FILMS

The stars and snipes

Tim Robbins becomes a political player

Brian D. Johnson September 14 1992
FILMS

The stars and snipes

Tim Robbins becomes a political player

Brian D. Johnson September 14 1992

The stars and snipes

Tim Robbins becomes a political player

FILMS

Amid all the show-business chicanery of the current American election race, one campaign stands out. Its slogan is “Vote now, ask questions later.” And its poster shows the candidate posing on a marble dais, wearing nothing but an American flag, with an acoustic guitar propped by his side. The campaign is aimed at the box office, not the ballot box. And the candidate is a

fictional contender for the Senate in a provocative new movie titled Bob Roberts, featured at the Festival of Festivals, running in Toronto from Sept. 10 to 19. A wickedly funny satire, Bob Roberts cuts to the bone of the American body politic with uncanny timing. And for Tim Robbins, its writer, director and star, the movie marks a significant triumph.

In a movie industry where style routinely

supersedes substance, Robbins has turned the tables twice in one year. As the star of The Player, director Robert Altman’s eviscerating satire of Hollywood, he portrayed Griffin Mill, a studio executive who murders a screenwriter and gets away with it. The movie was a critical and commercial hit. Now, Bob Roberts does for politics what The Player did for show business. In the title role, Robbins plays a right-wing populist rebel who is campaigning with his own funds (as a self-made millionaire) and his own songs (as a revisionist folksinger). Like Mill, Roberts is a cunning opportunist, adept at the art of deception. “The two characters are connected,” Robbins said in a recent Maclean’s interview in Los Angeles. “Griffin Mill would vote for Bob Roberts. But he never would have green-lighted this movie.” Reversing the larger-than-life ratio of most movie stars, Robbins, who stands at 6 feet, 4 inches actually seems taller and more charismatic in person than on-screen. With babyfaced good looks, tousled hair and a wryly casual manner, the 33-year-old actor appears to have little in common with the slick characters he portrays in both Bob Roberts and The Player—except for a hint of shrewdness. “What he does best is portray people he doesn’t like,” Altman told Maclean 'slast week, adding that Robbins performed “a remarkable feat,” of writing, directing and starring in Bob Roberts. “I couldn’t believe that he could show such constraint on all three sides,” said Altman. “I think he’s just terrific—if there’s a new Orson Welles around, he’s it.”

Until this year, Robbins was best known for playing dim-witted pitcher Nuke Laloosh in the baseball movie Bull Durham (1988), another departure from type. It marked the beginning of his romance with actress Susan Sarandon, who recently gave birth to their second son. Author Gore Vidal, who co-stars in Bob Roberts as a liberal senator, has known Sarandon for 20 years. “I’ve met many of her gentleman callers,” he told Maclean ’s. “And Tim is by far the brightest. He really is political. There is none of that politics of emotion you get when film stars march for whales or native rights. He knows how it works.”

Indeed, Robbins displays a hardheaded sense of political outrage that is rare in Hollywood. He and Sarandon were among the handful of stars to take a vocal stance against the Persian Gulf War last year. When they joined a protest march in Washington, he said, “We were isolated. It was just me and Sue. They’re always saying Hollywood is a real liberal, leftleaning place. But it’s not true. I see causes, but I don’t see conviction. Where are the movies if it’s so left and liberal? I don’t see ’em.” Defying the odds, Robbins has made one. Bob Roberts is a savage, astute and uncompromising attack on the media circus of American politics. Robbins first tested the Roberts character in a skit for TV’s Saturday Night Live seven years ago. And although the movie was filmed last year, the script foreshadows more recent events with remarkable prescience.

Robbins conceived of a populist financier running for office long before independent conservative Ross Perot entered the political

fray. He had Roberts campaigning with a musical instrument well before Democratic candidate William Clinton played his saxophone on the Arsenio talk show. And when President George Bush recently blamed this spring’s riots in Los Angeles on the social programs of the 1960s, he sounded a lot like Bob Roberts offering his explanation for urban chaos. “Some things are predictable,” said Robbins. “But there are a lot of strange coincidences— it’s frightening.”

Conspicuously set on the eve of the Persian Gulf War, Bob Roberts unfolds as a mock documentary by a British film-maker. The story covers the Roberts campaign to unseat liberal Pennsylvania senator Brickley Paiste (Vidal). He launches a vicious smear campaign, falsely accusing Paiste of consorting with a teenage girl. Meanwhile, Roberts launches some ruthless damage control against a half-crazed underground journalist who learns that he once diverted charity funds into a drugs-for-arms deal. A villainous Alan Rickman plays the “Vote Bob” campaign manager; Ray Wise, who portrayed the possessed Leland Palmer in TV’s Twin Peaks, is wonderfully typecast as the candidate’s smarmy spin doctor.

All the action is seen through the eye of the documentary camera—in the same way that This is Spinal Tap (1984) used the so-called mockumentary format for its satirical portrait of a heavy-metal rock band. And, like Spinal Tap, Bob Roberts is a musical of sorts. Roberts campaigns with his guitar, singing pungent propagandist folksongs with such titles as The Times Are Changing Back, Drugs Stink, Retake America and My Land.

Robbins co-wrote the songs with his older brother, David. But unlike the creators of Spinal Tap, the brothers say that they they have no intention of putting out a sound-track album. “I don’t want to be driving in my car five years from now and hear these songs on the radio,” said Robbins.

Appropriating and sanitizing the freewheeling image of the folksinging rebel, Bob Roberts applies it to a New Right agenda. The movie is riddled with references to Bob Dylan, including some inspired parodies of scenes from Don’t Look Back (1967), American director D. A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary of an early Dylan tour. One sequence shows Roberts typing on a laptop computer while an earnest female backup singer croons with a guitar— echoing a scene in Don’t Look Back that shows Dylan pecking out song lyrics on a typewriter next to a strumming, singing Joan Baez.

The folk references are, however, affectionate. And Robbins proudly points to the fact that he obtained a never-released song by folk legend Woody Guthrie to play over the film’s closing credits. “It has such an honest beauty and grace,” he said. “It erases the negative way we’ve been using music in the film.” He

added that he was amused to learn that the Guthrie estate had turned down a request by Perot to use This Land is Your Land as a campaign jingle.

Robbins, meanwhile, can trace his own heritage to the roots of American folk music. One of four children bom to Gil and Mary Robbins, he grew up in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where he continues to live. His mother was a publishing executive, and his father managed the Gaslight nightclub and was a member of the Highwaymen, a folk group known for the hit record Michael Row the Boat Ashore. “Once when I was a kid,” he recalled, “I remember

my mother coming in and telling me that my older sister had been arrested for protesting the Vietnam War and we should be very proud of her. It was a nice, defining moment.” Acting in experimental theatre from the age of 12, Robbins went on to study drama at the University of Calfomia in Los Angeles. In 1981, he and some fellow students founded a theatre company called the Actors’ Gang, and he remains artistic director. On-screen, meanwhile, he has displayed impressive range in movie roles that include a civil-rights pacifist in Five Corners (1988), an unemployed mechanic in Cadillac Man (1990) and a traumatized Vietnam veteran in Jacob’s Ladder {1990). New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once wrote: “He

makes you feel that behind his sneaky, demon eyes he’s thinking thoughts no character in a movie has ever thought before.”

That quality is what made Robbins so eerily effective in The Player, for which he received the best actor award at the Cannes film festival in May. Robbins also launched Bob Roberts at Cannes, and says that the buzz created by The Player gave Bob Roberts the attention that it needed in Cannes. “It’s ironic,” he said. “It didn’t happen in America. No one would give me the money to make Bob Roberts in this town.” (British financiers provided the movie’s $4.5-million budget.)

Despite its low budget and insolent tone, Bob Roberts has been picked up for distribution by Paramount Pictures, which is clearly looking to repeat the success of The Player. There are some striking stylistic parallels between the two movies. Like Altman, Robbins directs with a kinetic sense of spontaneity, lightening the mood with buoyant cameos: Sarandon and James Spader deliver hilarious turns as TV newscasters. Acknowledging his debt to Altman, Robbins said, “I picked up a great feeling of community from him, that a film set should be fun. Most everybody working on the film couldn’t believe I had gotten the money for it. There was a great sense of mischief involved with that.”

By encouraging improvisation, Robbins also achieved his documentary-like authenticity. Vidal, a veteran of failed campaigns for Congress and the Senate, says that the film captures the chaos of a real campaign—the feeling that “you’re drowning in people.” He accepted his own role, he said, “because I felt an elderly, ineffectual, liberal senator would not be too great a burden on my fragile talent.” His performance, which consists mostly of an extended interview, was almost entirely improvised, said Vidal, 66. “Tim squatted down beside the cameraman and threw questions at me.” Robbins has made a movie about the incestuous relationship between show I business and politics in America by breaking the rules of both. But he maintains that his satire is nonpartisan. “It takes shots at Democrats as well as Republicans,” he said, “liberals without spines, newscasters, entertainment-industry liberals—

I don’t think there is any group the movie is not about.”

Wary of labels, he denies that he is radical. “I think the conservatives are radicals,” he said. “The Republican party has been taken over by radical, right-wing extremists. They’re not conserving anything—they’re chipping away at our constitutional freedoms. I see myself as a traditionalist, a patriot.” When Robbins starts to talk politics, he becomes passionate. But he says that he will not be running for office. He seems to be busy enough running rings around Hollywood.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON