CRADLE WILL ROCK (1999)
THE DANCE OF THE DIALECTICS
The time was 1936. It was the painful apex of the Great Depression. Millions of souls were hungry and out of work. I remember my grandfather talking about raising three children, and being out of work for more than a year—about putting fresh cardboard into his shoes daily to compensate for the holes in the soles—about walking twenty miles to apply for a job because he didn’t have bus fare—about having one piece of moldy bread soaked in bacon grease for his lunch--to stand in a line that stretched clear around the block only to be told when he finally reached the head of it that he was “over qualified” for the position—only to face that long cold aching walk home where he could tell his family of his proletarian adventures.
It was a time when your belly rubbed on your backbone—when you might stop at a city park to straddle a crowded bench for a breather, and suddenly you would hear the voices of dissent—those men who stood on milk boxes and the legs of statues. What the hell where they saying? They talked about something called “The Brotherhood of Man” in a world that you could help build, or rebuild, together—where each man received according to his need and he gave according to his ability—where every man, regardless of who he was, counted simply because his participation was essential to the “new” society as a whole—a world where there were no “Bosses”, only lead men—where there were no cops or bullies or paid thugs hired by the wealthy to bash heads—just your “brothers” in arm bands endeavoring to keep the peace—a peace that was dearly earned and would be cherished.
My God, this was incredible in concept. This was talk of “Revolution”—of tossing off the shackles of oppression—of taking away the wealth and privileges of the rich and spreading them out evenly amongst all men. “You have nothing to lose but your chains,” these men would shout. There was talk of the revolt of Spartacus against the Roman oppressors. We would be the new army of former slaves that would rise up and make the fat cats take notice, and take heed. For the first time you heard about unions—fair pay for a fair day’s work and health coverage—about a better education for your children. There were these strange new names of the intellectuals who dreamed up this utopia of the workingman—names like Engels, Marx, and Lenin—men you had never heard of before today.
The speakers espoused a plan to create a “New Order”—where no man would be disrespected, or held down, or forced to labor like a dray animal twelve hours a day and six days a week—where children never starved—where a man’s dignity was cherished—a goddamned new world that could be carved out of cancerous steaming guts of the this old one—with your strong hands, and your brother’s, and his—ad infintum.
Then women would pass amongst the crowd and sandwiches would be offered. You devoured one, and then wrapped up another in a scrap of old newspaper to take back to your family. Man, you would think, these were powerful and persuasive dialogues. This was talk of hope, of rebirth, of freedom. You would find yourself standing there weeping as your leaden-eyed despair would lift from your aching shoulders for a few golden moments. This progressive dream, you heard, had many names—Socialism, even Communism. You didn’t care what it was called—it seemed to make sense to you on that day in that place.
But as you were gently chewing the crust off your sandwich you had failed to notice that blue-black ring of police and paid bullies that had surrounded the square. You noticed them now though. Some were on horseback. Flatbed trucks rolled up loaded with more thugs. The crowd whirled around with one voice, tensed up like a caged animal, with clenched fists and clenched jaws. It began to stir. Some were beginning to panic. The knot of constabulary tightened. Christ—you would have something to tell your family tonight—if you made it home.
This was the world inhabited by the plethora of characters in CRADLE WILL ROCK. Most of them were real people—augmented by fictional counterparts. Composer Marc Blitzstein was real, as was his Brechtian/Marxist musical. Its opening night has been labeled as “the most extraordinary night in the history of American Theatre.” New York mayor Nelson Rockefeller did hire leftist artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural in the foyer of his new skyscraper. John Houseman and Orson Welles did produce and direct that play. Actor’s Equity did buckle to pressure, and it did forbid its actors to step onto the stage of that substitute theater. Congressman Dies did conduct a Communist witch-hunt and he did stir up hate, resentment, and fear that would re-emerge in 1947 resulting in the blacklisting of many in the entertainment industry. The wealthy did flirt and get into bed with Fascists and Communists as something daring and fashionable, and Mussolini did sell great art treasures to Rockefeller and Hearst. The poor did stand in bread lines and ate regularly in soup kitchens. Unions were in their infancy. The division of the classes in this country was so vast, the emotions so raw, that the Socialists had no difficulty sowing the seeds of rebellion, of riot—even of revolution.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from on high, could see or was informed, that something needed to done quickly before the rabble would rise up and paint his White House red with blood and anger and fervent ideology. In 1936, his response was what he christened, “The New Deal”—spearheaded by something he called the Works Progress Administration, the infamous W.P.A. It became the cornerstone of the New Deal—with its clarion motto, “By the People—For the People.” Artists and artisans were put back to work. The WPA lasted from 1936-1943. It had many parts and sub-sections. There was the Federal Art Project—short-lived but vital. There was the Federal Writer’s Project, from 1936-1940, and there was the Federal Theatre Project lasting from 1935-1939. It was this project that writer/director Tim Robbins latched onto—and through it he created a microcosm that lay like a patchwork quilt over the times.
Roger Ebert wrote,” In this sweeping ambitious film, Robbins has created a chronicle of that time, knitting together stories and characters, both real and fictional, in a way similar to John Dos Passo’s novel “USA”. The film’s story covers a lot of territory. If you are familiar with the period—it is fascinating—but if you are not, it could be murky. You almost need a study guide to keep up. Perhaps watching Orson Welles’ film, CITIZEN KANE would be a place to start your research.” I would add to that recommendation a viewing of Dennis Potter’s PENNIES FROM HEAVEN—both the 1978 BBC mini-series version with Bob Hoskins, and the 1981 film with Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken. This dramatic “musical” was once labeled “Bertolt Brecht meets Busby Berkeley.”
Bertolt Brecht still echoes in our social consciousness. As a character, he showed up in CRADLE. An unkown actor named Steven Skybell portrayed him as a social parasite.
Brecht: But where are the artists? Artists are the biggest whores of all!
Lars Von Trier has studied Brecht carefully, and he embraced the playwright’s theory of “Verfremdungseffekt” or “alienation effect”.
From Gilbert & Sullivan to Rogers & Hammerstein, the “Musical” represents an unrealistic presentation. We have to accept the convention that a character involved in a dramatic moment could simply and logically just “break into song”—and then return to the strand of plot immediately afterward. PENNIES and CRADLE are not exceptions—and neither was Blitzstein’s play. Brecht firmly believed that all theatrical performances should be deliberately unrealistic—so that the audience, rather than sympathizing emotionally with the characters [God forbid], would consider the play’s themes rationally and objectively. Von Trier followed this formula implicitedly with his film, DOGVILLE (2004). But a theatrical play, or film, full of diatribe and pedantic double-speak unfortunately can quickly becomes tedious—even boring, muddled, and out-of-synch.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN provided a unique solution for conveying the times—the 1930’s. It illustrated the vivid contrast between the extremely harsh economic and social conditions of the period, and the saccharine nature of its popular music and cinema. Hollywood decided that the common folk were sad and desperate enough in their everyday lives—so that when they paid their nickel and attended the movies—they wanted and needed to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, along with Robert Taylor and Sonja Henie—all “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. Audiences were, by in large, force-fed fluff, fantasy, and nonsense. Probably they were correct in their assessment. The pure escapism provided by those insipid debutantes and dilettantes in the cinema of the 30’s might have helped to keep a lid on a huge pot of struggling humanity that came damned close to boiling over.
CRADLE WILL ROCK is 132 minutes long. Yet, for me, it flowed so smoothly and passed so quickly, overlapping so many vignettes and threads of plots —dealing with such an important and volatile time in our nation’s history—that it did not feel “long”. It did feel extremely audacious, spirited, creative, and rock-solid in its social consciousness. It was the brainchild of Tim Robbins. He is the much maligned and tremendously talented artist, who is also a director, actor, writer, producer, and musician.
By age 12, Timothy Francis Robbins was already active in the THEATRE FOR THE NEW CITY—an avant-garde acting troupe. He began his love affair with social activism early on. He has been an active member of the Green Party since 2000, and he is a strong supporter of Ralph Nader. As an Independent, he did vote for Senator John Kerry in the last presidential election—but that did make him a Democrat. So even though he has always been very politically active, “That does not make me an activist,” he states.
He grew up in New York City—in Greenwich Village. His mother is actress Mary Robbins, who has been keenly politically “aware” throughout her life. His father, Gil Robbins, was a member of the folk music group, THE HIGHWAYMEN. His older brother, David Robbins, is an accomplished musician, and he and Tim have collaborated on several film scores. Tim graduated from Stuyvesant High School in NYC—as did Sarah Jessica Parker a bit later. After spending two years at the State University of New York, he moved out to California and studied Drama at UCLA. He graduated with honors in 1981, the same year he co-founded and formed THE ACTOR’S GANG—“an experimental ensemble that expresses radical political observations through avant-garde theatre.” John Cusack is a member of his LA Theatre Group, and a long-time friend. Recently there was a reported “power struggle” within the group. Robbins emerged triumphant—but some members left over the rift.
As a sidebar, few know that Tim Robbins is also an ace hockey player. He was kicked off his high school hockey team for “fighting”. Gee—is there fighting in hockey? He has participated/played in the National Hockey League in an All Star Game. He is a huge New York Rangers fan—and to this day he will still whip out his personal VHS that recorded the 1994 Stanley Cup Championship season—and play it in its entirety—even when not a shred of interest was generated.
Robbins is 6’5” tall, and he holds the record for being the tallest actor ever to win an Oscar. He is listed as 60th in the list of the 100 TOP MOVIE STARS OF ALL TIME. He has tremendous range as an actor. He can play everything from dim-wittedness to extreme intelligence. One critic wrote,” Robbins can be at once contemptible and attractive—the rarest of gifts.” As an actor, he has appeared in 42 films since 1983. He came to prominence in 1988 when he played Ebby Calvin “Nick” Laloosh in BULL DURHAM. That was a good year for him—an Oscar [or was he only nominated? It is so hard to keep track.] For Best Supporting Actor, and the beginning of his relationship with the stunning Susan Sarandon. They have been “life partners” since 1988, and they have two children together. Like Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, their partnership has stood the test of time. Robbins & Sarandon seem to be a “good fit”.
Robbins has had 36 television episode appearances, and he has appeared as “himself” 33 more times on TV. He has directed three films—BOB ROBERTS in 1992, DEAD MAN WALKING in 1995, and of course, CRADLE WILL ROCK in 1999. BOB ROBERTS was inspired by a short film he created in 1986 for a Saturday Night Live skit—all about an ultra conservative folk-singing senatorial candidate. Folk singing and politics—both were familiar territories for Robbins. He and his brother, David, wrote all the folk songs. Robert Altman has said of Robbins,” He has qualities that could make him the next Orson Welles.”
He was fourth stud on the left in TOP GUN (1986). I began to take his acting seriously when he played Jacob Singer in JACOB’S LADDER (1990). In 1992 he was very good as Griffin Mill in Altman’s THE PLAYER. He won the Best Actor Award that year at Cannes for that role. His study of Altman’s directing style made itself very evident in all the overlapping plots and multiple character studies within CRADLE. I thought he was outstanding as Andy Dufresne in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994). He was devastatingly good as the ill-fated Dave Boyle in Clint Eastwood’s MYSTIC RIVER (2003)—and he earned an Oscar for that one. I noticed in the long cast list of CRADLE, his name is listed as the “Voice on a Film Reel”. Presently he is very busy. He has four films in post or pre-production—including Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLD with Tom Cruise. And he is directing a lot of Theatre.
In March 2004, he had the debut of his newest play, EMBEDDED, at the New York Public Theatre. It was filmed and shown on the Sundance cable channel. His own theatre group, the Actor’s Gang, performed it. It is the not-so-thinly-veiled accounting of the U.S. action in Iraq. The play deals satirically with the military personnel and journalists that were embedded with them during the invasion of a Middle Eastern country he called, “Gomorrah”. Robbins was fed up with the personal attacks on himself and his family, and he decided to take out his frustration through the writing of this play. Contrary to what the Robbins-haters may want to believe, there are supposed to be a number of touching moments in the play—along with sympathetic portraits of those men and women fighting on the front lines.
In reference to his writing, Robbins has stated,” I always, write from an actor’s perspective, which is opposed to dialogue that is strained and defective. A movie script is a malleable entity when you are shooting, and should be able to become different things—and should be able to be rewritten at the last minute.” It would appear that avant-garde ensemble theatre and stunning creative improvisation has met the Hollywood of Old. They have romanced each other, and have whelped a new prodigy.
David Robbins did the original music for CRADLE. Musically he has been involved in all three of Tim’s directorial efforts. Since 1991, David has scored 14 movies—one of them being GATTACA (1997). Jean-Yves Escoffier did the cinematography for CRADLE. His tracking and dolly shots were flawless, moving from a street scene to the innards of an adjacent apartment without an apparent fade out. He has been the head lenser on 33 films—the first 14 of which were in French. He helmed the cameras for THE CROW II in 1996, GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997), ROUNDERS (1998), and more recently THE HUMAN STAIN in 2003.
Ms. Susan Sarandon played Miss Margherita Sarfatti, the ex-mistress of Benito Mussolini, who had smuggled famous paintings out of Europe, and had come to NYC to hawk them—in order to take the proceeds back to Italy and replenish the Fascist coffers.
Diego Rivera: You are a piece of work—a Jewish Fascist!
Margherita Sarfatti: And you are a rich communist!
The former Susan Tomalin was married to actor Chris Sarandon from 1962-1979. She attended the Catholic University of America Drama School (1964-68). She got her first acting gig by accompanying her husband, Chris, to an audition for the movie, JOE (1970). Ironically, she got a part and he didn’t. I wonder if he ever forgave her? She has appeared in 73 films since 1970. She became a household icon after appearing as Janet in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW in 1975. She helped to sell a lot of C-cup white bras. I thought she was interesting the in the cult horror film, THE HUNGER (1978), holding her own against the likes of Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie. She was then projected strongly into the limelight after playing Annie Savoy in BULL DURHAM (1988), with Kevin Costner, and of course, Tim Robbins. She was nominated for an Oscar four times—for ATLANTIC CITY in 1980, THELMA AND LOUISE in 1991, LORENZO’S OIL in 1992—and she won the Best Actress Award for DEAD MAN WALKING in 1995. She is supposed to be the only actress to win an Oscar for playing a nun. [Gosh, I thought maybe Ingrid Bergman won one for THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S in 1945, or Deborah Kerr for her role in HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON in 1957, or Audrey Hepburn for her role in THE NUN’S STORY in 1959? But I guess not.] Sarandon keeps her Oscar in her bathroom. I don’t know where Robbins keeps his. She was excellent as Reggie Love in THE CLIENT (1994), and I loved her as JoJo in MOONLIGHT MILE (2002).
Her stunning measurements are 37c-26-36. She has said regarding her bust,” The thing that’s bad about breasts is that you are forced to choose between having a mind or having breasts. It would be nice to have both. Anyway, I think my breasts have been highly overrated.” Director Louis Malle in his films, PRETTY BABY (1978) and ATLANTIC CITY (1980), displayed her breasts quite prominently. In my mind, they were never overrated—they were spectacular.
Hank Azaria played composer Marc Blitzstein, the manic driven musician who heard “music” while immersed in the strife of the times. He actually composed music while being involved in a riot, incorporating that entire head bashing and ideological swagger into several catchy melodies. Azaria trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC. Since the 80’s he has kept his hand in “live theatre”, finding time to stay busy with work on television and in films as well. In 1989 he became involved in a radical new animated show for Fox Network called THE SIMPSONS. He has been associated with the series from then to the present. He does the voices for Comic Book Guy, Apu, Cletus, Professor Frink, Moe the Bartender, Chief Wiggins, and Lou the Cop. Lou the Cop’s voice was based on Sly Stallone. Chief Wiggins voice was based on Edward G. Robinson. The voice of Moe the Bartender was based on Al Pacino. It has been reported that his present salary is $100,000 per episode.
Azaria has had 43 film appearances, albeit most of them have been on television. I do remember him in Robert Redford’s QUIZ SHOW in 1994. He was delightful as fey Agador “Spartacus”in THE BIRDCAGE (1996). He was wonderful in the TV film, TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE (1999) working with Jack Lemmon. He was very intense as the Jewish freedom fighter Mordechai Anielewicz in UPRISING, another TV film in 2001. I have really been enjoying him as Dr. Craig Huffstodt on his new Showtime Channel series, HUFF. In February 2005, he played Lancelot in the Broadway production of SPAMALOT—the musical version of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.
Blitzstein: I am faithful to the ideals of the party.
Orson Welles: I am faithful to the party of ideas.
Houseman: You are faithful to the idea of a party.
Ruben Blades played Diego Rivera. When I viewed this film for the first time in 1999, I didn’t know much about this talented and volatile maverick progressive artist. And Corina Katt Ayala’s fine performance of Frida Kahlo slipped right past me. But after seeing Salma Hayak’s masterpiece, FRIDA, in 2002, and relishing Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera—it was simply grand to see CRADLE again. With this most recent viewing I think I began to fully appreciate Blades and Ayala’s performances.
Blades, pronounced Blah-des, was born in Panama. Recently, he ran for the President of Panama and lost—but today he is the Minister of Tourism. He has appeared in 33 films since 1983. He was very good as Sheriff Montoya in Robert Redford’s MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR in 1988. In 1990 he was in both PREDATOR 2 and THE TWO JAKES. I felt he was very effective in Billy Bob Thornton’s ALL THE PRETTY HORSES in 2000. Few know that he is a graduate of the Harvard Law School, and he is an accomplished musician. He won a Grammy for his Salsa music album, ENCENAS.
John Cusack played New York Mayor Nelson Rockefeller. While Cusack was still in Elementary School, growing up in Evanston, Illinois, he was an active member of the Piven Theatre—run by the parents of actor Jeremy Piven. John and Jeremy are close friends, and were once roommates. They have done ten films together. By the time that Cusack was 12 years old, he had already appeared in several plays and commercials. He was raised in a very liberal Irish Catholic family of thespians. As a kid, he met the Berrigan brothers. His father, Dick, and his sisters, Joan and Ann, and his brother Bill—all work in theatre and film. His lovely mother still gets arrested regularly for her anti-militarist and pro-human rights protests. It is rumored that she forbade John from appearing in the movie, PLATOON in 1986.
Cusack made his film debut at 17. He has appeared in 48 movies since 1983. He founded an avant-garde theatrical group in Chicago called THE NEW CRIMINALS. It was modeled after Tim Robbins ACTORS GANG in Los Angeles. I began to respect John’s acting prowess after seeing him in THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN in 1985. He was good as Buck Weaver in John Sayles’ EIGHT MEN OUT in 1988. I felt he was excellent as Angelica Huston’s son, Roy Dillon, in THE GRIFTERS (1990). He showed his flair for comedy and producing with GROSSE POINT BLANK in 1997. His company produced a good HBO western, THE JACK BULL in 1999--a good year for him. He pushed Billy Bob Thornton to the limit as Nick Falzone in PUSHING TIN (1999)—he was the whacked-out puppeteer in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999), and of course he was in CRADLE. He has romanced Minnie Driver, Alison Eastwood, and is now with Neve Campbell.
Angus MacFadyen played Orson Welles, and the Infant Terrible’s zest, drive, intensity, talent, and ego all came through in his portrayal. Robbins suggested with this portrait that Welles was on a roll—and perhaps all too often he was more interested in the food and drink at 21 than he was with the plight of his acting company—or for that matter the plight of the country itself. In CRADLE it was fun to see part of the rehearsal process for THE TRAGIC HISTORY OF DR. FAUSTUS. As part of his contract with the Federal Theatre Project, Welles had done a production of MACBETH prior to that. It was hard to remember that Orson Welles was still in his twenties during this period. He and producer John Houseman were riding high as royalty of the radio with their MERCURY THEATRE program. Welles really did direct CRADLE WILL ROCK in 1936. Most of the events of the film are recorded fact. CITIZEN KANE was still a few years away. Welles seemed to be in the firm grip of his own youthful genius and overwrought ego. For a time he was treated like a golden boy. Robbins allowed us to see the other side of his face—the less attractive egocentric obnoxious overbearing and drunken side of his nature.
After this play, Welles and Houseman both went off to Hollywood. Oddly the play’s opening signaled the end to an era. America itself was soon to go off to war. Those storm clouds that were gathering in 1936 erupted into a catastrophic world war. It was thirty years before young Americans felt revolutionary again. It took the war in the Republic of Viet Nam, the New Morality, and fistfuls of psychedelics thrown into the mix—before we witnessed the cops and the military lining up again with their clubs, mace, and guns at the ready.
In 1968 I was enrolled at the University of Washington, and I participated in several protests. My friend, David Gilmour, was there too. Unknown to each other, we both marched off with several thousand others one day, down to Interstate-5, and stopped traffic—waving our placards and fists. The cops had a hey day. Afterward I wrote some free verse to encapsulate how I felt about my raw embrace from the constabulary.
S O N O F C A I N
Always the Man,
The deaf mute of discipline,
The chief Honcho,
The top dog Badass.
The club in your stomach,
The shotgun at your head,
The glare off a badge,
Rat saliva in the corners of his twisted mouth,
His little red pig weasel eyes
Full of hate,
Rules and righteousness.
Beware of the Man,
Do as he says,
Stay in your box
And in your neighborhood.
Go on green, stop on red.
Put that coin in your Breath-O-Meter.
Do not forget your number.
Do not lose your spoon.
Do not talk loudly.
Do not drink too much.
And for God’s sake,
Do not speak your mind.
Do not enjoy yourself to excess.
Straddle and tow that line.
Stay inside those parameters.
Respect the Man,
Fear his might,
His shiny boots,
His starched pleated shirt,
And his great silver spurs.
Blend, bastard, blend—or
The Man will turn
His considerable wrath on you,
And from the steaming intestines
From the dankness of dungeons,
From shallow graves,
Will come the cries
Of those destroyed,
Into a single wailing.
Men who stood up to the full blast.
Men whose words
Are slain by the wind.
Men without epitaphs—
And you will weep,
You will join them.
Glenn Buttkus 1968
Angus MacFadyen was born in Scotland in 1963. He has had 31 film appearances since 1991. I have always enjoyed his acting. He has the strength, the raw power of a Richard Burton, and the looks of a matinee idol. He played Robert the Bruce in BRAVEHEART (1995). He played Richard Burton in the TV bio-pic LIZ also in 1995. He played Peter Lawford in the HBO film, THE RAT PACK in 1998. He was Lucius in TITUS, with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange in 1999. He played Marcus Crassus in the TV remake of SPARTACUS, with Alan Bates, in 2004. For a short time in 2003, he had his own television series, the enigmatic MIRACLES. So in his film career he has portrayed Orson Welles, Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, and Laurence Olivier—and done well with all of them. I hope he finds that part more suited to him sometime in the future. As a child, he was a clown in the circus. At one point he was engaged to Catherine Zeta-Jones. He works out a lot, and is an accomplished kick boxer.
Cary Elwes played John Houseman, aka Jacques Haussmann. Elwes played him with a rather limp wrist. Houseman was a bit of an oddball, but he did marry, and produced prodigy. It was ironic, that later in his career this titan of a producer, when he was 71 years old, became known as an actor. He was cast in PAPER CHASE in 1973, and he won an Oscar for the role. He appeared in 42 films from then until his death in 1988.
Cary Elwes has had 41 film appearances, including his television roles and some VG. He became noticed playing Westley in THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987). He was good in GLORY (1989). He did some voice work on the dubbed version of Miyazaki’s PORCO ROSSO in 1992. He had a lot of fun in Mel Brooks’ film, ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS in 1993. He stood out competing with Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE in 2000. Recently, I felt he was excellent as Ted Bundy in the A&E TV film, THE RIVERMAN (2004).
John Houseman: As the producer, I can fire anybody I want, and so I am fucking fired!
John Houseman: I’ve always said the play would be better on a bare stage.
Orson Welles: Actually, Hallie said that.
Houseman: No, I said it first.
Welles: No you didn’t.
Houseman: Yes I did.
Welles: No, you didn’t!
Houseman: Yes, I DID!
Welles: No, you DIDN’T!
Houseman: Yes, I BLOODY WELL DID!
Welles: Oh, fine, Jack! You win—you’ve got the biggest creative dick—okay?
Houseman: Thank you.
Cherry Jones played Hallie Flanagan, the director of the Federal Theatre Project. She is a tremendous actress, and she brought wisdom, humor, strength, and grace to the part. She was the kind of boss to die for—fair, intelligent, and compassionate.
Congressman Starnes: You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?
Hallie: I am very sorry. I was quoting from Christopher Marlowe.
Starnes: Tell us who Marlowe is, so that we can get the proper reference, because that is all we want to do.
Hallie: Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.
She works a lot in theatrical productions, but she has managed to log in 20 film appearances since 1986. She was very good as a trainer in THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998). I remember her in THE PERFECT STORM in 2000. I really liked her as Officer Paski in Mel Gibson’s film, SIGNS (2002). In 1995 she won a Tony for her performance in THE HEIRESS. An admitted lesbian since 1980, during her acceptance speech for her Tony Award, she thanked her “partner”. She was nominated for another Tony in 2000 for her role in THE MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN.
Vanessa Redgrave seemed to have a ball playing Countess LaGrange. She is the eldest daughter of actor Michael Redgrave, and as such is part of Acting Royalty. Her sister is Lynn, and her brother is Corin—and they are both active in films and theatre. Vanessa has appeared in 94 films since 1958. She came to prominence with her role in BLOW UP (1966), working with David Hemmings. That same year she worked with Robert Shaw, playing Anne Boleyn in THE MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Then she stunned the world in 1968, playing the infamous topless ballet dancer, Isadora Duncan, in ISADORA, with Jason Robards. She won an Oscar for her role in JULIA (1977)—the only actress to have won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress by playing a title role. During her acceptance speech, she nearly killed her career with a political statement in support of the Palestinians, and against Israel. I liked her in the HBO film, ORPHEUS DESCENDING, in 1990, playing the mannish Lady Torrance, and beating the hell out of Keith Carradine in a fistfight. She was memorable as Emmie Churchill in THE GATHERING STORM (2002), with Albert Finney.
She is the mother of actress Joely Richardson, which makes her Liam Neeson’s mother-in-law. She is one of the few actresses ever to win the Acting Triple Crown—getting an Oscar for JULIA (1977), an Emmy for the television drama about Nazi POW’s, PLAYING FOR TIME, and a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway revival of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.
Philip Baker Hall played the fictitious steel magnate, Gray Mathers. His characterization had the stodgy ring of patrician arrogance—and yet he remained a comic figure—impulsive and emotional—trotting after his flighty wife, the Countess—endeavoring to bend her to his will, and always falling short of the mark.
Gray Mathers: Get in the car! Now!
Countess LaGrange: Perhaps you have mistaken me for a spaniel.
Hall has appeared in 83 films since 1970, and about 75% of them have been television roles. He was interesting as Big Junior Brown in the remake of KISS OF DEATH in 1995. His career got a kick-start when he played the nefarious gambler, Sydney, in HARD EIGHT (1996), with Gwyneth Paltrow. He was good as the American Ambassador in RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (2000). He is one of those excellent character actors, reminiscent of John Marley that most people recognize—but never know his name. I liked him as Mr. Bookman, the librarian, in SEINFELD.
Bill Murray did a grand job as ventriloquist, Tommy Crickshaw. I think he was better in this film than in his much-applauded performance in LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003). In CRADLE he conveyed the pure isolation of a man teetering on the brink of the conclusion of an era—Vaudeville. Of course, some performers, like the Marx Brothers and W.C.Fields, were taking their old Vaudeville routines and using them on the silver screen. Much later men like Milton Berle and Phil Silvers put their shtick to good use in the fledging industry of television. Tommy’s ardor for the prissy Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), never reciprocated, was heart breaking to watch. His anger and disdain for the appointed WPA interns that he was mandated to “train”, and their disrespect and ineptness as they stole his material, his act—was the stuff of tragedy.
Since 1975, Murray has had 45 film appearances. He was on Saturday Night Live from 1977-1980. He had worked with John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner in the early 70’s on the National Lampoon’s Radio Hour. He did not join the gang on SNL until the third season. After leaving SNL in 1980, his film career began to build. He played Hunter S. Thompson in WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (1980). [I was blown away by this zany performance until I was treated to Johnny Depp playing Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998). Depp, it was reported, actually moved in with Thompson for a time to get the actor’s edge on his characterization.] He played Carl Spackler in CADDYSHACK (1980), stealing the move from the likes of Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield. He started the GHOSTBUSTER series in 1984. His part was originally written for John Belushi. He was quite good in WHAT ABOUT BOB? (1991), with Richard Dreyfuss. He broke Robert De Niro’s nose in a fight scene for MAD DOG AND GLORY in 1993. He was wasted as Polonius in Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET in 2000. I loved him in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001). The critics threw down rose petals for him as Bob Harris in LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003). Director Sofia Coppola, it is said, wrote the part with him in mind. These days he is very involved in minor league baseball. He owns the Charleston River Dogs. He, also, is an avid golfer.
Murray is reputed to drive many directors crazy. He will re-write and improvise a script incessantly—until it seems to “fit” his sensibilities. He will work scenes until they no longer even resemble the originals. Often though, to the director’s chagrin—he has good instincts, and his changes are right on the mark, and beneficial to the piece as a whole.
Joan Cusack was very good as Hazel Huffman, the civil servant who felt compelled to appear at the Dies Congressional Hearings and expose what she perceived as the “communist conspiracy” rampant within the Federal Theatre Project. Hazel’s need for recognition coupled to her prissy single-minded drive to “say my piece”—was a jewel of a performance—midst a large basket of other sparkling characterizations. In another actresses’ hands, Hazel could have been hardly noticed. Ms. Cusack gave us someone to remember.
Joan has appeared in 43 films since 1980. Her film career started about three years before her brother John’s. I adored her as Emily in the comedy, IN AND OUT (1997), with Kevin Kline. For a time she had her own television series, WHAT ABOUT JOAN? (2000).
Emily Watson played the down-on-her luck Olive Stanton. Her character assisted the plot in making several transitions. Her opening scene—awakening backstage in a movie house, behind the screen, and being rousted out to the street where she had to wash up in a mud puddle, and offered to sing a song for a nickel—and probably would have prostituted herself for a quarter—was very touching. Olive represented the heart of the film. The play, working in the production as a prop mistress, represented her chance for a new life. When the play was all but closed down, and Marc Blitzstein appeared alone on a bare stage at his piano, and he began to say all the dialogue and sing his own songs—it was the hapless Olive that stood up first out in the audience and belted out her character’s song. Olive was the spark for that whole magical evening, where soon most of the cast members rose up from out of the audience and performed the play in the aisles. As an old actor, that scene really stirred my blood and dampened my cheeks. Not only does it appeal to the show-must-go-on mentality, but more than that, this brave cast rose up directly in the face of the United States Congress, the United States Army, and their own union, Actor’s Equity—and they managed to give a rousing performance that was electrifying—and for its time was fresh, daring, and dynamic.
Emily Watson has completed 22 films since 1996. She worked for the infamous Lars Von Trier, for her first role, in BREAKING THE WAVES (1996). She was nominated for an Oscar immediately. She was cast in the role after Helen Bonham Carter had dropped out of the project—objecting to the part’s explicit sexuality. Watson was very good in HILARY AND JACKIE (1998), and as the blind woman, Reba [a part played by Joan Allen in MANHUNTER (1986)] in RED DRAGON (2002). Over the last couple of years she has done a lot of live theatre—working off-Broadway in TWELFTH NIGHT and UNCLE VANYA.
John Turturro played the struggling actor, Aldo Silvano. His performances are always wonderfully layered. With Silvano he found the full spectrum of emotion and color. His large Italian family did not take well to his non-Italian wife. In those times one did not dare marry outside their ethnicity. His marriage was considered “mixed” by his family—and this cast doubts and negative views on the children of that marriage. Turturro played it all—the love for his wife and children—the magic of welcoming a new child to the world—always making time for them, even at the expense of his “career”, and always putting their welfare first until his own pride put them in jeopardy—his talent as an “actor” during the Depression—his hatred of the Fascists, and his terrible anger when his own relatives dressed up his children in brown shirts and taught them to sing pro-Mussolini tunes. Turturro is a unique looking man, who is usually cast secondary to his oddness—sharp features, frizzy hair allowing him to play several ethnicities, unsettled nature, jumpy disposition—the nervous type, intellectual but still very eccentric. In CRADLE he was allowed to play a regular guy, who happened to be Italian and an actor.
He has appeared in 63 films since 1980. He began to be noticed after he played the psycho, Heinz, in FIVE CORNERS (1987) with Jodie Foster. I remember him as pool shark Julio in THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), as Pino in Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), as BARTON FINK in 1991, as Tuccio in ILLUMINATA (1998), as Pete in O’ BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?--and Sasha in THE LUZHIN DEFENCE—both in 2000, and as the creepy John Shooter in SECRET WINDOW (2004). He has been writer/director on 4 films—MAC in 1992, ILLUMINATA in 1998, and two in post-production for 2005 release dates.
The rest of the supporting cast for this film was immense. There are 132 speaking parts listed in the credits. Tim Robbins has an excellent eye for casting. Director/actor John Carpenter was almost unrecognizable as the pompous William Randolph Hearst—who liked to dress up like an archbishop. Gretchen Mol played his trophy wife, Marion Davies—a sterling effort from Mol with a part that had very few lines. Barnard Hughes was the veteran aged actor, Frank Marvel, who could never remember his lines during rehearsal, but did just fine during the “unique” performance. Jack Black was the insipid Sid, half of the terrible duo of Vaudeville interns that made Bill Murray’s life a living hell. Paul Giamati had a lot of screen time playing the phony Count Carlo—all waxed moustache festooned with medals and ribbons on all his frilly frocks—representing nobility as a freeloader—a kind of purchased royalty. The always-reliable Bob Balaban played administrator Harry Hopkins, or was he a lawyer? He was the point man for the fray when Hallie Flanagan was in trouble. Harris Yulin was the villain of the piece, playing the super-patriotic power hungry Congressman Dies. He inaugurated the “Red Scare” for the Entertainment Industry. He was the Godfather for the Black List to come. Tim Robbins poked the audience with an angry finger as he pointed out the classic inequity of Congressman Dies bringing down the full wrath and weight of the U.S. government onto a poverty-stricken theatre group—and yet they could fully ignore the wealthy capitalists, like Hearst & Rockefeller & the fictional Mathers, illegally purchasing authentic paintings done by Renaissance masters from Benito Mussolini. Ironically the bulk of the great art in Europe during WWII was hidden by the Vatican, or stolen for a time by the Nazis. Great works of art, like the Jews themselves, found their way “home” after the Holocaust.
Roger Ebert raved about this film, but not all of the critics agreed with him. It was not a big money maker at the box office. One critic wrote,” It was an ambitious attempt to blend the spirit of a 30’s screwball comedy [at the frenetic pace of say a Preston Sturgis film] to the conscience of the 60’s protest film—and it only met with limited success.” I disagree completely. Robbins did look back to the 30’s and recognized the similarities between the social unrest of the Depression years, and the protest phenomenon of the 1960’s. The cops donned their jackboots and helmets and began “bashing heads” during both eras. The tagline for the movie one-sheet poster read,” Art is never dangerous—unless it tells the truth.” So just as science often perforates religious dogma and tattered traditions—Art knows no political cabal or Tammany Hall that it is unafraid to confront or parody.
Another critic wrote,” It is a monumentally ambitious effort. Tim Robbins demonstrates a keen historical and analytical mind. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to both educate and entertain—he has overreached his ability to formulate a digestible narrative. He piled on so many stories, twists, characters, issues, and political debates that the film begins to feel incomprehensibly and oppressively dense.” Again, I disagree in part. Robbins has created an epic film with multiple narrative threads. He endeavored to encapsulate an entire world in turmoil—and he tended to rub our noses in the juxtaposition of wealth vs. poverty, and privilege vs. deprivation. He took a point of view, as an artist, to be the Prince of Players at the head of his swirling troupe of jugglers, singers, and actors—firmly believing that he could wryly educate while he emotionally entertained. Often the great Robert Altman’s films suffer from multiple overlapping narratives and battalions of characters—but when the denouement emerges, he pulls everything into a precarious balance and he is proclaimed as a “master”. Robbins studied Altman, while working with him, and I think he pulled off the same magic with this film. I admit it required tremendous energy to keep up with the powerful plot thrusts within CRADLE, to stay with and sort out all the myriad of particulars—to embrace both the history and the artistry. Based on the film’s meager box office receipts, I suspect that a lot of people out there did not have the patience, education, stamina, or motivation to hold on for the full ride. Some were bucked off, fell off, or jumped off mid-ride. But I would submit that for those of us who persevered right to the end—who welcomed each narrative with the relish of historians and Political Science majors—with the throbbing love of theatre and film—and with a deep seated hatred of tyranny, here and abroad—we, few, watched those end credits rolling and we felt that we had been treated to a twelve course meal and were satiated with it.
Tom Lyons wrote,” Robbins interprets everything to the left of center and then he mocks everything and everyone—the right, the left, the upper classes, the lower classes, the snitches, the vaudeville hacks, political power mongers, avant-garde poseurs, philistine patrons, and the starving artists—but seems to support nothing. The acting ensemble was superb—especially Bill Murray. The movie as a whole was afflicted with the easy cleverness and empty virtuosity that Orson Welles himself was often accused of.” Gosh—is this a left-handed compliment, or what?
I enjoyed this film very much. I have seen it several times, and each time I watch it I become more keenly aware of all the research, passion, and creative energy that Tim Robbins infused it with.
I gave this movie a rating of 4.5 stars
Glenn A. Buttkus (2005)