Cradle Will Rock (1999; directed by Tim Robbins)

One of the many projects Orson Welles left incomplete when he died was a movie about the production of The Cradle Will Rock that he directed for the Federal Theater Project in 1937. But now one of the great stories of the 20th Century has been filmed at last, and Tim Robbins has done an excellent job.

The movie portrays not only the events surrounding the performance of the banned play, and the concurrent government hearings, but also several other storylines involving various collisions between art and politics in that time period, some real and some fictitious. A whole range of social classes are included, from a homeless woman who ends up starring in the play, to William Randolph Hearst and Nelson Rockefeller (in a hilarious performance by John Cusak).

So, Marc Blitzstein is writing his labor opera (with Brecht hovering over his shoulder), Welles and John Houseman are bickering as they put on Dr. Faustus, Nelson Rockefeller is commissioning a painting from Diego Rivera, government hearings are investigating Communist influence in the Federal Theater, a fascist supporter is trading Italian art for war materials, an actor in Welles' company is dealing with fascist influence in his own family, and much more. And Bill Murray gives a fantastic performance as a ventriloquist.

If this sounds like it might be a little too much (and there is a lot in the film that I haven't even mentioned), you may be right. And, unlike many of the people who will see this film, I'm already familiar with most of the major characters (at least the ones based on real people). Frankly, I would have liked to spend a little more time with not quite so many characters. Particularly, I would have liked to see a more detailed depiction of how Blitzstein and Welles and Houseman decided to defy the government's padlock on the theater. I think there's more meat there than Robbins has put on the screen.

But this is a minor quibble, and I'd rather see a movie with a couple of ideas too many than no ideas at all. The cast is amazing, particularly both Joan and John Cusak, and Cherry Jones as Hattie Flanagan, the head of the Federal Theater Project. I hope a lot of people see this film. It's an incredible story, very well told.

With John Cusak: Grosse Point Blank, The Thin Red Line, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

With Joan Cusak: Grosse Point Blank, In and Out

Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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