STAGE TO SCREEN: From The Cradle

STAGE TO SCREEN: From The Cradle I've written several times in past columns about the 1936 premiere of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, with its padlocked theatre doors, marching actors and all-around high drama. Even armed with that knowledge, audiences will still find plenty of surprises in director screenwriter Tim Robbins' chronicle of the event (which has somewhat inexplicably dropped the "The" and is now just called "Cradle Will Rock"). The movie has almost as much to do with Nelson Rockefeller, Diego Rivera and anti-Communist ventriloquists as it does with the historic government censorship of Cradle.

I've written several times in past columns about the 1936 premiere of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, with its padlocked theatre doors, marching actors and all-around high drama. Even armed with that knowledge, audiences will still find plenty of surprises in director screenwriter Tim Robbins' chronicle of the event (which has somewhat inexplicably dropped the "The" and is now just called "Cradle Will Rock"). The movie has almost as much to do with Nelson Rockefeller, Diego Rivera and anti-Communist ventriloquists as it does with the historic government censorship of Cradle.

But the climactic performance is still absolutely essential to the overall film, which opens in limited release on Dec. 10. Robbins says the entire film hinged on plausibly re-creating the energy and danger in that performance, where the actors performed from their seats and Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) played the score from on stage. "I was really nervous leading up to it," says Robbins, "because if we didn't pull it off, we didn't have a movie."

Not to worry: The Cradle cast was made up almost entirely of musical theater performers, including Titanic survivors Victoria Clark, Erin Hill and Henry Stram. "We had a blast," Robbins says. "I didn't tell the [extras playing the] audience anything beyond what they already knew. And they went crazy at the exact moments I hoped they would. It was as if we'd conjured up the spirit of that night."

(Full disclosure: I spent several hours waiting in a Hell's Kitchen elementary school as a potential extra for that scene. I trudged to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with several hundred other extras, cooled my heels outside the theater for about an hour, got bored and left. I harbor no ill will toward the film or anyone involved in it. I also did not get paid for my labors, but that's because I left in the middle of the day.)

One aspect of "Cradle" that audiences may find jarring is the depiction of Mercury Theatre director Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) as a rambunctious boor. Robbins points out that most of our memories are of the later, more sedate Welles. "This is 1936 Welles -- 22 years old, burning the candle at both ends and never sleeping. I think that goes hand in hand with young genius. You don't create groundbreaking work by being safe." (In one ironic scene, Welles shares a brief, raucous moment with William Randolph Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, whom he would savage five years later in "Citizen Kane.") Robbins says "Cradle" was influenced heavily by the screwball comedies of the 1930s, which meant a certain style of acting was required. "I needed people who could work with that kind of discipline. We don't have any mumblers in this cast." Credit for this articulate batch of actors must go in part to Doug Aibel, who is perhaps better known as artistic director of the Vineyard Theatre but also moonlights as a casting director. The first film he cast was John Patrick Shanley's "Five Corners," where he met Robbins. Aibel, who has cast all three of Robbins' directorial efforts, says "Cradle" was particularly rewarding because of its subject. Blitzstein became "a personal hero" of his when the Vineyard produced an acclaimed revival of his Juno a few years ago.

Although Aibel's schedule gets a bit heavy at times -- his current Vineyard responsibilities include a possible transfer for Fully Committed and maybe a commercial run for a new Craig Lucas play -- he sees definite advantages to having a foot in both media. "You definitely have a leg up in terms of finding young talent," he says. "We cast people from every corner of the acting landscape. It was ideal for this film, because what was so exciting about the Mercury Theatre is that it also drew from so many different sources."

"Cradle" is one of those few end-of-year films that would actually benefit from being longer, not shorter. "The more research I did, the more stories emerged," says Robbins. However, he was contractually obligated to deliver a film no longer than 130 minutes; as a result, lots of material had to be cut, including about 25 minutes of the Cradle staging and a cameo by Audra McDonald as a street singer.

One of the many subplots involves the fight in Congress over the future of the Federal Theatre Project, which was run by Hallie Flanagan. At the time, plays sponsored by the project were performed for 25 million people -- a quarter of all Americans -- before Congress shut it down in 1939 amid accusations of presenting "un-American" plays. The Congressional testimony, which Robbins' screenplay uses verbatim, serves as a broader parallel to the drama unfolding around The Cradle Will Rock.

"She's the one true altruist in the entire film," says Cherry Jones, whom Aibel suggested for the role of Flanagan. "Tim, who I had never met, felt he should really have a theatre actress in the role of Hallie." Jones says her first audition with Robbins went quite well, largely because she was unfamiliar with his work as a director. "But I rented "Dead Man Walking" before my second audition, and it completely blew me away. I was trembling all over when I read for him the second time. And like a fool, I made the excuse that my cheeks trembled on camera. Can you imagine" Saying that on a film audition!"

Trembling cheeks notwithstanding, Jones got the part and immersed herself in research. She read several Flanagan biographies and paid a visit to her native Tennessee, where she talked to elderly men and women who had seen Federal Theatre productions during the Great Depression. "These were people who had never seen a play before or since."

Oscar rumblings have begun about several "Cradle" performers, including Jones, Bill Murray and Emily Watson. Since filming wrapped, Jones has been filling her resume with roles in several high-profile films, including "Erin Brockovich" with Julia Roberts and "A Perfect Storm" with George Clooney. Next up is her long-awaited appearance in Eugene O"Neill"s A Moon for the Misbegotten, which is scheduled to arrive in New York earlier next year after first appearing in Chicago.

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For the next eight weeks, New York's Film Forum is celebrating Columbia Pictures" 75th anniversary with a smorgasbord of classics old and new. Several of the double features have a theatrical bent, including "Suddenly, Last Summer," "Picnic," "Pal Joey," a pair of screwball films that spawned musicals ("Twentieth Century" and "His Girl Friday") and plenty of others. Visit www.filmforum.com for more information.

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Cutting-Room Floor: In a recent Variety column, Army Archerd offhandedly mentioned plans by Tony Richardson's film company to remake several of his movies, including "Look Back In Anger." The only one that was described in any detail could be pretty amazing -- "The Entertainer" for Imagine Films, with Steve Martin as Archie Rice.... I don't want to give too much away, but The Belle of Amherst will never look the same once you've seen "Being John Malkovich.".... Even when he forgets to mask his neuroses with an entertaining story, Woody Allen can at least be counted on to cast New York actors by the dozens. But with the exception of Anthony LaPaglia, Allen"s "Sweet and Lowdown" (due Dec. 3) has a remarkable dearth of stage names, possibly because most of the action takes place outside of New York..... Nov. 24 will see a batch of movies open to capitalize on the Thanksgiving holiday, and many of them have stage pedigrees. Jeffrey Wright and Bill Irwin star in the Civil War romance "Ride With the Devil" (Nov. 24), and "Tumbleweeds" (Nov. 24) has been generating some attention for A Doll"s House Tony-winner Janet McTeer. Rent alums Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Daphne Rubin-Vega co-star in "Flawless" (Nov. 24), the first above-the-title vehicle for off-Broadway staple Philip Seymour Hoffman.... And if you think stage actors should be heard and not seen, Crazy For You's Jodi Benson joins the cast of "Toy Story 2" -- as Barbie, no less. Wallace Shawn returns as the voice of a neurotic dinosaur.

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My Favorite Responses: Will Nedved lends a personal (well, secondhand) account of the grisly goings-on in "Titus." Once again, The Lion King this ain't.
"I want to see Cherry Jones in "Cradle Will Rock" and "Titus" because it was filmed in Croatia.
"My Croatian friends have a funny story about being in Split (or near Split) and accidentally getting themselves on the set (it was in some ruin that's a tourist site). I guess Taymor's puppets were so convincingly disgusting that they nearly mistook them for corpses of real creatures!"

And Lindsey Rose Broad appears to have confused some of my thoughts in the last column with those of a reader who wrote in, but the story is heartening nonetheless:
"In your most recent column, you cited two current shows that are "star vehicles," Marie Christine and Epic Proportions. Later, you stated that the days of real stage stars are over, and people no longer go to see "the new ____ show." I wanted to let you know that, at least from a personal standpoint, that is not entirely true.

"I'm sixteen years old (I guess you could say the "new" theater-going generation), and I recently went to see Marie Christine, which my mother had for months thought was a one-woman concert called `the Audra McDonald show.'
"I went to see it for the sole purpose of seeing the woman whom I think is going to become a legend. Maybe you don't feel that as a whole, there are any true legends or `marquee names' playing Broadway, but please hop over to LCT and see why in a couple of years you are going to be wrong."

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Your Thoughts: For the most part, I've shied away from box office reports in this column. My gut instinct tells me that these listings shift focus toward commerce and away from art, but a lot of people are apparently interested in which films surprised and which tanked. Do you want to see updates on how the winter crop of films ("Topsy-Turvy," "Cradle Will Rock," "Titus," etc.) perform at the box office? While we"re on the subject, what else would you like to see in this column? And by the way, don't feel confined to just answering the questions I give. Write or ask whatever you want.

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.