Thursday, July 02, 2015


I just listened to Mitchell Zuckoff's biography of Robert Altman.  It's an oral biography, so listening to it makes sense--indeed, some of the people interviewed came in and taped their own lines.

Even among the great directors of the last half century, Altman holds a special place.  No one had a looser, more open style.  Not that he wasn't in control, but he'd let his actors try whatever they wanted, and sometimes they didn't even know if the camera was on them.  This led to a lot of flops, and some bad films, but when it paid off Altman's movies were unlike anything else.

Altman, born in 1925, spent a lot of years in the wilderness, directing industrials and TV.  He learned the basics, but had run-ins with management.  Even after he became a star director--in fact, more so after--he would fight with the suits. Either he made films his way, or it wasn't worth it.

The breakthrough came with MASH. No name directors wanted to make it, so Altman, with almost no record in features, got it through connections.  A raucous war comedy, the low-budget film was quietly shot at 20th Century Fox in Altman's multi-miked, improvisatory style.  It was dirtier and bloodier than comedies had been up to that point--and it was also political, commenting on Vietnam even though officially set in Korea--and no one thought it would be a big deal.  But it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and went on to become one of the biggest hits of 1970.  It was nominated for six Oscars, only winning Best Screenplay for Ring Lardner, Jr., who'd been pulling his hair out at how Altman and company were ignoring his script.

Altman could write his own ticket.  He took advantage of this, making such diverse films as Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us and California Split.  Many of them pleased the critics, but they weren't big hits, if they made money at all.  In 1975, he released Nashville, perhaps his most critically beloved film, but even that was a minor moneymaker in an age of blockbusters.

The first half of the 70s was probably his most fertile period, and the films he made for the rest of the decade, like Buffalo Bill And The Indians, 3 Women and Quintet, weren't as well-received.  Then came Popeye in 1980.  The producers were hoping for a superhero-sized hit, like the Christopher Reeve Superman. Instead, they got a quirky musical which eked out a profit but sent Altman to no-man's land.

His work in the 80s was generally on small projects that got little attention.  For instance, Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Streamers and Secret Honor (which he shot on campus at the University of Michigan) have their fans, but they're essentially low-budget adaptations of stage plays.  Then there are titles later in the decade that just about no one saw--O.C. And Stiggs, Fool For Love and Beyond Therapy--as well as TV and theatre work.  He did get some attention for HBO's Tanner '88, a pseudo-documentary starring Altman favorite Michael Murphy (Murphy reads Altman's voice in the book) as a Presidential candidate.

Against the odds, Altman managed a second (or was it third) act, coming back in the 1990s.  Vincent And Theo, about Van Gogh and his brother, did okay, and then in '92 the Hollywood expose The Player got him an Oscar nomination and put him back on top. He got another nomination the next year for Short Cuts (a film notable for many things, including full frontal nudity from Julianne Moore--Altman was often accused of misogyny, but most of the women he's employed don't agree), an adaptation of stories by Raymond Carver.

A heavy drinker, Altman was having health problems around this time, and might have died if he hadn't gotten get a heart transplant.  After the operation, he made Cookie's Fortune in 1999 and got excited about films all over again.  Then in 2001 came Gosford Park--an upstairs-downstairs British murder mystery--which became one of his biggest hits and garnered seven Oscar nominations (once again only winning for screenplay).  Some believe he might have actually won that year if he hadn't made some untoward political comments about 9/11.

His last film was in 2006, the enjoyably oddball Prairie Home Companion, a film adaptation of sorts of Garrison Keillor's radio show.  He didn't get an Oscar nomination, but was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Academy.  He gave a touching speech that night.  Perhaps he knew it'd be his last big moment.  He died later that year.

The book does a good job getting across his life mostly through the words of others.  If I have a problem, it's that some of my favorite titles--The Long Goodbye and California Split, for example--are practically skipped over to concentrate on the turning points, such as MASH, Nashville, Popeye, The Player and Gosford Park.  I guess something had to be left on the cutting room floor.


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

It sounds like the book is in Altman's corner. I'd love to hear someone say something nice about "Popeye."

8:53 AM, July 02, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

You don't generally bother to do an oral history of someone like Altman to attack him.

I'm not sure if your Popeye note is meant ironically or not, but there are plenty of people who will defend the film. If nothing else, it's unquestionably an Altman film (as opposed to another comic book superhero film). The general crowd still hasn't come around, but go to user reviews on IMDb and you'll see some declaring it a masterpiece.

9:02 AM, July 02, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Popeye was interesting, I saw it when it came out and have caught the odd scene here and there over the years. There was a lot going on- I'd like to study it detail some day. Not have to watch it again, just study it

9:19 AM, July 02, 2015  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Wasn't being ironic - I like the film and own a copy. The music I think is Harry Nilsson's last major accomplishment, and I have always liked his work too.

8:09 AM, July 06, 2015  
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