'Rock' in a Hard Place
Here is how Welles describes the composer: "Serious rather than solemn, he brightens a room when he enters it. His political beliefs are like moral convictions but they are held with the most perfect serenity. A total stranger to extravagance in any form, he is mannerly, widely educated, unaffectedly civilized, a man of natural authority and unstudied charm. It never occurs to him that his mere presence is a kind of rebuke to the rest of us."
So much for the Welles version. In the film that Robbins wrote and directed, we have instead a sweaty and unshaven Blitzstein: jerky of movements, hollow of eyes, given to hallucinatory dialogues with conscience-tormenting figures (such as his dead wife and Bertolt Brecht). Brighten a room? This guy would more likely clear it.
What about Houseman? In the screenplay, Welles introduces his great collaborator and enemy with these words: "Now in his early thirties he conveys an impression of greater age by virtue of a magisterial air, wholly natural and unforced, and already impressive." In sum, a highly capable man--unlike Cary Elwes in Cradle Will Rock, whose characterization of Houseman amounts to a lift of the nose and a dangle of the wrists.
As for Welles himself: He liked to say that a director is someone who "presides over accidents." We hear in this remark a characteristic chuckle of false modesty. All of us live amid the crash of entropy--but very few, as Welles knew, can make the pieces fall into patterns.
Those happy souls do not include the bellowing, arm-waving drunk in Cradle Will Rock. This Welles (Angus Macfadyen) just happens to be in the neighborhood when shows get produced. And why are they put up? He doesn't much care. To judge from this man's roarings about a theater of sensation, you would not guess that the real Welles gave his time and energy to the Spanish Loyalists, that he chose to collaborate with Blitzstein on other occasions (including a benefit for New Masses and a production of Julius Caesar updated to Fascist Italy), that he abandoned RKO to make a documentary about Brazilian workers.
I find it curious that Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein--people who were fully as intelligent and committed as Hallie Flanagan--should appear as caricatures in Cradle Will Rock. The first two resemble the news media's version of Karen Finley. They're scandal-making elitists who take advantage of a federal program and by their irresponsibility contribute to its ruin. Blitzstein is not much better. Like the media's image of a politically correct academic, he's a wretched ideologue, trapped inside his own head.
If Diego Rivera fares better in the film, it's largely because the role has gone to Ruben Blades. Like the real Blitzstein, he is a kind of rebuke to those around him. No other actor in Cradle Will Rock stands up to Blades's cunning, anger and irrepressible glee--though these qualities are put in the service of another cartoonlike scheme. It's true that Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) bought Rivera's services, then dumped him as if he were a disobedient whore. But the movie goes further. At the end, all but rubbing his hands with cupidity, Rockefeller declares he will now promote abstract art--it's better for business.
I would be the last to defend the Butcher of Attica; yet I note that Picasso's Guernica found a home in Rockefeller's Museum of Modern Art. (So, too, did Rivera's bloodthirsty Agrarian Leader, Zapata.) So maybe the relationship between artist and private patron is more interesting out in the world than it is in Cradle Will Rock. Certainly the relationship between Welles and a short-lived system of public patronage was richer than the film lets on.
Robbins wants to protect his art workers and honest bureaucrats from such complexities. I suppose that's why he constructs a thematic montage for his characters rather than freeing them to interact. Maybe he also wants to protect the good people from himself. Like Welles, he is a writer-director-producer-star. Is that why he makes Orson an ass--because he's ashamed of his own success, working for private paymasters? If so, I wish he'd think again. As a star, he does a lot for the troupers--including giving them work in a project that may be a little clunky but doesn't entail prostitution.
Lighten up, Tim Robbins. Your heart's in the right place. Now move your head.