For better or worse, Hollywood loves to warble the plaintive song of lefty idealism. The unimpeachably affecting underdog dynamics make grade-A grist for the movie mill as it works around the clock to narratively confirm our most ardent hopes about ourselves. You can hardly blame the conservatives for their dudgeon about American movies, however ineptly and demagogically it is articulated. When's the last time you saw a baldly right-wing movie?
Hollywood knows just as the GOP does that family sanctity is easy to sell, and so it is sold in movies frequently enough, but moviemakers also know that narratives configured on the whomp 'n' stomp of free markets play like death at the googolplex. In terms of economic scenarios, radical idealism has a much more heroic through-line and an agreeably palpable sense of justice. Witness Tim Robbins's new depression-era comedy Cradle Will Rock. But the tendency is ubiquitous. It's even in this year's preschool spectacular Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, which could be more aptly titled Elmo Goes to Hell. Following the iconic red fur ball into Oscar's trash can and through a dimensional portal to a filthy underground anti-Sesame Street as metaphoric as any Antonioni junkyard, the movie openly engages the issue of economic fairness. Once deposited into his own Inferno without a Virgil, the angelic Elmo struggles to retrieve his sacred blankie from Huxley, a juggernaut of preen-ing greed (Mandy Patinkin) who labels everything "MINE." Indeed, every toddler learns Marx the hard way in the inevitable struggle to adopt "sharing" as a life principle; as capitalists and parents, we hardly practice what we preach. Elmo in Grouchland does, though: Elmo even suffers a harrowing moment when he sorrowfully recognizes in himself a few pangs of greedy self-interest. Bunyan for millennial kindergartners, Elmo in Grouchland also throbs with the righteousness of liberal humanism.
Hollywood is manifestly leftist. The often stunning hypocrisy of spoiled millionaire movie stars sincerely championing the poor can rankle, but it also proves the point. Nobody wants to be one of the bad guys, who are so easily defined as right-wing that the characterization is as indelible as a playground bully's. It wasn't always thus. Unions were depicted as seedbeds of corruption, violence, and jungle ethics in 1954's On the Waterfront (directed by HUAC rat Elia Kazan), a film still so revered and unquestioned (and overloaded with Christ imagery) that only Noam Chomsky has gone on the record about its reactionary politics. Since the 1960s, though, and Hollywood's gulping down of the heady cocktail of European "new wave" radicalism/realism, American movies have been liberal when they've been political at all. Hollywood took up examining proletarian discontent close upand, in Five Easy Pieces, Wanda, Two-Lane Blacktop, Fat City, Scarecrow, and The Last Detail, without blinkered nostalgia or happy endings to smudge the lens. In 1976 Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA, a devastating pro-union documentary, won an Oscar; in 1979, Sally Field won one too for playing a garment-industry unionizer in Norma Rae. Warren Beatty, surely one of the most privileged humans on the planet, revealed himself with Reds (1981) to be a full-blown socialistan odd and beautiful enigma he confirmed last year with Bulworth, a satire that actually dared to use the word "socialism" when addressing late-century social crisis.
Of course, Hollywood prefers to follow the Sally Field paradigm and simplify the struggle to Elmoesque levelswitness the choked-up, Spielbergian simplicities of A Civil Action, Ghosts of Mississippi, Seven Years in Tibet, The American President, or nearly any mainstream "issue" film you'd care to name from the past few decades. Besides Beatty, whose steps into the breach are infrequent andaside from Reds and Bulworthapolitical, Tim Robbins is the most prominent Hollywood voice for whom liberal messaging isn't merely a matter of feel-good storytelling but of political truth-telling. More famous as an actor and Susan Sarandon's husband, Robbins also wrote and directed Bob Roberts (1992), a hilarious poison-pen portrait of a folk singing conservative politico on the campaign trail, and Dead Man Walking (1995), a film about capital punishment that suggested, to universal acclaim, that executing even very, very guilty murderers is an act that demands reflection.
Now, with Cradle Will Rock, Robbins has created a broad-as-a-barn screwball comedy out of a beloved and exultant lefty saga: In 1937, as part of the Roosevelt-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Federal Theater Project company in New York produced Marc Blitzstein's labor musical The Cradle Will Rock, directed by a 22-year-old Orson Welles. When the show was abruptly shut down before its premiere amid congressional red-hunting, Blitzstein's operetta was nonetheless performed in a quickly rented theater 21 blocks away (the ticket holders walked over en masse) in open defiance of federal mandate, without sets or orchestra, and with the union-bound actors singing their roles from the seats.
It's an irresistible scenario, and Robbins plays it like a Marx Brothers movie, with Orson Welles (nicely embodied by Angus MacFadyen) as Groucho and Mercury Theater producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) as Margaret Dumont. In fact, the Cradle saga, centered as it is upon Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), struggling actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro), and homeless ingenue Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), is only one strand: In a Robert Altmanesque whorl, Robbins folds in the battle between art-loving millionaire Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) and Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) over Rivera's radical Rockefeller Center mural, the relationship between Mussolini flack/art broker Margherita Sarfatti (Sarandon) and Carnegie-ish steel magnate Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall), the trials of Federal Theater Project National Director Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones) as she wrestles with the powers that be, and the quasi-romance between communist-hater Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), a WPA employee who testified to Congress about the red presence in the organization, and fictional vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray).
Filled with one-off riffs on historical characters (Gretchen Mol makes an amusingly dipsy Marion Davies) and tripled-up dialogue storms, Robbins's movie plays the facts straight but the characters off the wall. Welles, in particular, is painted as a flabbergasting, self-obsessed, drunken, howling ego volcano who enjoys the scandal he's at the center of because it'll "piss off all the right people," not because he has a political bone in his body. It's difficult to believe the portrait is very unfair and not just affectionately juiced up with slapstick.
There's a sense of self-congratulation about Robbins's film that has more in common with the typical sugar-frosted Hollywood homilies than with Beatty's exercises in class consciousness, but Robbins never skimps on shooting straight. (Cradle's opening card informs us that unions blossomed in the 1930s because of the wretched conditions endured by workers, particularly in steel, as they produced goods for export to Germany and Italy.) He even middle-roads his movie's scenario by making it clear that the government shut down the musical Cradle not because of its content (hardly anyone knew or cared about it or any of the other Federal Theater Project plays) but because of a project-wide, 20-percent budget cutwhich directly contradicts nearly every Welles biography. Without the heroism inherent in the traditionally accepted story of censorship, defiance, and triumph ("If you are not reading this with your hair on end," David Thomson writes rather purplishly in his Welles book's chapter on Cradle, "then never go near any place called a theater."), Cradle Will Rock seems at something of a loss in terms of purpose. And as the performance of Blitzstein's hammy musical rolls on in the end and the players emerge from the audience to sing their roles (stepping onto the stage would have meant possibly having one's union relief cut), it's hard to know if the celebration of comradeship is deliberately ambiguous and absurd, or out of Robbins's control. Did he just get swept up with the moment, as has nearly every writer who's told the story? Or is he casting a particularly cold eye on radical history? After all, Welles and company thought they were being censored, even if they weren't. Does defying censorship that isn't there make resistance any less invigorating?
Perhaps. Robbins is muddying the waters here. Fiery about indicting capitalist villains but ambivalent about lionizing the leftists (in Cradle, Jamey Sheridan's union leader is an amoral stick-in-the-mud), Robbins regards his movie's politics as impure, chaotic, compromised by fate and ego. There is no immaculate liberal triumph here, no Sally Field with her fist in the air, just the jubilant irony of a labor play, written by a wealthy bourgeois and directed by one of the twentieth century's most extravagant show-biz personalities, defying a Congress that scarcely noticed.
Robbins doesn't fail to fry his bigger fish regardless, showing how industry bigwigs like Carnegie were financing Mussolini by buying Italian art (quite literally with bags of cold cash), mournfully detailing how Rockefeller had Rivera's painting sledgehammered off the wall because Rivera wouldn't paint over a portrait of Lenin, and hypothesizing that men in power like Rockefeller conspired thereafter to buy and extol only abstract (read: politically neutral) art and thereby create the market for abstract expressionism as a means for controlling the culture.
At the very least, Cradle Will Rock is a rollicking ode to the Federal Theater Project, to its achievements as well as its innocence. But the film laments the passing of socialistic fervor as well, as most Hollywood movies about the left do. Radicalism is a bright light most safely viewed from a distance of many years. (This is what makes Bulworth so shocking.) Robbins quite apparently feels the irony in his bones: The last shot of Cradle Will Rock is a startling pan up from the movie's characters staging a mock funeral march for the Federal Theater Project to ... Times Square, 1999, a sub-Vegas nova of neon corporate advertising. That Robbins is acknowledging the dilapidated state of theater in America is a given, but there's another layer to the onion. The bright, lifeless mass culture that has overtaken midtown Manhattan is Disney's, of course, and Disney produced and distributed Cradle Will Rock. The movie may be endorsing dissent, but pay to see it, and you shake hands with the devil. Blitzstein's fat cat "Mr. Mister" turns out to be Mickey Mouse. Little more needs to be said about both the tenacity of the active left and the untouchable power of corporate culture in the year 1999.