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Robert Altman
(1925-2006)


“I think sad people laugh, happy people cry, and brave people are frightened,” Robert Altman once told an interviewer. “Cowards are brave. There’s total contradiction. The minute you take the surprise away, there’s no art.” 

 

Taking the surprise away is one thing Altman never did in a career that spanned nearly five decades. Beginning with his work in industrial films, through more than a hundred hours of television, and finally through a cinematic journey that kicked into high gear with 1970's M*A*S*H and ended with 2006's A Prairie Home Companion, the only charge not leveled at Altman and his films was that they were predictable.

 

Listening to the radio would have a profound effect on Altman’s later film career. He loved the sound of creaking doors, and the sound of footsteps on a hardwood floor. “The sound is very important to me,” he said, “and what people say is not important to me.” 

 

He was born February 20, 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri. After being educated in Catholic schools, Altman joined the Air Force at age 18. “I enlisted because I was going to be drafted,” he said. “I don’t think it was anything I would’ve chosen otherwise.”  A preliminary exam suggested he should be either a navigator, bombardier, or a pilot, so he chose to be a pilot and flew 50 missions before his discharge in 1946. “The first time I ever thought about film was when I was overseas in the Second World War,” he told Stephen Lemons of Salon.com. “I started writing radio plays. I was very interested in that. And then I started to write screenplays - not screenplays so much as stories to make movies from.”

 

Moving to California, he worked for a company that had invented a process for tattooing dogs, and with a friend, wrote a script that RKO bought and produced titled Bodyguard. Unable to find further filmmaking opportunities in Hollywood, Altman returned to Kansas and a job with the Calvin Company, the producers of industrial films.

 

“Film schools happened after I was making films,” he explained.

 

From 1951-56, Altman turned out such titles as Modern Football and King Basketball for Calvin. “I was hired and quit. Rehired and fired. Came and went,” he recalled in 1964.

 

Altman wrote the script for The Delinquents only in the hope of raising money for a film he could then direct. “The danger of writing a script is that everybody has the same voice,” he reflected years later. “I think when they don’t have the same voice it makes the film better. So when you have five different sources in there, five different voices, it seems closer to reality.” In pursuit of that reality, Altman encouraged his actors to improvise, a technique that did not always endear him to writers.

 

On a budget of only $60,000, The Delinquents attracted the interest of United Artists who released it to positive notices in 1957. Altman then co-directed The James Dean Story, a quickie documentary that Warner Bros. rushed into theaters the same year to capitalize on the posthumous popularity of the star of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. These two features brought him to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock who recruited Altman to direct several episodes of his weekly CBS anthology series. He followed that prestigious assignment with work on other shows, including such television classics as Bonanza and Combat. After graduating to feature films, Altman did not dismiss his television work, ranking episodes of Combat with his best movies. “It’s all part of the same book; different chapters,” he said. “I’m very proud of the work I did on Combat. I think that (an episode called) ‘Cat and Mouse,’ among all of them, is really good.”

 

Altman’s next feature film, 1968's Countdown, about astronauts landing on the moon, starred James Caan and Robert Duvall. After watching the rushes and noticing the overlapping dialogue, however, Jack L. Warner, the mogul then in his final years as chief of Warner Bros., fired the director, and it was completed by William Conrad, the actor and sometime director who produced the film.

 

Altman maintained control of That Cold Day in the Park, a psychological drama with Sandy Dennis that earned some praise (“a small, well-directed but still unsuccessful movie,” wrote Charles Champlin in The Los Angeles Times) and pans (“a cold, ugly, and meandering business,” opined Howard Thompson in The New York Times) when it debuted in theaters during summer 1969.

 

Altman was offered M*A*S*H only after it was turned down by other, more famous directors. Although following the adventures of the doctors and nurses at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, Altman did not emphasize the era, preferring to let the audience believe it was set during the Vietnam conflict that was currently raging.  Although free of anti-war platitudes, the film’s mix of mad comedy with graphically bloody scenes depicting the surgeons at work effectively made the point that war is hell. As Roger Ebert would observe in The Chicago Sun-Times, “One of the reasons M*A*S*H is so funny is that it’s so desperate. . . We laugh, that we may not cry.”

 

The film’s screenwriter, Ring Lardner, Jr., was not laughing, however, at the liberties that Altman was taking with his script. The two main actors, Donald Sutherland (Hawkeye Pierce) and Elliott Gould (Trapper John), weren’t laughing either. Both were wary of Altman’s style which included wiring most of the cast with microphones, giving him the freedom to fade in and out of conversations and overlap dialogue. Years later, the director recalled that Sutherland and Gould “tried to get me fired . . . And I think had I known that at the time, I would have resigned.”

 

Altman also shot the film with a zoom lens which was “a great help when dealing with actors . . . no one was ever quite sure exactly what was happening.”  The effect confused some viewers, but most critics were impressed with Altman’s radical style. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby observed that the “film is so full of visual and aural detail (each frame is packed with images from foreground to back; the soundtrack is so busy it sometimes sounds like three radio stations in one) that I’ll probably go back to see it again, to pick up what I missed the first time.”

 

When executives at 20th Century Fox saw the final print, they were shocked by the bloody surgical scenes, and considered shelving the film until producer Ingo Preminger convinced them to give the film a preview in fall 1969. “That audience went nuts,” Altman said. “I mean they literally were on their feet, on chairs, and they were just crazy about it.”

 

Released in late January 1970, a time when most theater screens were still dominated by the previous year’s Christmas attractions, M*A*S*H was an immediate smash, far and away the most lucrative film from 20th Century Fox that year, even surpassing the more expensive and ambitious Patton. At year’s end, M*A*S*H would be second only to Universal’s all-star disaster epic, Airport, in distributors rentals. It would also win the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and be named best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. Its anti-authoritarian attitude attracted the same youthful audience that flocked to Easy Rider the year before.

 

Altman, though middle-aged and a grandfather twice, was now the hippest filmmaker in town. As writer Aljean Harmetz observed a year later, “At 46, Robert Altman is Hollywood’s newest 26-year-old genius. The extra 20 years are simply the time he had to spend, chained and toothless, in the anterooms of power - waiting for Hollywood to catch up with him.”  With his goatee and hippy beads, Altman looked the part, and lived it too, becoming notorious for creating a party atmosphere on his sets, and for inviting the entire cast to watch dailies amid a cloud of marijuana smoke. It was served to enhance Altman’s  “maverick” image, but actor Henry Gibson insisted that the good times enjoyed by those working for Altman "were little things that he invented to make life easier for you.”  As Gibson told Altman’s biographer, Mitchell Zuckoff, “working on an Altman picture requires tremendous concentration, tremendous focus, and I felt a heightened obligation because of the trust he placed in you.”

 

Film critics were more influential than ever in the ‘70s, and thanks to Pauline Kael and others, the French “auteur theory,” which championed the director as the true author of a film, gained wide acceptance. In previous decades, only the most powerful directors - Hitchcock, Capra, and Ford -  received possessive credits on their films and were considered stars in their own right. Now they were joined by the likes of Peckinpah, Coppola, and especially Altman. The trend did not please the writers with whom Altman frequently clashed, and whose work he regarded as “blueprints” that would be fleshed out through improvisation on the set. Actors, however, were unanimous in their praise.

 

“Altman thinks of a script as a fluid, living, dynamic thing, not something to lock an actor into,” said Henry Gibson of The Long Goodbye and Nashville.  Rene Auberjonois, Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H, said, “most directors don’t really trust actors, don’t really want to see actors acting. That was the difference with Bob Altman. He loved actors and wanted to see acting.” Altman left actors to their own devices because, he told NPR’s Jackie Lydon, “What I want to see is something I’ve never seen before, so I can’t explain to anybody what that is.”

 

Once you’re on a pedestal, however, you’ve got to hang on to stay there, as Altman found with his next film, Brewster McCloud. Released less than a year after M*A*S*H, the oddball fantasy about a boy who lives in the Houston Astrodome and thinks he can fly disappeared from theaters as quickly as it arrived. Critics who hailed Altman as a genius earlier in the year were rethinking their praise, with Vincent Canby describing the new film as having “more characters and incidents than a comic strip, but never enough wit to sustain more than a few isolated sequences.” 

 

McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971 was “a very ordinary story,” Altman said, “the gambler, the whore with a heart of gold, and then the three heavies with the giant, the half-breed, and the kid . . . the audience sees that they know that story. When they see that, they’re comfortable with it, and I can mess around in the corners with the details, it allows the film to develop in a different way.”

 

Casting real-life lovers, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, in the title roles, Altman added a music score by Leonard Cohen whose melancholic ballads, combined with the Vilmos Zsigmond's moody cinematography, gave the film a haunting quality. Though now regarded as a masterpiece, the film performed poorly at the box-office and divided the critics. To Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, it was “a movie of serious intentions” which were “meddlesomely imposed on the film by tired symbolism.”  In the same paper, Peter Schjeldahl offered a contradictory view. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, was the work of "a sensitive and ambitious artist, who never saw a Western before, who had no idea how such a thing should be done and who thus had to put the genre together from scratch.”  Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice was also affected by the film’s “striking originality . . . I can’t remember when I have been so moved by something that left me so uneasy to the marrow of my aesthetic.”

 

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was not a “Western” in any conventional sense, but to Altman, it was “the way the west really was.”  To his colleague, Martin Scorsese, the film “gave you a different point of view completely of what the American experience was at that time. It was, in other words, very different from the Westerns we had grown up viewing.”

 

Altman’s next film, Images, for which he also took screenplay credit, was lambasted by Howard Thompson as a “clanging, pretentious, tricked-up exercise” when it opened at the New York Film Festival.  The film cast Susannah York as a woman battling schizophrenia, though Altman later said, “I didn’t know I was doing anything about schizophrenia, yet I was pretty accurate in it.” The film never received a traditional release, but when Roger Ebert caught up with it at a Chicago repertory theater in 1974, he found it “a very atypical Altman film. . . Its very differences with most of his work help illuminate his style, and he demonstrates superb skill at something he’s supposed to be weak at: telling a well-constructed narrative.”

 

Altman had greater success with 1973's The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel. With Elliott Gould as Chandler’s private eye hero, Philip Marlowe, the idea was to plop this cultural hero of 1940's film noir into 1970's Los Angeles. Altman’s eccentric touches were everywhere. The cast included blonde stunner NinaVan Pallandt, infamous as the girlfriend of Clifford Irving (the scandal-plagued author of a fake Howard Hughes biography), Sterling Hayden as a Hemingwayesque writer, director Mark Rydell as a vicious gangster, and a young and unknown Arnold Scwarzenegger as a bodyguard. The theme song, a collaboration between composer John Williams and lyricist Johnny Mercer, was heard throughout in a variety of often bizarre versions.

 

Not everyone was pleased. Some critics were appalled at the irreverent way that Altman and company reinterpreted Marlowe, a character who had, after all, been immortalized on film by Humphrey Bogart in 1946's The Big Sleep. In The Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin thought this Marlowe was “an untidy, unshaven, semi-literate dimwit slob . . . He is not Chandler’s Marlowe, or mine, and I can’t find him interesting, sympathetic or amusing, and I can’t be sure who will.”  It played better back east where The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel found it “a most satisfying motion picture,”  and Vincent Canby in The New York Times raved that “It’s so good that I don’t know where to begin describing it.”  Today, it’s a cult film, although that designation wouldn’t likely impress its director. “What is a cult? It just means not enough people to make a minority.”

 

Thieves Like Us, the first of two Altman films released in 1974, was advertised with quotes from critics calling it a masterpiece. “Would you go to a movie that was hailed as a masterpiece?” Altman asked Roger Ebert. “Already it sounds like hard work.”

 

Loosely based on the Edward Anderson novel that also inspired 1949's They Live By Night, the film, which Ebert praised as “an awfully good movie,” did a quick vanishing act from theaters, and was followed only six months later by the more successful California Split (“a fascinating, vivid movie, not quite comparable to any other movie that I can immediately think of,” wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times ) with Elliott Gould and George Segal as a pair of compulsive gamblers.

 

The next year saw the arrival of the film that many regard as Altman's masterwork. “Nashville is a radical, revolutionary leap,” exclaimed Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. “The funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.” When Altman first read Joan Tewkesbury’s script, he said, “I don’t know about this.”  The study of aspiring musicians struggling to make it in the country music capital soon morphed into a commentary on politics, celebrity, and American society.

 

With 24 characters and multiple storylines, Altman said, “We’re not telling a story. We’re showing.”  Set over a five day period in the capital of the state of Tennessee where a presidential primary is about to take place, “Nashville is a metaphor for my personal view of our society,” the director stated. “I wanted to do Nashville to study our myths and our heroes and our hypocrisy. Because, by the time we usually get around to studying our present it’s past, and the truth is buried so deep we can’t even find it.”

 

Although the only “stars” in the film were Elliott Gould and Julie Christie, both of whom agreed to appear as themselves, the cast included such familiar performers as Laugh-In’s Lily Tomlin and Henry Gibson who were able to demonstrate more versatility than their TV gigs had allowed them to do. There were also newcomers like Ronee Blakely who wrote and performed her own songs, and notable character actors like Allen Garfield and Keenan Wynn.

 

To Vincent Canby in The New York Times, Altman’s epic was “the movie sensation that all other American movies this year will be measured against. It’s a film that a lot of other directors will wish they’d had the brilliance to make and that dozens of other performers will wish they’d had the great good fortune to be in.”  Of course, there were also dissenters among the critical establishment. Rex Reed detected a nasty, condescending tone in Altman’s work: “What emerges is a let’s get the dumb slobs out there in the silent majority and blame them for everything that’s wrong with the country kind of movie.”

 

Nashville, though a box-office success, was more talked about than seen in the year of its release, but it earned five Oscar nominations, including nods for best picture and director. In retrospect, it had a greater impact on cinema than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which swept the Oscars for 1975, or Jaws, the year’s most popular attraction. “It didn’t occur to me we were breaking new ground,” Altman recalled years later. “I was just making the film that occurred to me at the time.”  With its depiction of the relationship between politics and showbiz, the obsession with celebrity, and of the assassination of a musical artist, Nashville proved eerily prophetic. Following John Lennon’s 1980 assassination, Altman was even asked by the media if he felt his film was responsible. He responded with a question of his own: “Don’t you feel responsible for not heeding my warning?”

 

It was actor Keith Carradine, whose original song, “I’m Easy,” provided the film with its only Oscar victory, who may have paid Altman the greatest compliment: “The great artists are the ones who see who we are becoming more so than those who see who we are.”  The film certainly boosted Altman’s reputation. As he remembered, “I was perceived differently after Nashville. It just verified in the critics’ minds that I had some sort of value, and that M*A*S*H wasn’t just an aberration.” 

 

Too many of his post-Nashville films were aberrations, however. Altman called 1976's Buffalo Bill and the Indians “our Bicentennial gift to America,”  but even with American icon Paul Newman playing the American icon of the title, it wasn’t a gift most Americans accepted. Producer Dino De Laurentus’s disappointment with Buffalo Bill prompted him to replace Altman as director of the film version of Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s chronicle of early 20th century America which Altman envisioned as a pair of three hour movies. When Ragtime reached the screen in 1981 under Milos Forman’s direction, it streamlined Doctorow’s novel, leaving out such colorful figures as Harry Houdini and J.P. Morgan. “As interesting a film as it turned out to be,” Martin Scorsese said, “there’s something uniquely American about it, and it had to do with a kind of gigantic fresco of America at that time. . . Who else but Altman could do that kind of thing?” 

 

His remaining 1970's movies, all for 20th Century Fox, were a mixed bag. 3 Women had its genesis in one of the director’s dreams. A Wedding was a farce with another ensemble cast, including Carol Burnett who said of her director, “He freed me in front of a film camera, made me more brave, which has helped me in other things.”  Quintet, with Paul Newman, was a visually fascinating science-fiction thriller that left its viewers bored, confused, or both. The poster’s tagline, “One man against the world,” may have described Altman at the time, as the film, and those that followed, A Perfect Couple (1979) and Health (1980), barely saw release. As a new decade dawned, Altman was finding it more difficult to get his projects made. Of the studios, he said, “You don’t negotiate with them anymore. You plea bargain.”

 

Popeye should have changed that, but the big-budget film based on the popular comic strip hero was deemed a failure because, as Altman observed, “it wasn’t Superman.”

 

Meanwhile, there was the constant shadow of M*A*S*H. Spun off into a TV series in 1972, the show was so beloved by the time it ended its 11 season run that the final episode shattered viewing records. Altman never warmed to the show. To him, it was always “that series.”

 

“It became a racist, pro-war series,” he claimed. “It became a thing that the enemy for 12 years was always the dark-skinned person with the slanted eyes - no matter what platitudes they said.”  Altman denied that he was bitter about receiving neither credit nor a cut of the profits for the lucrative enterprise (“I never got paid anything - anything!”  he told Time magazine) even as his son, Mike, made nearly two million dollars in royalties from the lyrics he dashed off for the song, “Suicide Is Painless,” that was heard in both incarnations of M*A*S*H. Striking a more conciliatory note in 2000 at a reunion of the film’s cast, Altman said, “I’m cool about it all, because what I got out of it was better than money.”

 

Despite Hollywood’s indifference to him in the ‘80s, Altman did not go away. He turned to the theater, then well-received low-budget films like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Fool for Love, Streamers, Secret Honor and Vincent and Theo. He also returned to television where he collaborated with Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau for HBO’s Tanner ‘88, that featured Altman regular Michael Murphy as a fictional presidential candidate who was filmed campaigning right alongside the real thing during the New Hampshire primaries. Altman also directed an opera, McTeague, based on the Frank Norris novel, for PBS and an update of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.

 

To Altman’s annoyance, 1992's The Player was hailed as a comeback. “A comeback? I haven’t been anywhere,” his wife recalled him saying. “I’ve been working.”

 

A sordid and very funny tale of Hollywood backstabbing, the film, based on Michael Tolkin’s novel, gave Altman an opportunity to take on the studio establishment and do so with the help of an all-star cast presumably eager to bite the hand that fed them. Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Gary Busey, Anjelica Huston, Andie MacDowell, Robert Wagner, Buck Henry, Elliott Gould, Cher, Lili Tomlin, Harry Belafonte, Peter Falk, Jeff Goldblum, and Sally Kellerman were among the stars who agreed to appear for minimal pay, attracted to the project because of the man directing it. Tim Robbins, who plays the title character, a studio executive who murders a screenwriter, described himself as a “co-conspirator” during the making of the film, promising Altman that he would join him in walking off the production if there was any interference from the money people.

 

The Player was one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “the best insider’s view of Hollywood since Sunset Boulevard.”   Altman won best director prizes from the Cannes Film Festival and the New York Film Critics, and, for the first time since Nashville 17 years earlier, he received an invitation to the Academy Awards. He didn’t win, but investors were opening their wallets again, eager to back new Altman projects. 1994 saw the release of Short Cuts, based on several Raymond Carver short stories. When it opened, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times proclaimed that “The old lion can still roar.”  Once again, Altman directed an ensemble, this one including such veterans as Jack Lemmon alongside relative newcomers like Tim Robbins, Fred Ward, singer Huey Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose father, the late Vic Morrow, Altman had directed on Combat.

 

More films followed. Altman was almost as prolific in the ‘90s as he had been in the ‘70s although the results were no longer revolutionary. “It has a lot to do with the time they were made,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Look at what’s being made today? It’s changed. Audiences have changed. The presentation has changed.”

 

Pret-a-Porter was a snooze-fest about the fashion industry that wasn’t improved when the title was changed to Ready to Wear. Kansas City took him back to his hometown. “They weren’t very impressed,” he said. “Jesus never made it in his hometown either, you know?”  The Gingerbread Man was an efficient thriller based on an original (and much altered) screenplay by John Grisham, with Kenneth Branagh as a sleazy Southern lawyer. It was followed in rapid succession by Cookie’s Fortune, Dr. T and the Women, and the Oscar nominated Gosford Park. “I refer to this film as Ten Little Indians meets The Rules of the Game,” he said.

 

He had reservations when offered the screenplay for The Company. “I didn’t understand a word of it,” he said of the ballet script.” Initially, he passed on the project, but “then I got to thinking, should I just do things I already know about?”

 

In 2006, after five Oscar nominations as best director without a single win, Altman was chosen to receive an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. Accepting the golden statuette, he stunned the audience by revealing he had undergone a heart transplant “ten, eleven years before.” After pointing out that his heart had previously belonged to a person in their late 30s, he expressed the belief that he had another forty to fifty years to make films. Sadly, A Prairie Home Companion, released several months later, would be his final credit. A celebration of Garrison Keillor’s National Public Radio program, it proved an appropriate goodbye for the legendary director who observed that the theme of the film was death: “I didn’t get it until we got to the end. I mean, if at any time in the shooting of this, someone had said, ‘What is this about?’ I could not have said, ‘This is about death.’ Now, in retrospect, I can say this is about death because everyone is avoiding saying that. But that’s what it’s about.”

 

For one of those “Proust Questionnaires” in Vanity Fair, Altman was asked what he would like to come back as after he died. “I’m immortal,” he replied. On November 20, 2006, we learned that was not the case, but as he once observed, “Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes.” It’s a gift he shared, and continues to share, with us, the audience.

by Brian W. Fairbanks



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