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Monday, Oct. 9, 2000

Citizen Tim rocks the boat

When a cranky American conservative starts foaming at the mouth about the "liberal cultural elite," he's probably thinking of someone like Tim Robbins. Although his onscreen turns as an actor reveal a varied choice of roles, Robbins' work as a director has been of a decidedly liberal bent: His first film, "Bob Roberts," took the piss out of slickly packaged rightwing politicians, while his second, the Oscar-winning "Dead Man Walking," raised the moral issues of the death penalty.

Robbins continues to fly the liberal banner high with his latest, "The Cradle Will Rock," which looks at a controversial theatrical production directed by Orson Welles in N.Y.C. during the turbulent ideological climate of 1936. The film features a huge ensemble cast full of risk-takers -- John Turturro, Emily Watson, Bill Murray and John Cusack -- along with a host of excellent character actors such as Ruben Blades, Philip Baker Hall and Hank Azaria.

The Federal Theater Project was a Depression-era scheme to direct government money to keeping the acting and stagehand communities employed. But -- in echoes of the contemporary NEA-funding controversies -- composer Mark Blitzstein (played by Azaria) and director Welles (Angus MacFadyen) found their production shut down by congressmen who suspected them of leftist sympathies. Troops were actually sent in to close down the theater; in a remarkable display of defiance, the cast and audience marched off to another venue, and staged the show without costumes or sets.

In August Robbins appeared in Tokyo to meet the press with actress Susan Sarandon, his creative partner and spouse, who appears in "Cradle" as a high-society fascist funneling money to the Mussolini regime. For a celebrity couple they seemed quite down-to-earth, though a bit "in character": Robbins, with a chic little skull-cap, spoke in a slow, deliberately pensive murmur, while Sarandon was firm and direct in voicing her opinions.

The triumph of political art over politics itself is what drew Robbins to the project, particularly the actress Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), who was the first in the cast to defy the ban on performance.

"I love the idea of the one person who can stand up in front of thousands and make a difference," said Robbins, revealing his own agitprop agenda. "For me, that truly is what freedom and democracy is about. It's never the majority that changes things -- it's the one person with a good idea and the courage to express themselves."

While Welles took much of the credit for urging the cast and crew to defy the government ban, Robbins begged to differ. "That always pissed me off, because it was a famous person taking credit for the very courageous individual act of one person [Stanton]." This stance angered some of Welles' die-hard fans, as did the film's portrayal of Welles, which shows him as a precocious genius, but also somewhat of an arrogant drunk. "According to my research, it's pretty accurate," said Robbins, "and I felt I was doing an homage to him. Because you can be a liver of life and a drinker and still be a wonderful, brilliant creator. . . . My job is to make a human being, not an icon. He was wonderful, wild, anarchic -- and dangerous, which is why he got in so much trouble."

"The Cradle Will Rock" rides on that manic, rapid-fire speech that characterized films of the '30s, particularly the screwball comedies, a style Robbins no doubt absorbed when making "The Hudsucker Proxy."

Sarandon explained, "We were trying to make it seem like a film of that period. Nowadays, films in America have gotten sloppier and slower in speech, ever since Marlon Brando."

Sarandon's Italian accent in the film (and knowledge of the fascist background) came from five months she spent in Italy in the '80s, when she played Il Duce's daughter in "Mussolini and I." While Sarandon is most noted for roles like the saintly nun in "Dead Man Walking," she confessed, "It's always better to play Captain Hook than Peter Pan. The burden of sincerity is really a heavy one, so it's always much more fun to play bad people. The trick of it is to understand that they don't think they're bad."

A Web journalist, apparently looking to make her job easier, asked Robbins to define the film's appeal to young women. Flashing that devilish grin from "Bob Roberts," Robbins replied, "There's a lot of hot guys in it . . . all single."

Sarandon could surely have added a crack, but decided to talk straight instead: "All the women [in the film] are having to find a way to survive by dealing with the men who have the power. The question is where do you draw the line, when you're forced to compromise yourself?"

"The Cradle Will Rock" is showing at Yebisu Garden Cinema.

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