Altman, Robert

views updated May 21 2018

ALTMAN, Robert

Nationality: American. Born: Kansas City, Missouri, 20 February 1925. Education: Attended University of Missouri, Columbia (three years). Military Service: Bomber pilot, U.S. Air Force, 1943–47. Family: Married La Vonne Elmer, 1946, one daughter; married Lotus Corelli, 1954, divorced 1957, two sons; married Kathryn Reed, two sons. Career: Directed industrial films for Calvin Company, Kansas City, 1947; wrote, produced, and directed first feature, The Delinquents, 1955; TV director, 1957–63; co-founder of TV production company, 1963; founder, Lion's Gate production company (named after his own 8-track sound system), 1970, Westwood Editorial Services, 1974, and Sandcastle 5 Productions; made Tanner '88 for TV during American presidential campaign, 1988; directed McTeague for Chicago Lyric Opera. Awards: Palme d'Or, Cannes Festival, and Academy Award nominations for Best Film and Best Director for M*A*S*H, 1970; New York Film Critics' Circle Award, D.W. Griffith Award (National Board of Review), and National Society of Film Critics Award, all for Best Director, for Nashville, 1975; Golden Bear, Berlin Festival, for Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 1976; Academy Award nomination for Best Director, New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film and Best Director, for The Player, 1992; Academy Award nomination for Best Director, for Short Cuts.Agent: Johnny Planco, William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019. Address: Sandcastle 5 Productions, 502 Park Avenue, Suite 15G, New York, NY 10022–1108.

Films as Director:


The Builders (medium length publicity film)


The Delinquents (+ pr, sc)


The James Dean Story (co-d, + co-pr, co-ed)


The Party (short); Nightmare in Chicago (Once upon a Savage Night) (for TV)


Pot au Feu (short); The Katherine Reed Story (short)


Countdown (moon-landing sequence uncred by William Conrad)


That Cold Day in the Park


M*A*S*H ; Brewster McCloud (+ pr)


McCabe and Mrs. Miller (+ co-sc)


Images (+ pr, sc)


The Long Goodbye


Thieves like Us (+ co-sc); California Split (+ co-pr)


Nashville (+ co-pr, co-songwriter: "The Day I Looked Jesus in the Eye")


Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson(+ pr, co-sc)


Three Women (+pr, sc)


A Wedding (+ pr, co-sc)


Quintet (+ pr, co-sc); A Perfect Couple (+ pr, co-sc)


Health (+ pr, sc)




The Easter Egg Hunt


Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean;Two by South ("Rattlesnake in a Cooler" and "Precious Blood") (for TV) (+pr)


Streamers (+ pr); O.C. and Stiggs (+ pr) (released 1987)


Secret Honor (Secret Honor: The Political Testament ofRichard M. Nixon; Secret Honor: A Political Myth) (+ pr)


The Laundromat (for TV)


Fool for Love


"Les Boreades" in Aria; Beyond Therapy (+ co-sc); The Room (for TV); The Dumb Waiter (for TV)


Tanner '88; The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (+ pr)


Vincent and Theo


The Player


Short Cuts (+ sc)


The Real McTeague (for TV, opera)


Ready to Wear (Pret a Porter) (+ sc)


Jazz—34 (+ pr); Kansas City (+ sc, pr)


Gun (series for TV) (+ pr)


The Gingerbread Man (+ sc, ro as Al Hayes)


Cookie's Fortune (+ pr); Another City, Not My Own


Dr. T and the Women (+ pr)

Other Films:


Bodyguard (co-story)


Corn's-a-Poppin' (co-sc)


Welcome to L.A. (Rudolph) (pr)


The Late Show (Benton) (pr)


Remember My Name (Rudolph) (pr)


Rich Kids (Young) (pr)


Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver County (Dorr, Kaplan) (doc)


Afterglow (Rudolph) (pr); Frank Capra's American Dream (Bowser—for TV) (as himself)




Trixie; Hitchcock: Shadow of a Genius (Haimes—for TV) (as himself)


By ALTMAN: book—

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, with Alan Rudolph, New York, 1976.

Short Cuts: The Screenplay, Santa Barbara, CA, 1993.

Robert Altman's Pret a Porter, New York, 1994.

Robert Altman, Interviews: Interviews (ConversationswithFilmmakers), with David Sterritt, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

By ALTMAN: articles—

Interview with S. Rosenthal, in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1972.

Interview with Russell Auwerter, in Directors in Action, edited by Bob Thomas, New York, 1973.

Interview with Michel Ciment and Bertrand Tavernier, in Positif (Paris), February 1973.

"Robert Altman Speaking," interview with J. Dawson, in FilmComment (New York), March/April 1974.

"An Altman Sampler," interview with B.J. Demby, in FilmmakersNewsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), October 1974.

Robert Altman Seminar, in Dialogue on Film (Beverly Hills), February 1975.

"The Artist and the Multitude Are Natural Enemies," interview with F.A. Macklin, in Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Winter 1976/77.

Interview with Jean-André Fieschi, in Cinématographe (Paris), June 1977.

Interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum and Charles Michener, in FilmComment (New York), September/October 1978.

Interview and article by J.-P. Le Pavec and others, in Cinéma (Paris), November 1978.

"Jumping off the Cliff," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1978.

Interview with Michel Ciment and M. Henry, in Positif (Paris), March 1979.

"Robert Altman: Backgammon and Spinach," interview with Tom Milne and Richard Combs, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1981.

"Peripheral Vision," interview with A. Stuart, in Films (London), July 1981.

Interview with Leo Braudy and Robert Phillip Kolker, in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Fall 1981 and Winter 1982.

"'A Foolish Optimist': Interview with Robert Altman," by H. Kloman, Lloyd Michaels, and Virginia Wright Wexman, in FilmCriticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Spring 1983.

Interview with Michel Ciment, in Positif (Paris), June 1984.

Stills (London), November 1984.

Interview with Richard Combs, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), January 1985.

"On the Road with Robert Altman," an interview with Nick Roddick, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), September 1986.

Interview with Steven Aronson, in Architectural Digest, March 1990.

"Mrs. Miller's Tale," an interview with Sheila Johnston, in the Independent (London), 6 April 1990.

"How the Western Was Lost," an interview with Derek Malcolm, in the Guardian (London), 11 April 1990.

Interview with Richard Combs in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1990.

"Robert Altman: The Rolling Stone Interview," interview with David Breskin, in Rolling Stone, 16 April 1992.

Interview with Graham Fuller, in Interview, May 1992.

Interview with Jean-Pierre Coursodon and M. Henry, "Hollywood n'est qu'une metaphore," in Positif, June 1992.

"Death and Hollywood," interview with P. Keogh, in Sight andSound (London), June 1992.

Interview with Janice M. Richolson and others, "The Player," in Cineaste (Paris), no. 2/3, 1992.

Interview with David Breskin, InnerViews: Filmmakers in Conversation, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992.

"Reimagining Raymond Carver on Film: A Talk with Robert Altman and Tess Gallagher," interview with R. Stewart, in New YorkTimes, 12 September 1993.

Interview with Thomas Bourguignon and others, in Positif (Paris), January 1994.

Interview with Philippe Rouyer and Michael Henry, in Positif (Paris), May 1996.

"Reigning Blows," interview with Brian Case, in Time Out (London), 20 November 1996.

"The Sweet Hell of Success," interview with P. Beskind, in Premiere (Boulder), October 1997.

On ALTMAN: film—

"Robert Altman," for South Bank Show, London Weekend Television, April 1990.

On ALTMAN: books—

Hardin, Nancy, editor, On Making a Movie: Brewster McCloud, New York, 1971.

Feineman, Neil, Persistence of Vision: The Films of Robert Altman, New York, 1976.

Tewkesbury, Joan, Nashville, New York, 1976.

Kass, Judith M., Robert Altman: American Innovator, New York, 1978.

Terry, Bridget, The Popeye Story, New York, 1980.

Kolker, Robert Phillip, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick,Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Oxford, 1980, revised edition, 1988.

Bourget, Jean-Loup, Robert Altman, Paris, 1981.

Karp, Alan, The Films of Robert Altman, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1981.

Fink, Guido, I film Di Robert Altman, Rome, 1982.

Kagan, Norman, American Skeptic: Robert Altman's Genre-Commentary Films, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1982.

Micciche, Lino, L'incubo americano: Il cinema di Robert Altman, Venice, 1984.

Wexman, Virginia Wright, and Gretchen Bisplinghoff, Robert Altman:A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1984.

Plecki, Gerard, Robert Altman, Boston, 1985.

Weis, Elisabeth, and John Belton, editors, Film Sound: Theory andPractice, New York, 1985.

Wood, Robin, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, New York, 1986.

McGilligan, Patrick, Robert Altman: Jumping off the Cliff—A Biography, New York, 1988.

Keyssar, Helene, Robert Altman's America, New York, 1991.

Bourget, Jean-Loup, Robert Altman, Paris, 1994.

O'Brien, Daniel, Robert Altman: Hollywood Survivor, New York, 1995.

On ALTMAN: articles—

Cutts, John, "MASH, McCloud, and McCabe," in Films and Filming (London), November 1971.

Dawson, J., "Altman's Images," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1972.

Engle, Gary, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller: Robert Altman's Anti-Western," in Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), Fall 1972.

Baker, C.A., "The Theme of Structure in the Films of Robert Altman," in Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green), Summer 1973.

Brackett, Leigh, "From The Big Sleep to the The Long Goodbye and More or Less How We Got There," in Take One (Montreal), January 1974.

Stewart, Garrett, "The Long Goodbye from Chinatown," in FilmQuarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1974/75.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1975.

Oliver, Bill, "The Long Goodbye and Chinatown: Debunking the Private Eye Tradition," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Summer 1975.

"Altman Issue" of Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Fall 1975.

Wood, Robin, "Smart-ass and Cutie-pie: Notes toward an Evaluation of Altman," in Movie, Fall 1975.

Benayoun, Robert, "Altman, U.S.A.," in Positif (Paris), December 1975.

Byrne, Connie, and William O. Lopez, "Nashville (An Interview Documentary)," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1975/76.

Self, Robert, "Invention and Death: The Commodities of Media in Robert Altman's Nashville," in Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), no. 5, 1976.

Levine, R., "R. Altman & Co.," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1977.

Canby, Vincent, "Film View: Altman—A Daring Filmmaker Falters," in The New York Times, 18 February 1979.

"Playing the Game, or Robert Altman and the Indians," in Sight andSound (London), Summer 1979.

Bonnet, J.-C., and others, "Dossier: Robert Altman," in Cinématographe (Paris), January 1980.

Yacowar, Maurice, "Actors as Conventions in the Films of Robert Altman," in Cinema Journal (Evanston), Fall 1980.

Eyman, S., "Against Altman," in Focus on Film (London), October 1980.

Altman, D., "Building Sand Castles," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), July/August 1981.

Self, Robert, "The Art Cinema and Robert Altman," in Velvet LightTrap (Madison, Wisconsin), no. 19, 1982.

Durgnat, Raymond, "Popeye Pops Up," in Films (London), April and May 1982.

Self, Robert, "The Perfect Couple: 'Two Are Halves of One,' in the Films of Robert Altman," in Wide Angle (Athens, Georgia), vol. 5, no. 4, 1983.

Edgerton, G., "Capra and Altman: Mythmaker and Mythologist," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), January 1983.

Jaehne, K., and P. Audferheide, "Secret Honor," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 14, no. 2, 1985.

Farber, Stephen, "Five Horsemen after the Apocalypse," in FilmComment (New York), July/August 1985.

Self, Robert, "Robert Altman and the Theory of Authorship," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Fall 1985.

"Altman Section" of Positif (Paris), January 1986.

White, A., "Play Time," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1986.

Self, Robert, and Leland Poague, "Dialogue," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Spring 1986.

Combs, Richard, "A Trajectory Built for Two," in Monthly FilmBulletin (London), July 1986.

"Robert Altman," in Film Dope (London), March 1988.

Wolcott, James, "Jack Tanner, for Real," in Vanity Fair, July 1988.

Film Comment (New York), September/October 1989.

"Altman at Calvin," in Sight and Sound (London), no. 2, 1990.

McGilligan, Patrick, "Altman in Kansas City," in Sight and Sound (New York), no. 2, 1990.

Combs, R., "The World Is a Bad Painting," in Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1990.

Giddins, Gary, "Altman's Back," in Village Voice (New York), 6 November 1990.

Fisher, W., "Vincent and Theo and Bob," in Millimeter, September 1990.

Sanjek, David, "The Case for Robert Altman," in Literature/FilmQuarterly, no. 1, 1991.

Walker, Beverly, "Altman '91" in Film Comment, January/February 1991.

Andersen, Kurt, "A Player Once Again," in Time, April 20, 1992.

Ansen, David, and others, "Hollywood Is Talking: The Player," in Newsweek, 2 March 1992.

Kasindorf, Jeanine, "Home Movies," in New York, 16 March 1992.

Kroll, Jack, "Robert Altman Gives Something Back," in Esquire, May 1992.

Myers, E., "Mining McTeague's Gold," in New York Times, 25 October 1992.

Pond, Steve, "Flushing the Locusts," in Premiere, May 1992.

Schiff, Stephen, "Auteur! Auteur!" in Vanity Fair, April 1992.

Smith, Gavin, and Richard T. Jameson, "The Movie You Saw Is the Movie We're Going to Make," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1992.

Rico, Diana, "S*M*A*S*H," in Gentleman's Quarterly, May 1992.

Wilmington, Michael, "Robert Altman and The Player—Laughing and Killing: Death and Hollywood," in Sight and Sound (London), June 1992.

Hoberman, J., "Rerunning for President," in Village Voice (NewYork), 14 July 1992.

Weinraub, B., "Robert Altman, Very Much a Player Again," in NewYork Times, 29 July 1993.

Henry, B., Gavin Smith, and F. Anthony Macklin, "Back/Roads to Short Cuts: Faultlines of a Daydream Nation," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1993.

Sugg, Richard, "The Role of the Writer in The Player," in Literature/Film Quarterly, no. 1, 1994.

Murphy, Kathleen, "A Lion's Gate: The Cinema according to Robert Altman," in Film Comment (New York), 1994.

Romney, Jonathan, "In the Time of Earthquakes," in Sight andSound (London), March 1994.

Wollen, Peter, "Strike a Pose," in Sight and Sound (London), March 1995.

Yaffe, D.M., "He Am What He Am," in Village Voice (New York), 20 August 1996.

Wyatt, Justin, "Economic Constraints/Economic Opportunities: Robert Altman as Auteur," in Velvet Light Trap (Austin), Fall 1996.

Golden, Mike, "A Robert Altman Film?" in Creative Screenwriting (Washington), Fall 1997.

Combs, R., "Kansas City," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1997.

* * *

The American 1970s may have been dominated by a "New Wave" of younger, auteurist-inspired filmmakers including George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, all contemporaries as well as sometime colleagues. It is, however, an outsider to this group, the older Robert Altman—perhaps that decade's most consistent chronicler of human behavior—who could be characterized as the artistic rebel most committed to an unswerving personal vision. If the generation of whiz kids tends to admire the American cinema as well as its structures of production, Altman tends to regard the American cinema critically and to view the production establishment more as an adversary to be cunningly exploited on the way to an almost European ambiguity.

Although Altman has worked consistently within American genres, his work can instructively be seen as anti-genre: McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a kind of anti-western, exposing the myth of the heroic westerner (as described by Robert Warshow and executed by John Wayne and John Ford) and replacing it with an almost Marxist view of the Westerner as financier, spreading capitalism and corruption with opportunism and good cheer. The Long Goodbye sets itself in opposition to certain aspects of the hard-boiled detective genre, as Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe reflects a moral stance decidedly more ambiguous than that of Raymond Chandler's conventional lonely moralist. Similarly, Countdown can be seen in relationship to the science-fiction film; Thieves like Us (based on They Live by Night) in relationship to the bandit-gangster film; That Cold Day in the Park in relationship to the psychological horror film inaugurated by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho; and California Split in relationship to that generic phenomenon so common to the 1970s, the "buddy film." Even Nashville, Altman's complex bicentennial musical released in 1975, can be seen in relationship to a generic tradition with roots in Grand Hotel and branches in Earthquake, for it is a kind of disaster film about the American dream.

Aside from his generic preoccupations, Altman seems especially interested in people. His films characteristically contain perceptive observations, telling exchanges, and moments of crystal clear revelation of human folly. Altman's comments are made most persuasively in relationship to a grand social organization: that of the upper classes and nouveaux riches in A Wedding; health faddists and, metaphorically, the American political process, in Health; and so forth. Certainly, Altman's films offer a continuous critique of American society: people are constantly using and exploiting others, though often with the tacit permission of those being exploited. One thinks of the country-western singers' exploitation by the politician's P.R. man in Nashville, for instance, or the spinster in That Cold Day in the Park. Violence is often the climax of an Altman film—almost as if the tensions among the characters must ultimately explode. Notable examples include the fiery deaths and subsequent "surprise ending" in A Wedding, or the climactic assassination in Nashville. Another recurring interest for Altman in his preoccupation with the psychopathology of women: one thinks of the subtly encroaching madness of Sandy Dennis's sexually repressed spinster in That Cold Day in the Park, an underrated, early Altman film; the disturbing instability of Ronee Blakley in Nashville; the relationships among the unbalanced subjects of Three Women, based on one of Altman's own dreams; and the real/surreal visions of Susannah York in the virtual horror film, Images. Because almost all of Altman's characters tend to be hypocritical, psychotic, weak, or morally flawed in some way, with very few coming to a happy end, Altman has often been attacked for a kind of trendy cynicism. The director's cynicism, however, seems a result of his genuine attempt to avoid the conventional myth-making of the American cinema. Altman imbues as many of his characters as possible with that sloppy imperfection associated with human beings as they are, with life as it is lived.

Performers enjoy working with Altman in part because he provides them with the freedom to develop their characters and often alter the script through improvisation and collaboration. Like Bergman, Altman has worked often with a stock company of performers who appear in one role after another, among them Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Bert Remsen, and Henry Gibson.

Altman's distinctive style transforms whatever subject he approaches. He often takes advantage of widescreen compositions in which the frame is filled with a number of subjects and details that compete for the spectator's attention. Working with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, he has achieved films that are visually distinguished and tend toward the atmospheric. Especially notable are the use of the zoom lens in the smoky cinematography of McCabe and Mrs. Miller; the reds, whites, and blues of Nashville; the constantly mobile camera, specially mounted, of The Long Goodbye, which so effortlessly reflects the hazy moral center of the world the film presents; and the pastel prettiness of A Wedding, particularly the first appearance of that icon of the American cinema, Lillian Gish, whose subsequent filmic death propels the narrative.

Altman's use of multi-track sound is also incredibly complex: sounds are layered upon one another, often emanating from different speakers in such a way that the audience member must also decide what to listen for. Indeed, watching and listening to an Altman film inevitably requires an active participant: events unroll with a Bazinian ambiguity. Altman's Korean War comedy M*A*S*H was the director's first public success with this kind of soundtrack. One of his more extreme uses of this technique can be found in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, generally thought to be among the director's finest achievements.

Nashville, Altman's most universally acclaimed work, provides a panoramic view of the American experience and society as it follows the interrelated experiences of twenty-four characters in the country-western music capital. In its almost three-hour length, Nashville accumulates a power of the whole even greater than the vivid individual parts which themselves resonate in the memory: the incredibly controlled debut performance of Lily Tomlin and the sensitive performances of at least a dozen others; the lesson on sexual politics Altman delivers when he photographs several women listening to a song by Keith Carradine; the vulnerability of Ronee Blakley, who suffers a painful breakdown in front of her surprisingly fickle fans; the expressions on the faces of the men who watch Gwen Welles's painfully humiliating striptease; and the final cathartic song of Barbara Harris, as Altman suddenly reveals the conventional "Star is Born" myth in his apparent anti-musical, like a magician stunning us with an unexpected trick.

Overall, Altman's career itself has been rather weird. His output since M*A*S*H has been prodigious indeed, especially in light of the fact that a great number of his films have been financial and/or critical failures. In fact, several of his films, among them A Perfect Couple and Quintet (with Paul Newman) barely got a national release; and Health (which starred Glenda Jackson, Carol Burnett, James Garner, and Lauren Bacall) languished on the shelf for years before achieving even a limited release in New York City. The most amazing thing about Altman's Popeye, which was relatively successful with critics and the public (though not the blockbuster that Hollywood had counted on), was that Altman managed to secure the assignment at all. The film that emerged was one of the most cynical and ultimately disturbing of children's films, in line with Altman's consistent vision of human beings and social organization.

Altman's career in the 1980s veered sharply away from mainstream film, dominated instead by a number of film adaptations of theatre pieces, including Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Streamers; The Laundromat; Secret Honor; Beyond Therapy; and Fool for Love. Although many of these works are fascinating and contain incredibly modulated performances and surprisingly evocative cinematography (particularly Jimmy Dean), these films have not been particularly influential or financially successful. But they allowed Altman to continue to make notable films in a Spielberg-dominated era that was otherwise largely hostile to his provocative filmmaking.

Vincent and Theo, one of the few Altman films in this period that did not start out as a play, received much positive notice. Altman's decision to preface his film with documentary footage of a present-day auction in which millions of dollars are offered for a single Van Gogh painting was particularly stunning in a Brechtian way. He then begins his narrative story of Van Gogh's lifetime financial failure, trying to remain true to his painter's vision. Certainly, it is the parallels between Van Gogh and Altman which incite the director's interest. Tanner '88, a mock documentary about the 1988 American presidential campaign which many critics consider among Altman's master works, was even more amazing. It was a cult hit which marked Altman's return to the kind of satire with which he had already excelled. Unfortunately, its distribution on cable TV prevented this work from reaching a wide audience.

The most stunning development in Altman's career is the total critical and financial comeback he made with 1992's The Player, a film that appeared long after most Hollywood executives had written him off. The most insightful and scathing satire about Hollywood and filmmaking today, The Player hilariously skewered one target after another (the pitch, the Hollywood restaurant, the Hollywood party, the dispensable writer), in the process winning the New York Film Critics Circle awards for Best Film and Best Director. Contributing to the film's popular success were the dozens of stars who took cameos as themselves in order to support Altman, whom they have always admired.

The success of The Player allowed Robert Altman to go forward with his most ambitious project since Nashville. Another panoramic narrative featuring dozens of characters, a rich soundtrack, striking cinematography, and sensitive performances, this film is set in contemporary Los Angeles and based on short stories by Raymond Carver. The result, Short Cuts, is one of those rare contemporary American films which truly examines American values (or what passes for them) and dissects life as it is being lived today. The film is memorable from its opening images of helicopters sweeping over Los Angeles to spray for the Medfly infestation to its closing images of urban violence and earthquake; from its depiction of Angelenos struggling to connect with each other through phone sex and illicit liaisons to its presentation of bitterness, silence, and missed rapprochement as the standard American condition. Central to Short Cuts is the ubiquitousness of violence in American life, particularly against women, and the thesis that men's passive insensitivity often masks a profound hatred of women and a propensity for aggression. No act of violence in Short Cuts results in punishment, just in more apathy. A trader in ironies and social criticism, Altman emphasizes all the ways we deceive each other; and hardly any of the relationships presented—between parents and children, between husbands and wives—are marked by open, honest, useful exchanges; indeed, the jazz theme "I Don't Know You," which is sung by one character as her daughter is about to commit suicide, works as the film's most prescient theme. Notable, too, is how another character describes her own paintings as being "about seeing, and the responsibility that comes with that." From that message, Altman cuts to a group of men who've found the body of a raped woman, but choose to ignore it, lest it interrupt their fishing weekend. As a reaction against an eighties culture that championed special effects and mindless entertainment (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Conan, etc.), Altman's admonition to see the world and take responsibility emerges as the courageous stand of a visionary artist still viable and surprising. Like Nashville, Short Cuts is a key Altman film which will undoubtedly come to be regarded as a masterpiece of the American cinema. In fact, both films can be seen as providing the inspirational blueprint for many other filmmakers—particularly Paul Thomas Anderson (whose controversial 1999 Magnolia uses several cast members borrowed from the Altman films) and Todd Solondz (whose disturbing 1998 Happiness uses a similar interlocking narrative within a mode of ironic social criticism).

In 1994 Altman took on the fashion industry in Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter). Critics and the public were less kind in their regard for this panoramic satire, but the film was nevertheless witty and controlled, more subtle and light-hearted than had been anticipated. The film's finale—whereby a group of models parade nude—marked the witty and appropriate conclusion of Altman's satire on the political/ideological implications of fashion and its capacity to demean our values. Unfortunately, three recent Altman films seems less impressive, if focused on the indigenous local color of their respective regional portraits. Kansas City, in 1996, presents a murky canvas of gangsterism, "dope" addiction, and black jazz in the early thirties Kansas City. The Gingerbread Man, in 1998, reportedly written by Altman pseudonymously, is a thriller about a lawyer involved with a troubled young woman. In contrast to the sharp visual and aural clarity of Hitchcock's thrillers, The Gingerbread Man is suffused with such stunningly atmospheric cinematography and overlapping sound (indeed, it virtually never stops raining in the film), that we feel like we are eavesdropping on real people, rather than watching a narrative work its way to a fairly predictable (if effective) conclusion. And finally, the 1999 Cookie's Fortune, set in Holly Springs, Mississippi, is a rather charming evocation of the genuine quirkiness of small-town life, using some of the typical Altman structures from Nashville, but within a much smaller framework.

As a postscript on Altman, one should add that he, more than any other director, should never be counted out as an important force in American film culture. If Altman's work is sometimes uneven, the fact that he continues to work on projects which are political, ideological, and personal—refusing to compromise his own artistic vision—is a sign that he remains, even in his late seventies, the United States' single most ambitious auteur. His future agenda is ambitious, including a film of Another City, Not My Own, the strange Dominick Dunne novel based on Dunne's experiences as a journalist covering the sensational murder trial in Los Angeles of O. J. Simpson. Although Altman might seem to be the perfect director, in a culminating masterpiece, to deal with the human circus of venality and opportunism which was the Simpson trial, Altman's peripatetic popularity with Hollywood backers suggests that this project is by no means a sure thing, no matter how eagerly anticipated the results.

—Charles Derry

Robert Altman

views updated May 23 2018

Robert Altman

As a filmmaker, Robert Altman (born 1925) was known as a risk taker and a nonconformist, who was committed at all cost to his own vision. While this led to what many critics consider a highly uneven output, successes like M*A*S*H (1971), Nashville (1975) and The Player (1991) were instrumental in cementing his strong international reputation.

Altman was born on February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri. He was the oldest of three children, and only son of Bernard Clement "B.C." Altman, (an insurance salesman), and his wife Helen (nee Mathews). Altman's family was socially prominent in the Kansas City area, though B.C. Altman had problems with both gambling and alcohol, as would his son later in life. Of German descent, the Altmans were a Roman Catholic family, and Altman received much of his education in Jesuit schools. By the time he reached high school, Altman experienced some difficulties. He was transferred first to public schools, and then to the Wentworth Military Academy, in Lexington, Missouri.

Joined Air Force

In 1943, when Altman was 18 years old, he joined the United States Air Force. He was trained as a bomber pilot at March Field, near Riverside, California. While stationed there, Altman got a first look at Hollywood, the city that would play a significant role in his future. After his training was complete, Altman was stationed in Morotai, The Philippines, where he flew bombing missions in B-24s. He reached the rank of lieutenant before his discharge in 1947. After leaving the service, Altman returned home to his wife, La Vonne Elmer, a telephone operator in Kansas City, and their daughter, Christine.

Altman pursued a number of career avenues in Kansas City. He sold insurance for a short while, then studied engineering at the University of Missouri, Columbia, for three years. Altman started a dog tattooing business intended to provide an indelible identification of the animal's owner, but the enterprise eventually failed.

Altman visited his parents, who were then living in California, and met a screenwriter named George W. George. Together they wrote a story which was sold to RKO for a movie called The Bodyguard (1948). Altman also lived in New York City for a while, trying to find work as a writer of screenplays and stories, but was unsuccessful. Instead, his film career began in his hometown of Kansas City.

Altman talked his way into a directing job at the Calvin Company, which made industrial films in Kansas City. Five years at Calvin, taught Altman every aspect of the film-making process. In addition to directing, he also produced and wrote films, and acted as cinematographer, designer, and editor. His experience at Calvin led to work directing local commercials. Altman also wrote a country-and-western musical, Corn's-a-poppin', which was produced locally. At this time, Altman divorced his first wife, and married Lotus Corelli. Together they had two sons, Stephen and Michael. The marriage only lasted a few years, and the couple divorced in 1957. Within a short time, Altman married Kathryn Reed, a former showgirl and film extra, with whom he had two more sons, Robert and Matthew.

Made First Feature Film

In the mid-1950s, Altman was approached by the backer of Corn's-a-poppin', Elmer Rhoden, Jr., about making a feature film. The result was The Delinquent, a movie about juvenile delinquency which Altman wrote, produced, and directed. The Delinquent gave Altman his ticket to Hollywood. It was picked up by United Artists for $150,000, and released in 1955. The first piece that Altman wrote in Hollywood was a 1957 documentary about the recently deceased actor, James Dean. Altman co-produced and co-directed The James Dean Story with his old friend, George W. George. However, the film was a disaster, both artistically and at the box office.

The James Dean Story did catch the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who offered Altman a job directing episodes of his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Altman would spend the next eight years directing television, as well as some writing and producing. However, his time with Hitchcock was short: Altman was fired after only two episodes. It would not be the last time he was fired from television work because of his penchant for experimentation, including improvisation and, what would later become his trademark, overlapping dialogue. Altman continued to be hired because he was competent and completed his work on or under budget. In addition to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he directed episodes of The Whirly-birds, The Roaring Twenties, Combat, Maverick, and Bonanza.

Altman's work on television led to his return to film. "Nightmare in Chicago," a two-part episode of Kraft Mystery Theater, was made into a feature film. In 1963, Altman founded a film production company, Lion's Gate, with Ray Wagner. Two years later, he left television, not to return for two decades. While his company found its footing, Altman paid the bills by making commercials and short films. By 1968, he was directing features, making about a movie a year. The first was Countdown, which was released by Warner Bros. The documentary-like movie explored the politics of the American space program via two astronauts played by James Caan and Robert Duvall. Altman was angered that the film was re-edited before its release, but Countdown did garner some critical acclaim. His second film, Cold Day in the Park (1969), got a similar reaction.

M*A*S*H Cemented Reputation

In 1970, Altman produced his first critical and creative triumph, M*A*S*H. The black comedy-drama commented on the absurdities of the Vietnam War, though it was set during the Korean war. The film used many techniques that became hallmarks of Altman's style. They included overlapping dialogue, an episodic structure, and use of improvisation. M*A*S*H was nominated for six Academy Awards, and won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Though it was a box office success, Altman was only paid $75,000 and saw no money from the hit television series based on the film.

Altman's subsequent films were not as popular with audiences, but were critically and artistically important. He reworked several genres, making them realistic and character driven. The 1970 film Brewster McCloud was a fantasy focusing on a man who lives inside Houston's Astrodome and longs to fly inside it. In 1971, he made McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a so-called "anti-western." The unromantic movie made the previously heroic westerner type into an opportunistic capitalist. It also featured some of Altman's trademarks, including overlapping dialogue on the soundtrack. He took on the film noir genre with The Long Goodbye (1973), using the Raymond Chandler detective character, Phillip Marlowe. Altman's Marlowe was far from the hard-boiled detective. He was effete and unethical. In 1974's Thieves Like Us, a gangster movie set in the Depression era, Altman de-romanticized the outlaw heroes, like Bonnie and Clyde. As Altman grew as a director, he tended to use many of the same actors, actresses, and crew.

Directed Ambitious Nashville

In 1975, Altman produced what many deemed to be the best movie of the 1970s, Nashville. An ensemble piece with more than 20 major characters, Nashville focused on their actions during a weekend in that city. Altman used the business of country music, as well as politics, to satirically comment on contemporary American life via an intersecting set of stories. One element of Nashville that was consistently praised was Altman's use of music, which often underscored the action. An artistic triumph, Nashville was also a box office success.

Altman continued to churn out movies in the late 1970s, but none matched the success of M*A*S*H or Nashville. His follow-up was 1976's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, about Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Though the film starred Paul Newman, it was a flop and closed within two weeks of its release. Subsequent films also failed at the box office. A Wedding (1978), which featured 40 characters, was not successful. Altman continued to push the boundaries of genres with movies like Quintet (1979), a science fiction murder mystery, but it also did not catch on. With H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980), Altman used a format similar to Nashville,—all the action takes place at a health food convention, which he used to comment on modern day society. It too failed to attract much of an audience. Altman did not limit himself to directing. He also began producing at this time, beginning with Welcome to L.A., a film by protege, Alan Randolph.

Altman's career as a film director declined in 1980, after the release of Popeye. Though the film was a box office success, his reputation in Hollywood was ruined . Altman's live-action Popeye was dark, although it was a big budget film ($20 million) for Disney. While he never regarded Popeye as an artistic failure, many critics did. In 1981, Altman sold his production company, Lion's Gate, for $2.3 million. In the same year, he made his debut as a stage director with a production at Los Angeles' Actors Theatre. At the time he told Leticia Kent of The New York Times, "I haven't quit films, I'm merely taking a sabbatical and I'm doing something that I've wanted to do for years and years. I also believed that after two or three theater pieces, when I go to do a film I'll be better."

Throughout the 1980s, Altman used the stage as an artistic home base, directing many plays, then movies based on stage plays. For example, he directed the Broadway production of Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, then made a film of it. The film, which was critically lauded, was produced for only $800,000. Altman gave stage plays such as Sam Shepard's Fool for Love and Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy similar film treatments. He experimented with other genres as well. Altman directed his first opera at the University of Michigan. In the mid-1980s, he returned to television. While living in Paris, he directed The Laundromat (1985) for Canadian television. In 1988, he made the limited series, Tanner '88, an acclaimed pseudo-documentary on the presidential election, for Home Box Office (HBO).

Revitalized Directing Career

In the 1990s, Altman returned to form as a film director. While his 1990 offering, Vincent and Theo, was not considered typical Altman, he received much acclaim for his sensitive portrayal of the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. His next film, The Player reestablished his reputation in Hollywood. The movie, which focused on the dealings of Hollywood from an insider's point of view, was arguably Altman's most successful film. His next successful venture was 1994's Short Cuts, a film based on short stories by Raymond Carver. As with Nashville, Short Cuts featured a large cast and intertwined stories. Altman tried to do for the fashion world what he had done with Hollywood and Nashville in 1994's Ready to Wear, but the film was only a modest success.

Altman continued to look to his past for inspiration. In 1996, he made a gangster-jazz movie entitled Kansas City, set in the time of his youth. He also flirted with more mainstream fair. In the summer of 1997, Altman was the creative force behind Gun, a short-lived television anthology series whose main character was a firearm that was passed from story to story. He ended the decade with two non-traditional Altman films. The Gingerbread Man (1998) was based on a John Grisham script, while Cookie's Fortune io (1999) was a gently comic Southern drama. None of these films were big budget affairs, but they allowed Altman artistic freedom. As he told Sharon Waxman of The Washington Post, "There's not a filmmaker who's had a better shake than I have. In 30 years, every film I've made has been of my own choosing. I don't get rich, but I have a lot of fun."

Further Reading

Barson, Michael, The Illustrated Who's Who of Hollywood Directors: Volume 1: The Sound Era, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Cassell Companion to Cinema, Cassell, 1997.

Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Volume 1, edited by Richard Roud, The Viking Press, 1980.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-2: Directors, 3rd ed., edited by Laurie Collier Hillstrom, 1997.

Newsmakers: The People Behind Today's Headlines: 1993 Cumulation, edited by Louise Mooney, Gale Group, 1993.

Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

World Film Directors Volume 11: 1945-1985, edited by John Wakeman, H.W. Wilson, 1988.

Down Beat, March 1996, p. 22.

Film Comment, March-April 1994, p. 21; March-April 1994, p. 24.

The Guardian, August 17, 1999, p. 12.

The Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1990, p. 22.

The Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 26, 1992, p. 30.

Mediaweek, September 16, 1996, p. 13.

The New York Times, October 11, 1981, sec. 2, p. 3; July 20, 1993, p. C11.

People Weekly, March 28, 1994, p. 46.

Time, April 20, 1992, p. 78; April 14, 1997, p. 88.

USA Today, May 14, 1999, p. 8E.

The Washington Post, April 8, 1999, p. C1. □

Altman, Robert

views updated Jun 11 2018

Altman, Robert (1925– ) US film director. Altman gained an Oscar nomination for M*A*S*H (1970). A second nomination followed for Nashville (1975). The Player (1992) enhanced his iconoclastic reputation. Short Cuts (1993), an adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, earned him a third nomination. Other films include McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Kansas City (1996), and Gosford Park (2001).