Tim Robbins serves up a rich stew of '30s America in Cradle Will Rock, his stirring labor of love

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
December 17, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

There’s something to bug every stickler about Cradle Will Rock. History is pulped in a Cuisinart, historical figures become soap opera characters, and political ideology, both right and left, is reduced to its crudest basics. I ought to be outraged. Still, Tim Robbins’ kaleidoscope about American cultural life in the ’30s, as filtered through the real events surrounding the production of Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 political musical from which the film takes its title, coheres as a stirring package of bombast and artifice, fervor and balls.

Blitzstein’s Cradle, about ruling-class haves and working-class have-nots, almost died at birth when the government closed the theater on opening night, and in the climax of Robbins’ Cradle, the composer (Hank Azaria), director Orson Welles (Scotsman Angus Macfayden, playing the genius as a drunken, impossible boor), and producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) lead cast and audience down the street to another location to stage the show. But Robbins also salts the story with Brechtian sidebars on artistic freedom. Never have so many attractive actors pitched in so valiantly to explain to a body politic as singularly disengaged as today’s moviegoers: WPA theater, Welles’ work habits, Nelson Rockefeller’s taste in art, and the entire continuum of Communist-to-anticommunist passions that once inflamed New York intellectuals.

Come for the star turns by John Cusack as Rockefeller, Bill Murray as a ventriloquist who gets drawn into anticommunist activity. There’s Vanessa Redgrave as a rich patron, Ruben Blades as muralist Diego Rivera, Susan Sarandon as a fascist sympathizer —everybody on this guest list is clearly tickled to have been invited. But stay for a cleverly structured story that builds to some thrilling theater about making theater. Robbins the agitprop celebrity may be blowin’ in the wind, but Robbins, the son of a folksinger, knows how to get audiences clapping along. B —Lisa Schwarzbaum

Cradle Will Rock
Starring Hank Azaria, John Cusack