THE MARCH OF TIME has rendered the Great Depression, '30s liberalism, and political theater pass鬠but Tim Robbins does much to jar our collective memory in his sprawling, ambitious backstage comedy about a doomed musical. Or a censored musical, he argues, one victimized by the conservative power structures of its day. It's 1936, and starving artists are lined up for jobs with the Federal Theater Project, one of FDR's New Deal programs. Oblivious to the dole is Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), who's living in a dream world as he composes The Cradle Will Rock, receiving spectral advice from his dead wife and Bertolt Brecht. Robbins does a terrific job of rapidly, fluidly introducing his huge, talented cast, his camera following from one character to the next in the same shot (just like Slacker). Least famous today among Cradle's actual personalities is Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), a homeless woman we find sleeping behind a newsreel screen in Robbins' wonderful opening scene. Accustomed to busking for change with her plaintive singing voice, she finds work as a stagehand for the flamboyant Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and priggish, repressed John Houseman (Cary Elwes) at their FTP unit.
CRADLE WILL ROCK written and directed by Tim Robbins with John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, and Emily Watson opens December 25 at Harvard Exit
"Everyone is corruptible," Brecht tells Blitzstein, prostitution being the theme of Blitzstein's musical and one of many—too many—in Robbins' serious-minded comedy. Meanwhile John Cusack's Nelson Rockefeller is commissioning a mural from Ruben Blades' Diego Rivera, who shrewdly asks, "How much?" He quickly agrees to the huge sum and Rockefeller's theme: "Man at the Crossroads" (as are we all, Robbins tells us, nudge nudge). Rockefeller's paying the piper and calls the tune, as do the congressmen bearing down upon the FTP's benevolent administrator (Cherry Jones), determined to root out the perceived—and real—leftist leanings of its plays. Sympathetic to this anti-communist mission are an FTP secretary (Joan Cusack) and seedy vaudeville ventriloquist (Bill Murray), who indignantly declares, "Reds aren't funny!"
INTERMISSION, PLEASE. Too much plot, you say? There's more. Susan Sarandon plays a fascist who's selling Renaissance canvases to the NYC elite to raise money for Mussolini. These socialites include a shrewd steel baron (Philip Baker Hall of Boogie Nights) and his daffy philanthropist wife (Vanessa Redgrave, overplaying wildly). Let's not even consider the clich餠melodramatic subplot built around John Turturro. Olive finds love and lands a starring role in the musical—which then loses its government funding and goes looking for a new theater. ("It's an attack on capitalism," we're told.) But will the fractious artists find the solidarity to perform their suppressed play? And what will become of Rivera's mural when Rockefeller discovers Lenin at its center?
The mural obviously symbolizes the musical and by extension Robbins' film as well, which flirts with self-importance by claiming the artistic mantle of Welles, Rivera, and Blitzstein. Ultimately, Robbins has no resolution for his dialectics and story lines beyond the triumphant, improvised performance of the musical (as occurred in 1937). Cradle recognizes that artists can't survive without patrons (especially when they bite the hand that feeds), but its claim for the posterity of their works is unconvincing. "They're here forever," says a hopeful FTP aide, but when was the last time Blitzstein's agitprop musical was actually performed?
But politics aside, Cradle allows the theater-loving Robbins to weave many enjoyable backstage stories: Watson is waifish and affecting; Murray is wryly embittered; Blades and Sarandon are broadly amusing. And when the art-loving Rockefeller deliriously dances with Rivera and his half-nude models, the accompanying Billie Holiday record reminds us of what—during that brief, lost cultural moment—a little moonlight could do.