'Cradle' Rocks Back and Forth

The protagonist of Tim Robbins' first movie as a writer-director, "Bob Roberts" (1992), is a criminally corrupt conservative Republican U.S. Senate candidate who, thanks in large part to his talent for media manipulation, defeats the noble liberal incumbent and thereby serves the interests of the thieving, drug-running military-industrial alliance that really runs this country.

Back then, propaganda was what one expected from the outspokenly leftist Robbins, who had made an acting name for himself in films like "Bull Durham" and "Jacob's Ladder" and a lesser political name on causes like "abortion rights" (for) and the Gulf War (against).

Around the time "Bob Roberts" was released, Robbins declared that in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, "when the debate should have been about the deterioration of our cities and the lack of action by our government, [George Bush] sent his idiot" - Dan Quayle - "to make an outrageous statement about Murphy Brown...Someone cleverly realized that the best diversion from Bush [was] to put on a clown show."

Not long after that, in a pre-'92-election symposium in Spin magazine, Robbins spewed, "If you would like to shove hangers in your vaginas...if you are comfortable with a Supreme Court ruled by callous, unqualified radicals from the religious right, then...don't vote...Elect Bush and we can kiss the Constitution goodbye."

More than two years later, as the interview subject in the February 1995 issue of Playboy, Robbins was still opining: "There are a lot of valid lessons in any religion, but once a religion approaches dogma to the exclusion of any other religion, it becomes dangerous...There's too much arrogance and hatred in people who consider themselves religious...Many governments have used [religion] to keep their people in their place and make them fear authority. To keep them paying their taxes...to justify unfairness and injustice. Historically that's what religion has been used for."

In light of such sentiments, few if any conservatives would have thought that Robbins' second film, then just around the corner, would be both his great leap forward artistically and free of political hectoring - but it was. "Dead Man Walking" (1995), the story of a death-row inmate and the nun who befriends and counsels him, was no anti- (or, for that matter, pro-) capital punishment tract. Instead, Robbins delivered a nuanced character study that illuminated the humanity of both the killer and his victims.

So, one work of politics, then one of artistry. Where would Robbins go next? When it was reported that his third project centered on the making of the 1937 musical "The Cradle Will Rock," it certainly sounded as if the tie would be broken in favor of agitprop. After all, "Cradle," in the words of one writer, offers a "relentlessly militant indictment of American capitalism." Its author, Marc Blitzstein, was an unabashed Communist sympathizer.

But in Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock," the outright political advocacy is pretty much limited to the small amount of material taken directly from the play. Moreover, the film's treatment of labor unions and arts subsidies will please no one with knee-jerk positions on either issue.

Blitzstein's musical itself is, of course, pro-union. In terms of getting the show mounted, however, labor winds up in the way. When, on less than a day's notice, the production must move to another theater, the actors' union forbids its members from taking the stage at any venue other than that which as originally announced. (The actors circumvent this inexplicable edict by performing from the seating area.)

The production had to move after federal authorities shut down the first theater. Nonetheless, a little perseverance and ingenuity on the company's part allows the show to go on - a lesson for backers of government arts funding. Those backers, by the way, include Robbins. "I believe that if my tax dollar is going to go to anything, I prefer it to go to culture and not to war," he told the Toronto Sun a few weeks ago.

The point here isn't that Robbins is left of center on this or any other question. Rather, it's that he recognizes when his responsibilities as an artist trump his ideology. He opposes the death penalty, but understood that to make "Dead Man Walking" as good as it was, those feelings had to be put aside.

While "Cradle Will Rock" isn't on the level of its immediate predecessor, Robbins' inclination to incorporate points of view other than his own, and to downplay politics altogether when necessary, augur well for his future as an auteur.