Tim Robbins has never been shy about being one of them damn Hollywood liberals—pro-union, anti-death penalty, solidly Green, married to Susan Sarandon. To his credit, however, while his first two outings as a screenwriter and director reflected his political views, Robbins took great pains to present his issues as evenhandedly as possible. Bob Roberts skewered ultraconservative politicians with cryptic motives underlying their strident flag-waving, but made a point of demonstrating how the equally shrill (and just as reactionary) left opens the door wide to such creatures. Robbins’ second feature, the superb Dead Man Walking, was informed by his views on capital punishment (and those of Sister Helen Prejean, on whose book the film was based) but never whitewashed or excused the character and crimes of executed killer Matthew Poncelet, resulting in a film that was less a polemic than a catalyst to open debate on the death penalty.
Robbins’ third feature film, on the other hand, starts on the left and entrenches there, but the result is terrific. Although Cradle Will Rock had only a limited theatrical release and did dismal business, the cast is impressive, the humor is dead-on, and the direction is flat-out beautiful. If Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and Woody Allen collaborated on a Depression-era feel-good flick, it would look something like this.
Set in the late Thirties and based on real events, Cradle Will Rock is a mosaic film centered around a little-known arm of FDR’s Works Projects Administration, the Federal Theater Project. Just as other of the so-called “alphabet agencies” under the WPA’s aegis sought to jump-start employment in order to stimulate the economy, the Federal Theater Project was designed to create work for people employed in live theatre, subsidizing small companies on regional tours of schools and small towns and bankrolling off-Broadway productions. In this way it was very much like the current National Endowment for the Arts, and just as embattled. In this period following the Russian Revolution, the nation suffered the beginnings of the Red Scare, with labor unions viewed by many as hotbeds of Bolshevism and, as it would be in the Fifties, the arts community was seen as a hive of Communist sympathizers. Into this imbroglio comes a young, struggling songwriter named Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), who gets caught up in a riot between rallying protesters and mounted police strikebreakers. After being billy-clubbed and tossed into jail as an agitator Blitzstein begins to envision Cradle Will Rock, a full-length musical about the rise of a steelworkers’ union against capitalist oppression. Four years later, his production falls into the hands of maverick director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman (played with outrageous gusto by Angus MacFayden and Cary Elwes, respectively).
The main story, the staging of this blatantly quasi-socialist musical, is interspersed with secondary stories revolving around it. Young gazillionaire Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), who fancies himself an art connoisseur because he’s met Picasso and Matisse, buys a da Vinci from Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), an aristocratic Italian art dealer who is making the rounds of New York’s industrialists selling off her country’s treasures to raise cash for Mussolini (Sarandon’s accent is marginal at best, but her performance nicely conveys Sarfatti’s moral dilemma as she is torn between her patriotic duty and her regret at handing the masterworks over to philistines like Rockefeller and steel tycoon Gray Mathers). Then, needing a mural for the lobby of his new eponymous Center, Rockefeller calls on Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades), unaware that Rivera, with Frida Kahlo looking on reverently, will create a dynamic tableau of a workers’ rebellion against the cancer of capitalism—represent literally as cancer—to greet visitors to Rockefeller’s monument to his own success.
Meanwhile, the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee has begun hearings to root out Communists in the Federal Theatre Project, calling on an FTP clerk (Joan Cusack) and a broken-down vaudeville ventriloquist (a terrific Bill Murray), among others, to supply testimony before going after the Project’s director (Cherry Jones) in grand proto-McCarthyist style. The Project is immediately shut down, as it happens, on the very day Cradle Will Rock is scheduled to open. What follows is a mosaic sequence in which Welles’ company (including John Turturro and Emily Watson) attempt like troupers to stage the musical anyway, just once, while Rockefeller employees take sledgehammers to Rivera’s mural, the ventriloquist, wracked with guilt, gives a career-ending performance, and Rockefeller, Mathers, William Randolph Hearst, and their cronies drink champagne at a masked ball and toast each other as kings of the earth, unaware that their world is about to be sledgehammered as well by the very forces they’ve been so avidly bankrolling.
The divisions in this film could not be clearer if Robbins had erected walls and razorwire between the haves and have-nots, but that’s not really the point here. What Robbins shows us, and what we should focus on, is the overwhelming sense of loss at this pivotal time in American history. Only a stone’s throw away from our entry into the Second World War, America is about to lose its innocence to a post-War world dominated by global superpowers, hypnotized by television, and quaking in the shadow of the Bomb. The giants in this film—Welles, Rivera, Rockefeller, Mathers, even the unseen Roosevelt—will soon be dead or diminished. The War changed the stature of art and theatre from monolithic institutions to mere diversions, and that of Gilded-Age capitalism itself, from the heroic and fairly mythic proportions embodied in its flamboyant tycoons to the blank facade of the corporation—Citizen Kane gives way to the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Although our own latter-day tycoons (Trump, Forbes, Gates) and artists (Warhol, Oldenburg) have tried to live as large as their spiritual forebears did, they just seem out of place somehow. We have become too cynical to romanticize them. Blitzstein’s lost musical and Rivera’s lost mural were products of real courage, Robbins tells us, two last gasps of romance in what would become a decidedly unromantic age. Heavy-handed though Robbins’ film may be, it fulfills the first, best function of art, to show us something we’ve been missing.