Artvoice 20 January 2000
by Bruce Jackson
There never was a public program in this country that paid as much honor to work as FDR’s Works Progress Administration. The WPA, created at the nadir of the Depression, gave jobs to people who made roads and people who wrote books about roads, to people who built public buildings and people who put on concerts and plays in those buildings once they were usable. It gave work to fancy artists with lots of credits and folk performers who’d hardly ever gotten paid for anything.
To the WPA, work was work, and a poet writing poems was as honestly employed as a bricklayer setting a wall. Artists had known this all along, but hardly anyone else did. The political right went nuts and considered the entire operation subversive, which perhaps it was because it treated artists seriously in a way they never had been before. Before WPA, to get paid as an artist you either had to have a rich patron or you had to have made it with people who bought and sold art. With WPA, just the doing of it was seen as worthwhile. What a grand idea.
In “Cradle Will Rock,” Tim Robbins brilliantly dramatizes an improbable but pretty much authentic intersection of American politics, art, and lunacy in the mid-1930s: Nelson Rockefeller trying to get radical muralist Diego Rivera to decorate his new Rockefeller Center with a politically correct fresco, Mussolini’s former mistress peddling Renaissance art to American millionaires for bags of cash, a paranoid ventriloquist whose dummy is more politically savvy and brave than he will ever be, and, at the center of it all, the Federal Theatre Project’s production of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” produced by John Housman and directed by 21-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles.
A few days before the play was to open in New York’s Maxine Elliot Theatre, the Project’s funding was cut and the opening was cancelled. The government locked the building and protected the locked doors with armed guards. At eight p.m. on opening night Housman found the Venice Theatre twenty blocks uptown. The audience walked to it, picking up stragglers along the way, and they filled every one of the Venice’s 1742 seats. Actor’s Equity and the musicians’ union forbade their members from taking part in the transported play, so many of the actors performed their roles from the audience and a lone accordionist played in the orchestra pit. Blitzstein sang eight of the roles and played all the rest of the music from a piano on stage–a piano that had been found and rented only hours before. On that astonishing night–June 16, 1937--“The Cradle Will Rock” lost its theater, its musicians, its sets and props, and it was propelled into legend.
This is a big film that gets its power from a host of superb small performances embedded in intertwined and overlapped narratives that, by the end, acquire a combined velocity that is breathtaking. It’s orchestra, not concerto, the kind of filmmaking that requires both masterful direction and impeccably imagined editing. The genius of such filmic polyphony is Robert Altman, with whom Robbins worked twice-- “The Player” in 1992 and “Short Cuts” in 1993. The editor of “Cradle Will Rock,” Geraldine Peroni, edited Altman’s “The Player” 1992, “Short Cuts” 1993, “Prêt-à-Porter” 1994, and “Kansas City” 1996.
Maybe the best example in the film of Robbins’ control is the performance of Bill Murray. His character is an aging vaudeville ventriloquist who has just about used it up. He’s reduced to tutoring two rotund absurd characters who never get it right and trying to score with a sexually-repressed government clerk who is on a mission from God to help redhunting Congressman Martin Dies find communists in the Theatre Project. In most of his films, Murray lazes in the persona he developed in his four years on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1970's: “Groundhog Day” 1993, “Ghostbusters I and II 1984 and 1989, “Meatballs” 1979, and “Where the Buffalo Roam” 1980. Only rarely does a director manage to get him to stop sleepwalking and really: Sidney Pollack in “Tootsie” 1982, Tim Burton in “Ed Wood” 1984 and Tim Robbins in this film.
“Cradle Will Rock” lacks a main star or central character but it’s populated with more than a dozen splendidly achieved roles by Emily Watson, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, Harris Yulin, John Carpenter (yes, that John Carpenter–he plays William Randolph Hearst), and others. The photography is by Jean-Yves Escoffier (“Good Will Hunting” 1997 and “Rounders” 1998) who delineates each of those characters in the kind of agonizing closeup favored by Sam Fuller and Sergio Leone years ago.
Angus MacFayden’s Orson Welles is outrageously flamboyant and egocentric and Cary Elwes’ John Housman bubbles with nelly flourishes. In a film half of whose characters have raging or repressed egos, these two at first seemed to me over the top. Then a friend convinced me otherwise: “They’re the only two characters in the film the American movie public really knows—both from their old age, both largely from commercials and talk shows. You couldn’t imitate them without having them compared to the original, which never works. I think Robbins decided to hell with it, and just let the actors portraying them go so outrageous they have their own film reality and aren’t trapped by their ageing real-life selves.”
A few critics have faulted Robbins for his liberties with the timing of a few events in “Cradle Will Rock,” but I think that’s mostly petty stuff. There’s a difference between a narrative film grounded in history and a documentary, between character and caricature. Most of the characters and events portrayed in “Cradle Will Rock” are indeed real, but this is a fiction movie and Robbins only sometimes blurs the line. His minor manipulation of historical fact is usually dramatically smart. Diego Rivera did his 63-foot-wide fresco at Rockefeller Center in May 1933 and Rockefeller had it destroyed on February 4, 1934–more than two years before those events are set in the film. (Rockefeller wanted him to replace Lenin with someone neutral. Rivera refused to cut but offered to add Lincoln. He was fired and the mural was destroyed.) At a distance of two-thirds of a century, the slight compression of the calendar that enabled Robbins’ to depict the relationship between Rockefeller and Rivera and the physical destruction of the fresco hardly seems significant.
How does this film work for an audience most of whom remember none of the primary characters and know none of the history? History repeats itself and Robbins, one of the most politically engaged mainstream directors, is surely aware of that. It’s only a few years since rabid rightwingers in Congress began gnawing at the National Endowment for the Arts and forced the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. to cancel an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. The congressmen in “Cradle Will Rock” who wonder if playwright Christopher Marlowe was a communist (taken from actual transcripts) are progenitors of the congressmen who in the past decade have worked so hard to keep artists from getting public money. The Federal Theater Project was shut down by the bad guys and NEA doesn’t give grants to individual artists any more and the large NEH film grants now go to the ultra-sentimental and safe and lugubrious Burns brothers.
The film’s final shot, segueing out of a funeral parade for an idea and a piece of wood, brings what happened to the Federal Theater Project 65 years ago into what has happened to Broadway now. Barry Levinson used the same segue at the end of “Bugsy,” but there it was just sweet. I won’t ruin it for you with description, but I’ll tell you this much: with Robbins, it’s a brilliant and moving lesson on why the past is never past.