The Depression era was rife with political turmoil, destitutes, and the Federal
Theatre threatened with Communist accusations and a significant reduction in
number of employees. "The Cradle Will Rock," the title is from a 1937 political
musical by Marc Blitzstein, examines these trying times but the end result is
relentlessly boring and unengaging.
There is the opening, unbroken long take of a homeless woman, Olive Stanton
(Emily Watson) waking up in a movie theatre as she leaves hastily, trying to
avoid being seen by the management and walking out of the place while other
characters march past her such as Joan Cusack as a theatre employer. Then the
camera continues to swoop above Watson as it unearths the radical composer
Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), seen playing the piano in his apartment. He is dead
tired and has had sleepless nights trying to compose the definitive musical.
Four years later, the musical is in rehearsals with the director, Orson Welles
(Angus Macfayden), who is also enjoying the run of his famous play "Dr.
Faustus," and he has producer and rival John Houseman (Cary Elwes) in tow.
Emily Watson shows up as the stagehand who hopes to share the limelight with
the cast, and wants a chance to play the prostitute role.
There are a number of characters and subplots to juggle here, such as John
Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller who is overseeing the mural painted by Diego
Rivera (Ruben Blades), though he questions the need for a portrait of Stalin;
Vanessa Redgrave as the rich socialite, Countess La Grange, who has high hopes
for the musical; Susan Sarandon as the Italian Fascist, who is Mussolini's
ex-lover, and also questions Diego's mural; Bill Murray as a stoic
ventriloquist who reluctantly holds anticommunist ideals; John Turturro as a
loud Italian actor in the musical; the grandly titanic presence of Philip Baker
Hall as Gray Mathers, a steel magnate who objects to the musical; and lastly,
Cherry Jones as Hallie Flanagan of the Federal Theatre, accused of Communist
associations and forced to close down the theatre.
Tim Robbins, serving as writer and director, has an ambitious project at the
helm, but he fails to make it come alive. The staging and pacing of the film
deadens to a halt - the only time the film breathes is when Cherry Jones
appears - she delivers firepower and authority as the leading player of the
Federal Theatre, defending the right to artistic freedom. The other characters,
with the exception of Blades's witty Rivera, slip in and out of the screen
barely making an impression. There is some humor in seeing Cusack's Rockefeller
arguing with Rivera, or dancing with Frida Kahlo, Rivera's sullen wife, but not
enough to take notice. Bill Murray walks away from the film without registering
half of the charisma he brought to "Rushmore." Emily Watson, a gifted actress,
is dull to watch in this film - the transition from the homeless, sympathetic
Olive Stanton to a whimpering cipher does not make for a full-bodied character.
But the biggest disappointment are the portrayals of Welles and Houseman,
presented as nothing more than two arrogant, one-dimensional boors. Macfayden
rolls his eyes and overdoes Welles's body language - Robbins's interpretation
indicates that Welles was a drunk and uncontrollable. If that is true, Welles
would not have the repertoire he established in the theatre world from the 30's
and onward. Considering this film was originally going to be written and
directed by Welles, this is more than a major offense.
"The Cradle Will Rock" has some believably overwrought sequences where we see
what it is like to produce a musical play - the pains and frustrations are
there in ample supply. I liked the presentation of this fascinating era in all
its period decor and fashion style (an Academy Award nomination is due). The
final sequence, where we see Blitztein playing the piano and singing all the
roles at the Venice Theatre until each actor performs from their seats in the
audience, is somewhat touching and sentimental. But it is a hopelessly inert
film that caused me to shut my eyes more than once. Instead of rocking us with
excitement and entertainment, this cradle lands with a thud.
Copyright © 1999 Jerry Saravia