseman and the Countess. But this is deliberate. They are playing players IN A PLAY. That's the point. Perhaps it would have been better to not use historical names since it confuses people who might look for accuracy.
Some misgivings though. Sarandon's performance was the weakest. Cinematically, the crushing of the mural during the performance was blunt editing. The pacing was off -- it should have been better integrated with the pacing of the play's action. The transposition of the dummy to modern Broadway was radically less subtle than the dummy theme's life in the rest of the play. If you didn't tease it out early, you'd be confused.
Cradle Will Rock has everything I like in a movie - great characters,
suspense, depth, and music. The many subplots are woven together in
balance, leaving you wanting more of everything at the end, even though the
film is over two hours.
The acting is excellent all around, especially Cherry Jones' portrayal of Hallie Flanagan, the head of the Federal Theater. Ruben Blades and Angus MacFadyen give us Diego Rivera and Orson Welles, respectively, and do not disappoint. It's rare to see so many charismatic, likeable people in a movie with a real story. There is no one star of the film - everyone is sharing the spotlight equally. Tim Robbins has really done a magnificent job of putting all the pieces in the right places.
And perhaps best of all, this is a film with real controversy - one that will get you thinking about art and politics and unions and the influence of money on everything. Cradle Will Rock is such an ambitious piece of work, it could have failed in so many different ways, and yet it succeeds on every level. Check it out.
This may suffer from having a few too many plot lines and characters (Emily Watson, for example, is a role too far), but most of what's there is excellent. Bill Murray is as good as he has been recently in Rushmore and Lost in Translation, and the Cusacks are at their best. This is a film that lingers with you after you've seen it, and gives a fascinating insight into a turbulent time.
Based on the events that occurred in post Depression era New York in 1936,
`The Cradle Will Rock' is a spectacular extravaganza of people, places,
most of all, cultures. Truly an exemplary take on the battle of radicals
corporates, art and politics when they could be united in a common bond.
Thus, it is only suiting that such a film be directed by uber-liberalist
Robbins. This picture simply wouldn't have worked without him.
From an overhead point of view, this is the cinematic equivalent of a protest- a real bite on shady politics. But in actuality it is something far deeper, focusing on numerous interesting sub-plots and taking in everyone's point of view. The backdrop is the closing down of a theatrical play when it is accused of being communist. Throughout the 135 minutes, we take in all of the different `isms'- fascism, capitalism, communism, Nazism, Catholicism and Judaism. Not only does this require a passing knowledge on these people and events; one must have an interest in the proceedings to get the most out of it.
One reason why there have been some negative reviews is because people are confused as to why Diego Riviera, Margherreta Sarfatti etc. are in the story. I can explain. Rather like `Magnolia (which followed on totally dissimilar outlines), you have to read the sub-text. This is a movie about passion for art and music. Marc Blitzein, Hazel Huffman and Diego Riviera (and all connected) had a deep passion for their work that the authorities would soon destroy because of rules and regulations.
Interesting is the fact that all the characters are based on true life people, and Robbins has assembled a fine cast who give noteworthy performances all across the board. One of the hardest to portray has to be Orson Welles. It's a true fact that 21-year-olds from the 1930's look much older than those from the 90's. No one wanted to see James Van Der Beek/ Casper Van Dien in the role. Thus, Angus MacFadyen was a superb choice, portraying Welles as an egotistical, self-centred man. Equally impressive is Susan Sarandon (with an impeccable exotic accent) as a Jewish Fascist art dealer. She knows exactly what she's doing and highlights some of the best scenes. Other standouts include John Cusack's aristocratic Nelson Rockafeller and Cary Elwes' interpretation of flamboyant producer/ soon-to-be Oscar winner (`The Paper Chase'- 1973) John Houseman.
If there were a flaw, it would have to be the last 15-20 minutes. What, for the most part, is an illustrious, brilliant character study later dissipates into a shiny-smiley low glitz `Singin In the Rain' effort. Such a shame, because the film was doing so tremendously up until that point. Then of course, it is 135 minutes long so much of that final sequence could and should have been excised.
Nevertheless, if you can forgive that, you have a remarkable, audacious film on hand. `The Cradle Will Rock' truly is an overseen landmark in ensembles, biopics and interweaving. By far Robbins best movie yet, the sub-plots are equally impressive from Blitzstein's paranoid delusions to Constance La Grange's over-the-top characteristics. If you are in any way interested in fascism, communism etc. then don't miss this polished, spirited picture. My IMDb rating: 7.6/10.
This is definately Tim Robbins best (directed) film yet. He brings a number of characters together to tell the story of the 1930's. In particular, Orson Wells and his broadway production that caused a controversy and some other things. Though it take liberties in history (that sounds weird), it comes out in the end as good entertainment from an exceptional actor/writer/director/producer. All star cast includes John and Joan Cusack, Ruben Blades, Hank Azaria, Tim Robbins (uncredited), Emily Watson, Susan Sarandon, Paul Giamatti, Angus MacFaden as Orson Wells (in a breakthrough performance) and Bill Murray in a wonderful role as a puppeteer. A+
Tim Robbins creates a brilliant social commentary in the same in-your-face style as "Bob Roberts". I adore the statements Robbins makes about social politics, as well as the problems with the idea of "art for art's sake". He lyrically tells the story of the struggle of performing and visual artists around the Depression era, choosing between their art and their livelihood--a struggle that is universal for artists through the expanse of time. The concept of this film is a breakthrough for the big screen, since Hollywood seems to be the capital of "selling out". The comments on artistic integrity are strong and literally moving in the acting of an amazing cast, as well as the way in which the story is edited to David Robbins' beautiful score. The entire film is simply poetic. This film is truly a masterpiece to any artist, or to anyone who knows what it like to compromise your values to survive.
Tim Robbins has created a masterpiece. A film that stands up in the face of adversity and squashed freedom.Robbin's telling of the legendary events surrounding the Orson Welles production of Marc Blitztien's Labor Opers, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, not only puts forth the events but he masterfully presents his film in the style of a Brecht theatre piece. The emotional level in the theatre when I saw this film was high,Applause rang out during the films climax. But this film is not only about artistic freedom, it is about freedom as a whole,about standing up for your freedom of belief and expression,could you imagine that there was actually a time in this "free" nation of ours when armed guards actually locked the doors of a theatre ,trying to prevent a show from being mounted.This film is an important one,and what Robbins accomplishes is to present it as entertainment as well,this is not a history lesson but a well executed work of art. As perfomances go everyone was splendid. Hank Azaria wins best honors as Blitztien,Cary Elwes and Angus McFadden as Houseman and Welles are also brilliant in their stellar portrayals.Vanessa Redgrave,Susan Sarandon and Bill Murray also lend their imense talents. John Turrturo deserves special mention for his touching portrait of actor Howard DaSilva. Some critics have pointed out what they felt was a lack of character development in the film. These critics have greatly missed the point. the film is presented as a Brecht (or Blitztein ) style play. Blitztein's CRADLE included characters named for their role in society,or personality, Jimmy Forman,Mister Mister,Reverend Salvation etc. it is this type of acting Robbins successfully evokes from his actors. This film is more than a movie,it is an emotional experience that will change the way you look at society.It is an inspiration,telling us to fight for what you believe in.
This is a classically written piece about the corruptability and compromises of politicians, businessmen and yes even artists. Tim Robbins is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. I'll admit I had a hard time trying not to misinterpret the dialog, but at least the movie made me think. I also commend Robbins for tackling the hypocrisy involved in being an artist. It's slow, but give it a chance. By the end of this movie the levels and themes he's hitting on tie together very, very well.
While it was fun seeing "Cradle Will Rock" with my mother-in-law who
had some memories of the time period, I also did a huge paper on the
WPA Arts Projects in graduate school (I recommend Jerry Mangione's book
on the Federal Writer's Project as a good introduction) and am quite
familiar with the personalities and facts involved so was curious to
see it as a docudrama.
But we plus my parents felt the film was too agit-prop and the 20% of it that's over-the-top (aw come on, Hearst -- "Citizen Kane" foreshadowing, Rockefeller and a steel magnate at a Versailles costume party at the climax?) weakens the historical telling of a confluence of happenings -- the strangulation of the Federal Theater Project as a precursor victim to McCarthyism through the Dies Committee (including actual testimony wherein Christopher Marlowe was accused of being a Commie, as were the classic Greek dramatists) and Nelson Rockefeller's benighted sponsorship and then destruction of the Diego Rivera murals at Rockefeller Center.
Effectively written and directed by Tim Robbins is how passionately political the artists were, not as "card carrying Communists" per se, but as committed anti-Fascists and unionists in every aspect of their personal lives--as equally committed as they were to the magic of the theater as a communication device.
It does go over the top (including Susan Sarandon as an elegant Jewish courier to Mussolini selling stolen Old Masters), it is effective to show how TPTB were sympathetic to and profited from alliances with the fascists and how much they hated That Cripple in the White House.
Amidst the politics, the art for art's sake oversize egos of John Houseman and Orson Welles are also well portrayed, if a shade as buffoons compared to the grimness of everyone else around them, most of whom needed these WPA jobs to keep from starving (there's a toss away line that barely explains that FDR had to throw the Theater Project to the wolves in order to save his whole alphabet soup of programs for the vast majority).
It's also a bit over the top in painting those who testified at the Committee as probably crazy, but who knows. The Vanessa Redgrave character is silly but I guess it's making a point that Radical Chic is not new.
The climax of the factual occurrence, the one and only original performance of Marc Blitzstein's "ThreePenny Opera"-inspired political musical "Cradle Will Rock" is a delightful recreation, and from what I've read, true to the real story. This is definitely a very un-1990's story.
(Additional recommended background reading: "Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century" by Michael Denning (Verso, 1998, 556 pages)
(originally written 1/2/2000)
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