just died. He was one of the top directors of his day, creating a number of great and near-great films. He also had an instantly recognizable style. Whereas most films put the action front and center, Altman would often have the camera searching the background, picking up stray comments from actors who seemed to be (and sometimes were) making it up on the spot.
Altman kicked around TV for over 20 years, not hitting it big until he made M*A*S*H
in 1970 at the age of 45. It was his only huge financial success, but it allowed him to get projects made throughout the 70s.
It was already a quirky time for American cinema, and Altman made it quirkier. In the ten years from M*A*S*H
to the flop that almost destroyed his career, Popeye
, he made 15 films, including most of his best work, particularly in the first half of the decade.
These film include classics such as McCabe And Mrs. Miller
(1971), The Long Goodbye
(1973)and California Split
(1974). If you want to understand the Altman style, these are the three to start with.
In 1975, he made what might be his most respected film, Nashville
. In it, he created a tapestry, using many actors with no clear lead to create a community on film. He'd often repeat this formula, such as A Wedding
and more recent films including Short Cuts
and Gosford Park.
His films made less and less money so that by 1981 Hollywood wouldn't hire him. So he made smaller films, often little more than glorified stage plays, but he kept working. While this period in the wilderness kept him out of the public consciousness, there are some oddities (O.C. And Stiggs
anyone) that are worth looking at.
He made a comeback with Vincent And Theo
(1990) and especially The Player
(1992), which got him an Oscar nomination for best director. Since then, he'd been making the films he wanted to make. I admit I'm not as partial to his recent work as his great films in the 70s, but they're still worth checking out.
His final film, A Prairie Home Companion
, his take on the Garrison Keillor radio show, is not one of his best, but is a suitable finale. It takes place during twilight, almost as if he understood it was his swan song.