[7 October 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Robert Altman’s films never told us what to think or feel.
The Kansas City-born director — of classics like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Player” and “Nashville” — gave us characters in collision. He provided dramatic conflict and expected audiences to draw their own conclusions.
That approach came in handy when Mitchell Zuckoff was putting together “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography,” which will be published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.
The 592-page book is a mashup of voices revealing a funny, infuriating, stubbornly independent and deeply gifted man. Like an Altman film, the book doesn’t moralize. It gives us the impressions of dozens of Altman admirers (and a few whose views were less rosy) and asks us to make up our own minds.
“I originally was going to help Bob write a memoir about the art and craft of directing,” the 47-year-old Zuckoff, a journalism professor at Boston University, said in a recent phone interview from his home.
“We shared a literary editor who thought we’d get along, so he put us in a room together. And basically Bob did what he’d done all his life — he cast me. He went to his gut and felt I was right for the role of writer.”
When Altman liked you, Zuckoff said, he could be seductive and enthusiastic (if occasionally caustic). The writer immediately felt he’d made a new friend and began visiting the filmmaker at his homes in Malibu and Manhattan and in the offices of Altman’s production company.
“It was going great,” he said. “I felt close to him — a really great affection.”
And then in November 2006, Altman died at age 81 after an unpublicized fight with cancer.
Along with the ache of losing a new friend, Zuckoff was hit with the uncomfortable realization that he’d gotten in over his head.
“I was a cautionary tale of what not to do in publishing,” he said. “When Bob died, I still didn’t have a book contract. I’d been spending my own money to follow him around because I liked him so much. My enthusiasm got ahead of my common sense. I was an idiot, basically.”
Zuckoff wrote off the experience as a wonderful phase of his life that would never end in a professional or financial payday.
And then, “people started talking,” he said. “Once the immediate sadness passed, people — like my agent — said to me, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a book here.’”
Zuckoff decided that instead of a standard biography rehashing facts Altman fans already knew by heart, he needed to take a different approach. He already had the transcripts of his conversations with the filmmaker.
“It became pretty clear to me that the way to achieve what I wanted was an oral biography,” he said. “At that point it was just a matter of talking to a couple hundred people.”
Talk he did — for the better part of three years.
Zuckoff spent a week in Kansas City interviewing members of Altman’s family, childhood friends, colleagues from Calvin Communications (where Altman cut his teeth on industrial films) and even an old girlfriend or two.
He talked to ex-wives and children and tracked down crewmen from the bomber Altman piloted in the South Pacific during World War II.
He spent hours in conversation with actors and crew members who had worked with Altman and would jump at every opportunity to do so.
“I wanted to talk face-to-face with as many people as would see me,” Zuckoff said. “Some actors were so busy they could only give me an hour on the phone. But my feeling is that if you’re actually in the room with them, they get comfortable and you get more.”
The toughest interview to land?
“Warren was the hardest guy to pin down,” Zuckoff said of Warren Beatty, who starred in and produced Altman’s Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and who nearly came to blows with the director. In the ensuing 30 years, Beatty had rarely said anything for publication about the experience.
“I chased him several months, calling him several times a week,” Zuckoff said. “Sometimes he’d pick up, sometimes I’d get an assistant, and usually what I heard was, ‘No, not now. Call back later.’ Warren was really working through whether he wanted to do this.”
Before landing an interview, Zuckoff was grilled by Beatty on “McCabe” trivia.
“He wasn’t confident that I knew my stuff,” he said. “But when I correctly answered who helped Julie Christie with her dialogue on the movie, he agreed.
“We had one long talk, and I finally got to ask questions that had been eating me for months,” Zuckoff said. “And he didn’t dodge them. To Warren’s credit, even though he didn’t want to answer, he did.”
Beatty and Altman argued over photography and sound. Altman won.
Altman was not a man to suffer fools gladly, and among those he considered fools were many of the studio executives with whom he frequently locked horns. While many of the book’s interviewees recall Altman’s outrageous behavior, a few seem to have nursed a grudge.
“Because Bob was such an emotionally powerful guy, when he kicked somebody they stayed kicked. They remembered it,” Zuckoff said. “But what I found was that ultimately they forgave him. They realized that if you were going to deal with Bob, you had to accept the bad with the good.
“I got stories from people who crossed him 35 years ago, and they could relate them as if it had happened that morning,” he said. “But with very few exceptions, they’ve moved on. They figured out how to accept a relationship that wasn’t all air kisses and phony embraces.”
If this book had been written 25 years ago, Zuckoff theorized, the tone might have been much darker.
“Bob had a third act,” he said. “In the ‘90s and in this decade he made peace with a lot of people — his family and children, people with whom he’d ended things badly. He mellowed. There was no reason to be mad anymore.
“And you can’t overlook Kathryn (Kathryn Altman, the filmmaker’s wife of nearly 50 years),” Zuckoff said. “She did yeoman’s labor in smoothing things over. She was an enormous force for reconciliation.”
“Robert Altman : The Oral Biography” is crawling with fond, frequently ribald anecdotes. (Altman was a legendary lover of women, alcohol and pot.)
“It had nothing to do with my interviewing skills,” Zuckoff said. “People talked because it was fun to talk about Bob.”
Zuckoff recalls sitting opposite Tim Robbins (star of Altman’s “The Player”) in the study of the actor’s Manhattan home.
“Tim didn’t just tell stories,” he said. “He physically acted them out. I got a one-man show. He’s doing Altman, then turns around and plays himself, and then five other characters. Susan Sarandon comes in and starts watching because Tim’s acting. It was wonderful.”
One of Altman’s oldest friends, Iranian-born Reza Badiyi, followed the filmmaker from Kansas City to Hollywood and became a television director. He recalled accompanying the then-unknown Altman on a cross-country drive.
Running out of cash, Altman convinced the staff at a Las Vegas hotel that Badiyi was a lavish-living Middle Eastern prince whose exploits were all over the gossip columns. Their room and meals comped, the duo panicked when the real-life prince showed up.
To their relief, the foreign royal found their scam hilarious and insisted on doing the town with Badiyi at his side.
The only subject who took a melancholy approach was Paul Thomas Anderson, the young director of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” Anderson served as Altman’s backup on his last film, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“Paul still felt very raw,” Zuckoff said. “He hadn’t reconciled himself to the loss. I think he dreamed of being mentored by Bob for years to come. Only he talked about the sadness he was feeling. Virtually everybody else was so happy because it gave them a chance to tell a story about Bob Altman.”
Though the book is organized chronologically and many chapters are organized around movies, it’s not a movie book, Zuckoff said.
“This is a biography, not a filmography,” he said. “That was my mantra. This is not a work of film scholarship. It’s a study of a remarkable personality.”
Zuckoff said he has taken to heart many lessons from Altman’s life.
“I keep marveling at what (actor) Michael Murphy said — that Bob could never be defeated. Faced with things that would have crushed 100 other men, he never gave an inch. He never admitted he was down.
“When we started this project I was about as old as Bob was when he made ‘M*A*S*H.’ This was a late bloomer who only hit his stride well into middle age.
“What I learned from him was how not to get old. The body creaked, but the mind? Never.”
SOME ORAL BIOGRAPHY
“I just loved the guy from the first. He made me realize early on that you could do no wrong, as long as you tried. The worst you could do was make an ass out of yourself. And that’s the first thing you have to be willing to do as an actor, is be willing to make an ass out of yourself. Bob gave me that.”
—Tom Skerritt, co-star of “M*A*S*H”
“If you have dialogue and people can’t hear it, it makes people crazy. ... It wasn’t that you couldn’t hear every word. I thought you couldn’t hear any word. ... I thought that the mix was extremely unfortunate because people would quit on the movie after a reel or two or three.”
—Warren Beatty, star and producer of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” on Altman’s overlapping dialogue technique
“To have acted with Robert Altman, under his direction, was to have tasted a certain kind of freedom, sometimes a certain kind of fear, knowing that an invisible hand is holding yours through that process.”
—Kenneth Branagh, star of Altman’s “Gingerbread Man”
“It seems to be a harmless piece of entertainment. But it has quite a serious intent and a sort of rage underneath it. ... Bob at that point was rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
—Meryl Streep, on making “A Prairie Home Companion,” Altman’s last film