Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’ Is Art — Now More than Ever

Robert Altman's multi-layered sarcastic skewering of Hollywood culture still has to be seen to be believed, from the first moment to the last.

The Player (1992) opens with an almost impossibly long and complex scene in which there are no cuts for a full eight minutes and six seconds. During this remarkable opening sequence an entire studio lot becomes a stage upon which the actors, vehicles, buildings and props all become characters who have to hit their mark precisely in order to properly set up the story of the film.

While the technical aspects of this long take are noteworthy, the story being told is interspersed with characters extolling the virtues (often romantically) of various “long cuts” of great films throughout the decades. Director Robert Altman, always a master filmmaker, here delivers something of a thesis statement for the film at large. This is a wink-wink, nudge-nudge satire of Hollywood that simultaneously pays tribute to, skewers and exposes the system therein with tools the intelligent audience can relate to, but will shake insiders to the core.

The Criterion Collection has (at last) selected The Player for preservation (and the beautiful and complete extras treatment) in 2016, for Hollywood insiders and outsiders alike. The Player hasn’t looked or sounded this great since its debut on the big screen.

I should know. Back in 1992 I paid to see the film no less than five times (the theatre manager gifted me the movie poster on the last day of its run) and I subsequently bought VHS, DVD, streaming and Blu-Ray copies of the film. No home video edition quite compares to the Criterion Collection version.

While there’s a lot to love in the story regardless of the medium, a deluxe edition like this is needed, not only because Altman was a “filmmaker’s filmmaker” (who also had the chutzpah to make a scathing Hollywood indictment with scores of major Hollywood stars playing themselves… in Hollywood) but also because many of the subtleties Altman was so famous for require the keen eye and clear picture.

Big time film producer Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is first seen in this epic opening as he arrives for work at the unnamed studio (the slogan for which is “Movies: Now More Than Ever”) and as the never-cutting crane camera creepily eavesdrops on him through his office window, we witness his motivation. He has been hand-delivered a postcard with no postmark declaring “I am going to kill you.”

Mill correctly deduces that the sender is a disgruntled writer whom Robbins’ character never got back to and his rage has made him dangerous. The question is which writer is sending these “poison pen letters” and how long might it take before Griffin Mill himself becomes enraged enough to be dangerous.

The question many audience members ask around this point is “Isn’t this billed as a comedy?”

Yes, it is and The Player is most certainly a comedy, even (and especially) with the tagline “Making movies can be murder.” The key to The Player is the fact that it is a social satire with the society in question being Hollywood. As one character at a funeral puts it “The most that we can pin on Hollywood is assault with intent to kill.”

As Griffin Mill begins to unravel the mystery of who is stalking him (oh, yes, the postcards keep coming), his own mind begins to unravel and his already tenuous position at the studio is threatened not only by this writer but also a young up and coming producer named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). Meanwhile studio head Joel Levison (Brion James) is oblivious to just about everything and studio security chief Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) attempts to keep this whole affair “very, very, very, very quiet!”

The kicker is that just about every face Mill comes across belongs to a world famous actor. Everyone from Bruce Willis to Jack Lemon to Lily Tomlin to Julia Roberts shows up at one point or another playing themselves. This makes the fact that other characters like Detective Avery and Detective Delongpre are also played by big stars (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett, respectively) all the more notable and surprising.

Through it all, Mill finds himself in something of a bizarre love triangle with coworker Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson) and new obsession June (Greta Scacchi) and his love life begins to echo his tumultuous career. Then again, for a character who is a film producer in an Altman comedy about movies, his love life and career are one and the same. This dimension, too, brings Mill to life in surprising ways. Ostensibly the hero we are rooting for, Mill maintains our sympathies while proving to be the very kind of shark Altman openly despises in this film’s narrative. Tim Robbins himself refers to Mill as “a son of a bitch” in one of the many interviews included in The Criterion Collection.

While The Player is a remarkably unconventional movie (even for this director), there’s a distinctive love of Hollywood to be found in the midst of Altman’s “intent to kill”. Parts of the story are told in movie clips (real and made for the film) as well as telling movie posters in the background and there are tributes to everything from Film Noir to modern action in this dark comedy. Similarly, the screenplay (based on Michael Tolkin’s excellent novel of the same name) follows a number of Hollywood tropes while simultaneously thrashing them in unexpected ways. While the screenplay is likewise credited to Tolkin, this is most assuredly Altman’s film with Tolkin’s story told close to verbatim, yet extrapolated upon with layers of comedy and twisted, satirical elements added on. It all leads up to a hilarious ending with just a draft of chill wafting in from the dark roots of the film.

The Criterion Collection’s packaging of The Player makes for a beautiful collector’s item, which collects a trove of old and new bonus features. These include interviews from 1992 as well as new interviews, classic documentaries, essays, galleries, press coverage, an isolated opening shot with alternate commentaries from the writer, director and cinematographer and an essay by author Sam Wasson. That’s not to mention the 4K digital restoration.

While all Criterion releases are something special, The Player is practically the very definition of what “Criterion” is all about. This self-aware satire masquerading as a thrilling (and oft-chilling) black comedy does its job beautifully and deserves the deluxe treatment Criterion is offering it. As Griffin Mill opines in the gala fund-raiser scene, “Movies… are art… now more than ever.” That may never have been truer as it is in the case of The Player: The Criterion Collection.

RATING 9 / 10