In photos, he often appears as the wistful old uncle who shows up at reunions to regale the family with stories of wars he may never have fought in and meetings with people more imaginary than real. But that was the beauty of Robert Altman. He could be whimsical and mischievous one moment, dour and dark the next. At age 81, he remained one of cinema’s most accomplished artists, giving real credence to the use of the term auteur to define his filmmaking acumen. The past year had seen a resurgence in audience and industry interest. He took home an honorary Oscar (his one and amazingly ONLY Academy trophy) and saw his big screen adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion meet with an unusually warm reception. Unfortunately, here’s where the story must end. While in pre-production for a feature he was planning for a February 2007 start, Altman succumbed to an 18 month bout with cancer, and died.
His passing on 20 November is shocking for how sudden it seemed, but it really wasn’t unexpected. Altman surprised audiences during his acceptance speech at the 2006 ceremony by disclosing that, for the last ten years, he had been living with another human’s heart. In frail health during the ’90s, the director had received a total transplant. The most amazing thing about the circumstance was not the surgery, but the fact that in a gossip hungry town like Hollywood, he managed to keep it a complete secret. Certainly there were rumors and rumblings – he was considered uninsurable for Prairie‘s shoot, and had to stipulate to having another director on set with him at all times. Luckily, he ended up with Altman aspirant Paul Thomas Anderson, responsible for similar styled efforts of his own like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.
In truth, the lack of limelight over Altman’s physical well being says something significant and extraordinary about the man as it illustrates the main issue with his entire career – when he was hot, audience and media interest was also. When his artistic indulgences turned off ticket buyers, this formidable American genius was all but ignored. It’s been that way ever since he started out in the business. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925, the young Altman was Catholic school educated and Air Force trained. Hoping to combine his love of film with his fascination with sound, he headed off to Hollywood to seek his big break. There, he tried almost every facet of the industry before becoming disillusioned with his lack of success. Heading back to his hometown, he found acceptance in a local production company in charge of industrial and training films. It was here where Altman began to find, and fashion, his muse.
Thanks to the chance offer to direct a juvenile delinquency quickie (1957’s The Delinquents) Altman was again back in the movie business. This lead to work in the fledgling medium of television, and it was here where he really thrived. Over the next decade, he would contribute to almost every small screen genre imaginable, from live performances to war and western dramas. He was instrumental in steering the WWII-themed Combat through its initial phases, and guided audience favorite Bonanza through a few of its earliest paces. But it wasn’t until 1968 and the space race saga Countdown, that Altman regained his filmmaker footing. In combination with the thriller That Cold Day in the Park, it gave the director enough of a profile to position him as a candidate for another military-based movie being considered by 20th Century Fox.
The making of M*A*S*H* has its own epic anecdotal history, a story worthy of, perhaps, an Altman-esque Hollywood satire? Originally positioned as the lesser of two combat comedies coming out that year (Mike Nichols 1970 version of Catch-22 was viewed as the preemptive favorite) Altman took his production under Fox’s fidgety radar, using the studios obsession over their own Patton and Tora!, Tora!, Tora! as cover for what he was creating. This didn’t mean the more avant-garde elements of his approach avoided scrutiny. Everyone, from Ring Lardner Jr. who penned the screenplay (most of which was discarded), to stars Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, questioned Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue, extensive improvisation and the unorthodox conceptual ideas. Though it was set in Korea, Altman had purposefully removed all references to the locale, making his link to the then divisive war in Vietnam that much more potent. The studio, of course, insisted on a title card to clear up the confusion.
It wouldn’t be the last time an executive interfered with Altman’s ideas. But at first, such meddling didn’t matter. The amazing success of M*A*S*H* allowed the filmmaker the freedom to make whatever movie he wanted, and the follow-up remains one of his most unusual – and controversial choices ever. One of those typical ’70s headtrips involving a boy who wants to be a bird and fly around his home – which just so happens to be the Houston Superdome – Brewster McCloud exposed the capricious side of Altman’s aesthetic, a foundational need for his own flights of fancy. It was an ideal that would come to clarify, and occasionally mar, the rest of his cinematic output. Tossing out reams of dialogue, keeping only the barest bones of Doran William Cannon’s original script, Altman also began another peculiarity that came to define his overall career and creativity. Resolved to make only the movies he wanted without exception, it was this maverick’s mannerism that would guide him for the next three decades.
MGM hated Brewster, and buried it with little fanfare. Frustrated, Altman next revisited the Western, giving the genre a meticulously reproduced period naturalism that the John Wayne-worn category had never possessed before. The result, the masterful McCabe and Mrs. Miller, saw the director battle with lead actor Warren Beatty throughout the production, a stand off that threatened to undermine everything. Of course, when the film failed to catch on with audiences, the superstar’s stance was indirectly vindicated, and led to a further distancing between Altman and the industry. Follow-ups, including the psychological thriller Images, the gambling drama California Split, and the exceptional noir revamp of The Long Goodbye were critical triumphs. But without the benefit of companion box office receipts, Altman started looking like a one hit wonder.
All that changed – albeit briefly – with Nashville. An epic dissection of middling America locked within the complementary – and complicit – worlds of show business and politics, Altman formulated the film around his own interest in country music. Featuring a storyline that suggested the general malaise and unease in the nation, along with a collection of cast-created songs, he forged an entirely new style of filmmaking. Using multiple stories that at times seemed completely unrelated to each other, the director found himself free to indulge in all manner of subplots, personalities and eccentricities. What started out as a meditation on performance and public accolade turned into a dense, in-depth look at the disintegration of the American dream. Praised for its innovations and insight, Nashville went on to win Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. But just like M*A*S*H* before, Altman’s inability to deal with the people in power may have cost him the award. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dominated the Academy that year.
Again, popularity allowed Altman to do whatever he wanted. His response this time was a tone poem about the power of femininity drawn from one of this own dreams. Also touching on personality processing and the need for self-discovery, 3 Women arrived with little fanfare, and instantly became lost within an ill-prepared and indifferent populace. It is safe to say that, of his ’70s period films, 3 Women is Altman’s best. Powerful without being intense, mysterious without being confusing, this seemingly simplistic story about a pair of spa workers on the outskirts of the California desert actually hid a multi-layered look at how we perceive ourselves. Featuring fabulous performances from Sissy Spacek and Altman discovery Shelley Duvall, the movie met with more myopic disinterest. It would be three more years before Altman’s name became associated with the mainstream again. And in typical style, it was mostly for bad, not good.
Altman had taken on the task of bringing E.C Segar’s comic strip sailor Popeye to the silver screen, mostly as a chance to experiment with something he called “fanciful realism”. His idea was easy enough to understand – take reality and tweak it just enough so that it suggests, not mimics, the world of animation. He built his own village on the Mediterranean island of Malta, approached Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks about providing the studio-mandated musical numbers, and then went out and hired non-singers like Duvall and star Robin Williams to fill the lead roles. Rumors of natural disasters and cast infighting found their way into the then fledgling tabloid media machine, and Altman felt the press was preparing to doom the project before it was eventually released. So far ahead of its time that today’s comic book movies still only scratch the surface of the conventions Altman created, Popeye was popular, but it wasn’t the mega-smash high concept entertainment Disney was looking for, and even though it made money, the entire project was viewed as an albatross sized failure.
By this point, Altman was fed up. He hated functioning within a dynamic that suggested art was only as valuable as the money it could make, and he distrusted almost everything about a business that bolstered you one moment, only to tear you down the next. Like all mythological heroes, he set off to wander the wilderness of his own insular aesthetic. When he got the chance, he directed for the stage, even filming some of his efforts as a sort of a reminder and record of his work. A few of these experiments – Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, Fool for Love – kept him just on the edges of fame. There really was no need, however. With his past constantly revisited and remembered, Altman was never completely gone. But a great many of his contributions were definitely being forgotten.
The Player changed it all – again. Michael Tolkin’s exposé of Tinsel Town’s cutthroat creative corruption was a red hot property when it came out in book form, and Altman appeared an odd choice for the project. Granted, his anti-studio stance was well documented, but the director had also found his greatest personal triumph while working within the confines of industry. Thanks to a stellar cast and a sharp, satiric script, Altman had at least a partial last laugh. There were more Oscar nods (though no wins) numerous accolades and awards from around the world (Best Director at Cannes) and – in the standard pendulum-like swing of his career – rekindled interest in what he wanted to do next.
This time up, however, Altman was prepared. As he would for the rest of his career, he used the incalculable clout of decades considered one of cinema’s main masters to fulfill the personal promise of only making the movies he truly wanted. The Player was followed by the phenomenal Short Cuts (a brilliant breakdown of ’90s neurosis that found their foothold in the literary brilliance of Raymond Carver’s short stories) and several personal projects, including looks at his interest in fashion (Prêt-à-Porter), his love of jazz (Kansas City) and his deep seeded desire to stay connected to the current trends in filmmaking (The Gingerbread Man, a big screen adaptation of the John Grisham story). With Gosford Park again stirring Academy buzz, it seemed that Altman could really live out the rest of his life doing only the projects he felt passionate about.
It’s too bad then that such a strategy was cut short. No one looking at something like A Prairie Home Companion was arguing that Altman was back, but then again, it’s really hard to say if he every really left. Words like iconoclast, renegade, rebel and dissident were frequently used to describe the director, but the bigger question remains what, exactly, was he rebelling against? Lousy scripts overflowing with clichés and formulaic flaws? Movies lacking heart, passion, artistry and intelligence? A system that sticks by a baffling business plan that rewards financial success without ever taking any other element of a film’s achievement into consideration? That lack of instant approval for the enormous amount of work that goes into making a movie? A fickle fanbase that slams you one day, only to coronate your creations long after their possible impact could actually matter?
No, Altman was not an insurgent. He wasn’t out to change the industry or pout until the studios came around to his way of thinking. No, what this singular cinematic voice was avoiding was the brainwashed belief that you had to give into the sloppy and sub par elements of the game in order to be a viable member of its unconscionable cabal. He refused to acknowledge the fad-oriented facets of the medium, making his own statements about issues and incidents without the slightest concern for populism or pragmatism. He was forward thinking in a system that consistently looks back, and brave without wearing his considerable courage on his frequently slapped wrist. To say that he will be missed is an understatement. No one, not even his impressive impersonators will be able to replace Altman’s integrity and importance. So with his passing, perhaps it’s time to put the whole revolutionary idea to rest. He wasn’t a rebel. In fact, he had the right idea the whole time.