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‘Bob Roberts’ is Off the Beaten Pathé

A Machiavellian Poser Time Travels

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What does this all mean?

A flashy, vulgar celebrity/businessman runs for public office with no prior experience except having run a beauty pageant.  His sound bites are laced with sexual innuendos and veiled racism.  He finds popularity by attacking the media as dishonest and by spewing empty platitudes like, “Vote for me and I’ll bring the value of the common man to Washington.”  His campaign is supported by a conservative news channel that functions as his propaganda machine broadcasting false stories about his opponent.  He has funny hair, but still attracts many voters who mistake his rudeness as courage.  One of his admirers, when asked why he supports him, intones “He believes in America.  He believes in making money.  Being rich.”  “Oh, and he sings really well!”

What does this all mean?

I’ll tell you:

It means Tim Robbins has a God damn time machine, that’s what it means.

The above description, is not based on a real lunatic now sitting in the White House; it is based on the titular character of Tim Robbins’ satirical 1992 film Bob Roberts.

Actually, Robbins plays two roles here.  First, in the film, that of the rock singing “Rebel Conservative” running for a Pennsylvania Senate seat; outside the film he played the part of Cassandra – and we should all be sorry for not listening.

Now, if I had a time machine, I would have—at the suggestion of my best friend David—gone back to the ’50s and nailed Betty Paige in her prime.

Robbins, being a far better person than I, apparently went into the future, watched the presidential campaign of 2016 and took good notes.  Very good notes.

Bob Roberts is a celebrity turned politician, a rock singer who is a right-wing reinvention of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan: the film is punctuated by his performances.

One song is a swaggering parody of a Guthrie classic, retooled to be vaguely reminiscent of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” which proudly proclaims to an all white audience, “This Land Belongs to Us, This Land Belongs to Me!”

Sons of Gil Robbins of the Highwaymen, Tim and his brother David, co-wrote the songs in the film, and the album names used – “The Freewheelin’ Bob Roberts,” “Bob on Bob,” and “Times Are Changin’ Back” – are all spoofs of tunes penned by Bob Dylan.

times are changin' back-bob roberts album cover

The ‘Bob Robert’s’ CD Cover Parody of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

Now the film is set in 1990, but neither of the Pennsylvania Senate seats were up for election that year.  In 1994 the U.S. Senate race pitted, Harris Wolford, an advocate for universal health coverage against the Republican candidate who personified the exact anti-intellectual outlook as Roberts’ character.  With his campaign 95% bankrolled by the health industry and mouthing his intention to empower the common people, he easily defeated Wolford and became Senator Rick Santorum.

Senator Rick Santorum, who when President Obama spoke about the need to bolster the waning American middle class, responded with:

“Since when in America do we have classes? That’s Marxism talk.”

Senator Rick Santorum, who when President Obama advocated college for every American who wanted to attend, responded with:

“What a snob … Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

By which he must mean successful and smart, two things of which nobody could ever accuse the failed presidential candidate. *

In the Robbins’ ‘mock-umentary’ the Adlai Stevenson like Democrat is played by author Gore Vidal, and he is just the tip of some amazing casting.

There are faces recognizable from Robbins’ Actors’ Gang—Shannon, Holt, Brent Hinkley, Ned Bellamy—based here in L.A., but filling out the rest of the roles is an acting dream team: James Spader, Helen Hunt, Bob Balaban, Peter Gallagher, David Strathairn, Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise, Brian Murray and in his film debut Jack Black who also provides background vocals.

Susan Sarandon and Fred Ward appear in the film as emptied headed talking newscasters.  In Sarandon’s case her role of Tawna Titan was based on a popular Los Angeleno news personality.

Also appearing is the late, great Alan Rickman who saw the film as important enough to put his own money into the producing of it. Rickman was right. Bob Roberts should be recommended viewing for all and has earned a place —along with Dr. Strangelove and The Candidate— as one of the most brilliant political satires ever filmed.

At the very end of the film credits one four letter word fills up the screen: “VOTE.”  To judge from the last election nobody ever hangs around that long.

Let’s give the last word of this review to Robbins in the person of Kelly Noble an astute reporter (played by the late Lynne Thigpen):

“Bob Roberts is yet another of that faction that lives to destroy whatever good came out of the ‘60s; to rewrite the history of that important period. A period where the American people actually were informed and aware, and realized that they had a voice. They demanded that a war end. Bob Roberts is Nixon, only he’s shrewder, more complicated…. Now here is a man who has adopted the persona and mindset of a free-thinking rebel and turned it on itself. The Rebel Conservative! That is deviant brilliance. What a Machiavellian poser.”

♦    ♦    ♦

(Personal Note to Tim:  If you’re done with your time machine could I please borrow it.  There’s someone I want to meet in 1950.)

* Type Santorum into Google to get the real low down on this subject.

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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, Among the Vipers was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist three times in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest's stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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