Remembering Robert Altman
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
The late director had an unusual gift, maintaining artistic independence inside the studio system.
The term "maverick" is often used to describe the late Robert Altman. He is revered by independent filmmakers for bucking conventional cinematic clichés in making offbeat and incomparable movies. One could never confuse Altman with any other director. The term "Altmanesque" describes movies with multiple storylines, open-ended narratives, large ensemble casts, and overlapping dialogue. Movies as diverse as Magnolia (1999), Traffic (2000), and the current Babel (2006) all pay homage to Altman in telling many stories at once.
Altman's career is unique because this maverick who bucked Hollywood conventions still made movies and television shows for the major studios and networks. The major works of his career, including the Korean War comedy MASH (1970); the revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971); the country-music political allegory Nashville (1975); the comic strip musical Popeye (1980); the HBO political satire Tanner '88 (1988); his merciless attack on Hollywood vapidity The Player (1992); his examination of dysfunctional male-female relations in suburban Los Angeles, Short Cuts (1993), and his fascinating examination of the British class system, Gosford Park (2001) were not products of a director retreating from Hollywood to work either in Europe or on the fringes of the Indie film movement. Despite criticizing the "system," and suffering the ups and downs attendant with maintaining a career in the cinema, he still managed to work within it and make his own brand of films.
While not all of his films were financial blockbusters, Altman's skill at keeping their budgets and schedules in line ensured his ability to continue working for the major studios.
While most directors of his generation got started in the New York theater and live TV milieu of the 1950s, Altman started his career making industrial films in Kansas City, Missouri. In the late 1950s, he came out to Hollywood and found that work in feature films was closed to him. Instead, he established himself as one of the top television directors of the 1960s. Bonanza, Route 66, Hawaiian Eye, Surfside 6, Bus Stop, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Combat!, and (appropriately enough) Maverick are just a few of the shows he put his distinctive stamp upon. His first major film was the low-key drama Countdown (1968), starring James Caan and Robert Duvall, about the effort to put the first man on the moon. He had his first major success with MASH, after nearly a dozen other directors turned it down.
During the 1970s, Altman parlayed his success with MASH into a series of films covering all genres and subject matter. While not all were financial blockbusters, Altman's skill at keeping the budget and schedules of his films in line ensured his ability to continue working for the major studios. Nashville is generally considered his masterpiece, and is personally my favorite movie of all time. Its story of 24 principal characters in Nashville, Tennessee during the five days leading up to a political rally caught the imagination of jaded moviegoers in 1975. With colorful characters, magnificent performances, endlessly quotable dialogue, catchy songs, and a shocking finale, it has earned its place as one of the cinematic masterpieces of the 1970s. (I was once known for having performed all the songs from this film at college parties, and had the pleasure of singing an impromptu medley of Karen Black's songs with Ms. Black herself when I met her in Los Angeles several years ago.)
Ironically, the summer that Nashville premiered was also the summer that Steven Spielberg's Jaws opened, ushering in the concept of the summer blockbuster. Most critics attribute the decline of Altman's Hollywood stature in the 1980s to the purported "failure" of Popeye (1980). However, that movie made nearly $50 million on a $20 million budget. A much more plausible reason might be that the studios by the 1980s were turning out sequels, blockbusters and teen comedies for the masses. Altman's eccentric cinematic vision was temporarily out of style. Nevertheless, he persevered and worked in low-budget and TV movies, cable television, and stage plays. The one-two punch of The Player and Short Cuts returned him to the big leagues. Most of his subsequent 1990s films met with varying degrees of critical and popular success, but he was again regarded as a major filmmaker in a field crowded with young upstarts and wanna-bees.
I do not want to paint a rose-colored view of Altman and his career. He occasionally made political comments that were embarrassing in their simple-mindedness. I have read biographies and heard anecdotes about his prickly and self-indulgent nature, which no doubt contributed to his declining career fortunes in the 1980s. (My friend, veteran producer and production designer Polly Platt, remembers how Altman frustrated her because he would never leave his hotel room while they were supposed to be scouting locations for Nashville, because he was too busy watching the Watergate hearings on TV.)
In the end, Altman's virtues outnumber whatever shortcomings he may have had. One of his strengths was his tendency to cast veteran actors, usually overlooked by most major directors, in prominent roles for his films. I am grateful that he cast the underrated Tina Louise as a near-sighted school nurse in O.C. & Stiggs (1987), years after her Gilligan's Island-typecasting relegated her to a prolific career consisting of steady work in episodic television and TV movies. For his final film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), Altman resurrected L.Q. Jones, grizzly character actor of Sam Peckinpah films, in a key role. In an industry obsessed with all that is hip and current, Altman's career stands as a testament to longevity and reverence for the past.
Shaun Chang is a law student in his 3rd year at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law. He has an interest in all things related to cinema, television, the arts, and 1960s starlets.