Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) awakens in her refuge behind a movie screen and rises to her feet, then manages to slip out of a back exit before one of the staff can stop her. It is 1936 and the Depression is still gripping America, with Olive just one of millions of victims: she has nowhere to stay, is desperate for money, and even more than that is determined to make it in the theatre. Luckily for her, there might be an opening at one of the Federal Theater Projects, which has been created by the government to offer actors and stage folk the chance to work; for one, Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) is intent on making a success of one of these productions...
But the best laid plans and all that. Welles has fascinated filmmakers for decades, so much so that even when he is part of the ensemble in this, his influence casts a long shadow and his enthusiasm for his craft is infectious, perhaps all the more for movie people than theatre people. Bizarrely, Welles becomes a comedy character in Cradle Will Rock, which was a tribute to the actors who were driven to be artistic in the face of destitution and political clampdowns on anything in free expression that might be mistaken for Communism, and not only actors as writer and director Tim Robbins roped in the painter Diego Rivera (Ruben Bladés) and his story of his mural for Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack).
This comparison between artists who refused to compromise, even though they did not occur concurrently as they did in the film, shows the balancing act that must be achieved between art and commerce, with those holding the purse strings all the more likely to cut off the essential support, from the wealthy businessmen to the government, if they did not like what was produced in their name and more importantly, with their cash. So Rockefeller has to judge whether he is better thought of as a philistine when Rivera starts including left wing ideology (images of Lenin and Marx), and scrap the whole mural, or let it go and risk being thought of as a laughing stock or worse, funding a political subversive.
Needless to say, when the mural is destroyed and Rivera ejected from the building, it's no big surprise. But Robbins is spinning quite a few plates in the air with this, some true and a few fictional, as there's also the tale of a ventriloquist (Bill Murray) who feels he is suffering from the influx of leftwingers in the business they call show, getting involved with Joan Cusack's theatre bureaucrat when a witch hunt style investigation is enforced by the right so that all this talk of workers' liberties is nipped in the bud. This is no mean feat with the rise of fascism in Europe making Americans nervous, but these reactionaries are more intent on building up the Communists of the U.S.S.R. as the true bogeymen.
Robbins is very active in politics anyway, so it's no shock to see him engage with these issues just as he did in Bob Roberts, yet while that had the benefit of satire to fuel its anger, here there's a creeping earnestness about the proceedings that may be sincere, but grows more offputting the longer it goes on. Fair enough, the story of the play Welles and John Houseman (Cary Elwes) put on is an inspirational one and worth telling as the actor's union under pressure demanded it not be performed, so it was staged in an impromptu performance of the writer (John Turturro) at the piano, then enhanced when Olive stood up and began singing her role from the audience, leading the others in doing the same. The kind of thing actors love, casting them in the role of real life heroes championing their movement, but the play itself looked pretty hard to take otherwise, didactic and unsubtle to a fault, so to end the film with chunks of it feels anticlimactic in a weird way. For the most part, however, this is well handled and well acted, never losing sight of what could have been drowned in subplots and star cameos. Music by David Robbins (brother of Tim).