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Double Take: The Player (1992)

Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick

Double Take would like to pitch The Player in 25 words or less, but it took us a little longer to break this one down. So hear us out -- and don't give us water in a red wine glass.

The Player

Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, Vincent D'Onofrio
Studio: Avenue Pictures/Spelling Entertainment
Year: 1992
UK Release Date: 1992-06-26
US Release Date: 1992-05-08

The Hollywood satire in The Player was most sharply observed by those who worked for and with the big studio system, so in some ways it seems like a movie, with all its insider talk and meta-narratives, that was made not just about the industry but for the industry.

Steve Leftridge: I’ll lead off by suggesting that The Player might not be the ideal Robert Altman film by which to discuss the director, but that’s the nature of the Big Randomizer that picks these titles for us. I saw this film when it was first released in 1992, but not until it had already been established as marking Robert Altman’s big career resurgence and was lined up for awards on both sides of the Atlantic. I can’t quite remember how I made sense of The Player at the time as a film on its own terms or how I considered it within the context and style of the classic films that Altman had already made. But re-watching the film this week, with the benefit of knowing where Altman went from here, I can place it in a more complete context. Plus, I had forgotten so much of it, I was evaluating it anew as a free-standing piece of work. I have a lot of questions for you, Steve, but let me start by asking you those I just introduced: Revisiting The Player for this project, how do you feel it works as a film, regardless of who directed it, and how does knowing that it’s an Altman film inform your understanding or appreciation of it?

Steve Pick: It’s pretty hard for me to compartmentalize the Altman knowledge away from any of his films. I’m pretty sure that, with the possible exception of Alfred Hitchcock, he was the first director that I understood had a recognizable style. I saw Nashville on TV in the late ‘70s, and that was with the knowledge that I was supposed to look for something that made Altman an auteur -- I was in a film and literature writing class in college. So yeah, the overlapping dialogue, the large cast of major and minor characters, the improvised scenes, the loose structures, the high camera angles, and the long tracking shots: these all scream Altman to me. I can’t think of his movies without thinking of him.

That said, The Player is a boffo entertainment by any standards. First and foremost, you have the satire of Hollywood as it had come to exist by the time of the film. Many of Altman’s criticisms were of things that had existed for decades: the insistence on happy endings, the need to get marketable stars, the audience research, the boiling down of ideas to a short and pithy pitch which preferably is devoid of any challenging concepts. But he figured out a cool way to make all his points while focusing on a thrilling story of murder, deceit, and sex. Tim Robbins’ character, the amusingly named Griffin Mill, is the opposite of formula; he’s completely unlikeable from the beginning. Not once does he seem to connect with another human being, with the possible exception of Greta Scacchi’s even more hilariously named June Gudmundsdottir. Even that connection is creepy and immoral in virtually every way. As far as he’s concerned, everybody around him is a character who can be written as necessary into or out of the script of his life.

Of course, the story itself might be interminable without the hilarious cameos from so many major and minor Hollywood figures, whether they are playing themselves or a fictional creation. We don’t have to like Griffin Mill; we just have to see that he lives in a world where the rules don’t apply. What do you think of the way Altman portrays the Hollywood milieu, and why didn’t Lyle Lovett and Whoopi Goldberg get a spin-off TV show out of this?

Leftridge: I think it’s all terribly clever, Steve. On one hand, I suppose that the Hollywood satire in The Player was most sharply observed by those who worked for and with the big studio system, so in some ways it seems like a movie, with all its insider talk and meta-narratives, that was made not just about the industry but for the industry. Still, those self-reflexive qualities remain accessible to general audiences since, as you mention, Altman provides a genuinely suspenseful story that includes many of the elements that the characters in the film insist make for a box-office winner.

In fact, that balance strikes me as key to the film’s genius: Altman is simultaneously skewering the conventions that he himself has largely existed outside of as a filmmaker, but he is also paying tribute to the very Hollywood tropes and formulas that he cut his teeth on. The film’s obvious debt to film noir and classic suspense movies is made even more explicit when the camera lingers on, say, a poster for Laura (the subject of a recent Double Take) in Griffin’s office or the photograph of Hitchcock in the restaurant. I wonder, in fact, if any film has ever so successful married Hollywood parody and homage as The Player does.

At one point, June asks Griffin why he disliked David Kahane’s script. Griffin answers that it lacked the elements that make a film a success: suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, and happy endings. The Player gets around to each of these things at one point or another, while still deriding predictable Hollywood sleaze and tripe. Can you explain how (or if) the film gets away with it?

Pick: Very simply, Steve. The Player succeeds because it’s just plain funny. The Player just keeps making us laugh right from the opening sequence, that insanely complex and very long tracking shot across the studio lot, dipping in and out of Griffin Mill’s meeting with script pitchers, introducing us to the absurdity of Hollywood as viewed by Altman, all the way to the ending, which copies word-for-word the ending to the film-within-the-film starring Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts. It might be a wink because we realize that’s Jeff Goldblum playing himself next to Peter Gallagher playing Larry Levy, and we’re not sure at first which is a character and which is merely an extra. It could be a spot-on joke when Larry Levy explains he goes to AA meetings not because he’s an alcoholic, but because “that’s where all the deals are being made these days”. Or perhaps the absurd idea thrown aside by Griffin Mill to remake The Bicycle Thief. Most definitely, it’s the farcical sequence when Griffin is grilled by Lovett and Goldberg, so full of laughs it seemed to be waiting for DVR technology to make rewinding and replaying bits over and over again a breeze.

You don’t have to be aware of all the inside jokes and conceptual playfulness to enjoy The Player. Heck, I didn’t realize until I looked it up that it was director Alan Rudolph being mistaken for Martin Scorsese in one throwaway bit that becomes way funnier now that I know. The story is suspenseful enough, and the humor clever enough, to simply please audiences. Correct me if I’m wrong, but with the exception of Short Cuts, his follow-up to this film, and the later Gosford Park, The Player was practically the last big hit Robert Altman had. I think the focus he placed on all the meta-textuality may have left him less time to allow the improvisatory wanderings which made some of the later films less successful. Or was it that this one gave a more satisfying happy ending?

Leftridge: You bring up several good points, including that fantastic opening shot, another example of tacitly paying tribute to other long takes in film history while directly mentioning those influences (Rope, Touch of Evil, The Sheltering Sky) during the opening tracking shot itself. The script ideas are also a gas: Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman, Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate, and Buck Henry pitch for The Graduate, Part II. As with all the best satire, Altman just barely exaggerates these studio archetypes and maneuverings -- it’s remarkable that this Graduate sequel was never actually made.

The reference to The Bicycle Thief is one of my favorite of many clever allusions here. That Italian cinema classic (which Double Take will cover at some point) contains a famously gloomy ending, at direct odds with the kind of Hollywood fantasy Griffin Mill greenlights for maximum box office receipts. The Italian neorealism movement that produced The Bicycle Thief relied on nonprofessional actors and authentic depictions of the impoverished, who enjoy no Hollywood endings in real life, and it’s fitting that when Griffin seeks David Kahane in the movie theater, what we see on the screen is The Bicycle Thief’s dismal final sequence.

Similarly, during the original pitch for Habeas Corpus (the film-within-the-film), the writer insists that it contain no stars and no bullshit happy ending. Of course, the Hollywood mill (or Mill, in this case) brings in Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts who enjoy a triumphant ride off into the sunset. By the time we get to the end of The Player proper, we’re almost in Mel Brooks territory with Griffin walking into his dreamhouse with his perfect pregnant wife, the epitome of the happily ever after. It’s another example of Altman both critiquing and supplying what the neorealists were kicking against back in the ‘40s.

Hey, can I switch gears? What do you think of Tim Robbins as Griffin? Is there something about this role that particularly suited Robbins, or could Griffin Mill have been just as well played by any number of actors?

Pick: I’ll start to answer your question by pointing out that I would be the very worst casting director in history, as I pretty much always think the actor in front of me is the only one who could possibly handle a given role. Put me in charge, and the only actors ever hired would be the first to show up for auditions. I’m certain, though, that Robbins is perfectly cast as Griffin Mill. As the Coen Brothers would realize just a couple years later in The Hudsucker Proxy, there was nobody better at characters who could convince others that he was simultaneously empty-headed and a genius. As he displayed in Bull Durham, Robbins has that kind of face people trust, even if his characters aren’t thinking as deeply as they need to be.

Full disclosure: I’ve always had a bit of a crush on Cynthia Stevenson, who plays Mill’s soon-to-be-cast aside girlfriend Bonnie. That made his treatment of her more inexplicable than it was supposed to be. But that caveat aside, Gretta Scacchi could easily hold sway over someone like Mill, who was constantly looking for his next success. Robbins deftly plays the scenes with Scacchi so that we almost forget he killed her lover after stalking her on the phone outside their home. Also, probably no other actor could have looked more absurdly impotent than Robbins in that scene when he steps out of the mud bath to take the phone call he expects will be his undoing.

Speaking of actors, I was surprised (or had completely forgotten) to see how different Vincent D’Onofrio was in the role of David Kahane. I’m so used to his long tenure on Law and Order: Criminal Intent (aka the only Law and Order that mattered after Jerry Orbach died) that I spent a couple minutes trying to figure out who that other tall guy was standing next to Robbins in the movie theater sequence. He sure did nail the role, though, with a perfect mixture of self-assured asshat and insecure artist.

Any last minute thoughts before we call it a night, Steve?

Leftridge: Well, let’s see. Okay, I have three final thoughts. First, this is Burt Reynolds’ second-most satisfying performance of the ‘90s. Second, that party at Dick Mellon’s place, with Jack Lemmon on poolside piano and Rod Steiger looking lost as he checks out the waterfall art, is the best satirical Jeff Goldblum-attended L.A. showbiz party in any film since Annie Hall. Finally, despite any challenges or debates or delays we’ve had in discussing The Player, I think everything worked out beautifully and that this column will go on happily ever after.

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