November 22, 2006
Robert Altman, Director With Daring, Dies at 81
By RICK LYMAN
Robert Altman, one of the most adventurous and influential American directors of the late 20th century, a filmmaker whose iconoclastic career spanned more than five decades but whose stamp was felt most forcefully in one, the 1970s, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 81.
His death, at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, was caused by complications of cancer, his company in New York, Sandcastle 5 Productions, announced. A spokesman said Mr. Altman had learned that he had cancer 18 months ago but continued to work, shooting his final film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” which was released in June, and most recently completing pre-production on a new film that he intended to begin shooting in February.
Mr. Altman had a heart transplant in the mid-1990s, a fact he publicly revealed for the first time last March while accepting an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony.
A risk taker with a tendency toward mischief, Mr. Altman put together something of a late-career comeback capped in 2001 by “Gosford Park,” a multiple Oscar nominee. But he may be best remembered for a run of masterly films — six in five years — that propelled him to the forefront of American directors and culminated in 1975 with what many regard as his greatest film, “Nashville,” a complex, character-filled drama told against the backdrop of a presidential primary.
They were free-wheeling, genre-bending films that captured the jaded disillusionment of the ’70s. The best known was “MASH,” the 1970 comedy that was set in a field hospital during the Korean war but that was clearly aimed at antiwar sentiments engendered by Vietnam. Its success, both critically and at the box office, opened the way for Mr. Altman to pursue his ambitions.
In 1971 he took on the western, making “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. In 1972, he dramatized a woman’s psychological disintegration in “Images,” starring Susannah York. In 1973, he tackled the private-eye genre with a somewhat loopy adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” with the laid-back Elliott Gould playing Philip Marlowe as a ’70s retro-hipster. And in 1974 he released two films, exploring gambling addiction in “California Split” and riffing on the Dust Bowl gangster saga with “Thieves Like Us.”
Unlike most directors whose flames burned brightest in the early 1970s — and frequently flickered out — Mr. Altman did not come to Hollywood from critical journals and newfangled film schools. He had had a long career in industrial films and television. In an era that celebrated fresh voices steeped in film history — young directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese — Mr. Altman was like their bohemian uncle, matching the young rebels in their skeptical disdain for the staid conventions of mainstream filmmaking and the establishment that supported it.
Most of his actors adored him and praised his improvisational style. In his prime, he was celebrated for his ground-breaking use of multilayer soundtracks. An Altman film might offer a babble of voices competing for attention in crowded, smoky scenes. It was a kind of improvisation that offered a fresh verisimilitude to tired, stagey Hollywood genres.
But Mr. Altman was also famous in Hollywood for his battles with everyone from studio executives to his collaborators, leaving more burned bridges than the Luftwaffe. He also suffered through periods of bad reviews and empty seats but always seemed to regain his stride, as he did in the early ’90s, when he made “The Player” and “Short Cuts.” Even when he fell out of popular favor, however, many younger filmmakers continued to admire him as an uncompromising artist who held to his vision in the face of business pressures and who was unjustly overlooked by a film establishment grown fat on special effects and feel-good movies.
He was often referred to as a cult director, and it rankled him. “What is a cult?” Mr. Altman said. “It just means not enough people to make a minority.”
The storyline had to do with a group of boozy, oversexed Army doctors in a front-line hospital, specifically a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Fifteen directors had already turned the job down. But at 45, Mr. Altman signed on, and the movie, “MASH,” became his breakthrough.
Audiences particularly connected with the authority-bashing attitude of the film’s irreverent doctors, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Mr. Gould).
“The heroes are always on the side of decency and sanity; that’s why they’re contemptuous of the bureaucracy,” the critic Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker. “They are heroes because they are competent and sane and gallant, and in this insane situation their gallantry takes the form of scabrous comedy.”
The villains are not the Communist enemy but marble-hearted military bureaucrats personified by the pious Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and the hypocritical Hot Lips Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for best picture and one for Mr. Altman’s direction. It also won the Golden Palm, the top award at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, and the best picture of the year award of the National Society of Film Critics.
But “MASH” was denied the best-picture Oscar; that award went to “Patton.” In later years Mr. Altman received four more Academy Award nominations for best director and two for producing best-picture nominees, “Nashville” and “Gosford Park.” The only Oscar he received, however, was the honorary one in March.
Mr. Altman was angry that the lone Oscar given to “MASH” went to Ring Lardner Jr., who got sole screen credit for the script. Mr. Altman openly disparaged Mr. Lardner’s work, touching off one of his many feuds. Later, when Mr. Altman seemed unable to duplicate the mix of critical and box-office success that “MASH” had achieved, he grew almost disdainful of the film.
“ ‘MASH’ was a pretty good movie,” Mr. Altman said in an interview. “It wasn’t what 20th Century- Fox thought it was going to be. They almost, when they saw it, cut all the blood out. I fought with my life for that. The picture speaks for itself. It became popular because of the timing. Consequently, it’s considered important, but it’s no better or more important than any of the other films I’ve made.”
Mr. Altman’s interest in film genres was candidly subversive. He wanted to explode them to expose what he saw as their phoniness. He decided to make “McCabe & Mr. Miller” for just that reason. “I got interested in the project because I don’t like westerns,” Mr. Altman said. “So I pictured a story with every western cliché in it.”
His intention, he said, was to drain the glamour from the West and show it as it really was — filthy, vermin-infested, whisky-soaked and ruled by thugs with guns. His hero, McCabe (Mr. Beatty), was a dimwitted dreamer who let his cockiness and his love for a drug-addicted prostitute (Ms. Christie) undo him.
“These events took place,” Mr. Altman said, of westerns in general, “but not in the way you’ve been told. I wanted to look at it through a different window, you might say, but I still wanted to keep the poetry in the ballad.” “Nashville” interweaved the stories of 24 characters — country-western stars, housewives, boozers, political operators, oddball drifters — who move in and out of one another’s lives in the closing days of a fictional presidential primary. Mr. Altman returned to this multi-character approach several times (in “A Wedding,” “Health,” “Short Cuts,” “Prêt-à-Porter” and “Kansas City”), but never again to such devastating effect.
“Nashville is a radical, evolutionary leap,” Ms. Kael wrote in The New Yorker. “Altman has already accustomed us to actors who don’t look as if they’re acting; he’s attuned us to the comic subtleties of a multiple-track sound system that makes the sound more live than it ever was before; and he’s evolved an organic style of moviemaking that tells a story without the clanking of plot. Now he dissolves the frame, so that we feel the continuity between what’s on the screen and life off-camera.”
Mr. Altman’s career stalled after “Nashville,” although he continued to attract top actors. Paul Newman starred in “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” in 1976, Sissy Spacek in “3 Women” in 1977 and Mr. Newman again in “Quintet” in 1979. But critical opinion turned against Mr. Altman in the late ’70s, and his films fared worse and worse at the box office.
The crushing blow came in 1980, when Mr. Altman directed Robin Williams in a lavish musical based on the “Popeye” cartoon. Though it eventually achieved modest commercial success, the movie was considered a dud because it made less money than had been expected and drew almost universal scorn from the critics. Mr. Altman retained his critical champions, including Ms. Kael and Vincent Canby of The New York Times, who in 1982 called Mr. Altman one of “our greatest living directors.” But the tide had turned against him.
In “Fore My Eyes,” a 1980 collection of film essays, Stanley Kauffmann spoke for other critics when he derided what he saw as the director’s middle-brow pretensions. “He’s the film equivalent of the advertising-agency art director who haunts the galleries to keep his eye fresh,” he wrote.
If Mr. Altman never fully regained his critical pre-eminence, he came close, recapturing much of his luster in the final years of his life. And he always kept in the game.
He remade his career in the early ’80s with a string of films based on stage dramas: Ed Graczyk’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” in 1982, David Rabe’s “Streamers” in 1983 and Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in 1985. He also did some fresh work for television, a medium he had reviled when he left it two decades earlier.
In 1988, he directed a strong television adaptation of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” a stage play by Herman Wouk based on his novel “The Caine Mutiny.” The Altman version restored the class conflict and anti-Semitism that had been excised from the 1954 Hollywood treatment starring Humphrey Bogart.
The ’90s brought an even more satisfying resurgence for Mr. Altman. It began with a pair of critical film successes: “The Player,” an acerbic satire based on the Michael Tolkin novel about a ruthless Hollywood executive, and “Short Cuts,” an episodic, character-filled drama based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. The films earned him his third and fourth Oscar nominations for best director.
Then, in 2001, came “Gosford Park,” an elaborate murder mystery with an ensemble cast that capped his comeback.
Mr. Altman’s last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” based on Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show, was released in June and starred Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in another ensemble cast. Writing in The Times, A.O. Scott called the film a minor Altman work “but a treasure all the same.” “I seem to have become like one of those old standards, in musical terms,” Mr. Altman said in a 1993 interview. “Always around. Lauren Bacall said to me, ‘You just don’t quit, do you?’ Guess not.”
Son of a Salesman
Robert Bernard Altman was born on Feb. 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Mo., to Helen and B.C. Altman, a prosperous insurance salesman for the Kansas City Life Insurance Company. Mr. Altman’s grandfather, the developer Frank G. Altman, had built the Altman Building, a five-story retail mecca in downtown Kansas City. (It was razed in 1974.)
Young Robert attended Catholic schools and the Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., before enlisting in the Air Force in 1945. He eventually became a co-pilot on a B-24. It was during this period that he invented what he called “Identi-code,” a method for tattooing numbers on household pets to help identify them if they were lost or stolen; he even talked President Harry S. Truman into having one of his dogs tattooed.
After the Air Force, Mr. Altman went to work with the Calvin Company, a film company in Kansas City, making training films, advertisements and documentaries for industrial clients. In 1947 he married LaVonne Elmer, but they divorced two years later after they had a daughter, Christine. He married Lotus Corelli in 1950, and they divorced in 1955; they had two sons, Michael (who wrote lyrics to “Suicide Is Painless,” the “MASH” theme song, when he was just 14) and Stephen, a film production designer who frequently worked with his father.
Mr. Altman began to set his sights on Hollywood while still working in Kansas City. His first screen credit came for helping write “Bodyguard,” (1948) a B movie about a hard-boiled detective.
It was not until 1955 that he actually headed for Hollywood; he had gotten a call offering him a job directing an episode of the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
It was while on the set of the TV series “Whirlybirds” that Mr. Altman met his third wife, Kathryn Reed. They married in 1957 and had two sons, Robert and Matthew. Mr. Altman’s wife and children survive him, as does a stepdaughter, Connie Corriere, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Although Mr. Altman interrupted his early Kansas City work to crank out a teen exploitation movie called “The Delinquents” (1957), it was not until 1968 that he moved up to directing major actors in a Hollywood feature. The film, “Countdown,” starring James Caan and Robert Duvall, was a critically praised drama about the first flight to the moon. He followed that up in 1969 with “That Cold Day in the Park,” a psychological thriller starring Sandy Dennis as a woman driven mad by her sex urges.
In 1970, he made what is perhaps his strangest film, “Brewster McCloud,” about a nerdish youth who wanted to build his own flying machine and whiz around the Houston Astrodome.
Then came “MASH.”
In later years he gathered around him a company of favored performers, among them Mr. Gould, Lily Tomlin, Shelley Duvall, Bert Remsen and Keith Carradine. Many of his sets were celebrated for their party atmosphere, which often came through on the screen. He thought that creating a casual mood helped him expand the boundaries of filmmaking.
To achieve his vision, Mr. Altman was willing to battle studio executives over the financing of his films and ultimate creative control.
“Robert Altman is an artist and a gambler,” his longtime assistant director, Alan Rudolph, wrote in a 1994 tribute in Film Comment. “Pursuing artistic vision on film in America can sometimes put everything you own at risk.”
When a studio refused to distribute Mr. Rudolph’s first film, “Welcome to L.A.,” Mr. Altman responded by forming his own independent distribution company, Lion’s Gate, for the sole purpose of releasing the film. It was a harbinger of the independent film companies of the ’80s and ’90s.
“There’s a big resistance to me,” Mr. Altman told The Washington Post in 1990. “They say, ‘Oh, he’s going to double-cross us somewhere.’ When I explain what I want to do, they can’t see it, because I’m trying to deliver something that they haven’t seen before. And they don’t realize that that’s the very reason they should buy it.”
Mr. Altman acknowledged that his career had suffered as a consequence of his own behavior — his hard drinking, procrastination and irascibility, his problem with authority. He also had a long history of bitter relations with screenwriters. Many complained that he injected himself into the rewriting process and took credit for work he did not do.
But many actors said they loved working with Mr. Altman because of the leeway he gave them in interpreting the script and in improvising in their scenes. “For somebody like me who likes to hang out with my pals and goof off and take the path of least resistance,” Sally Kellerman said, “he’s wonderful that way.”
Mr. Altman said giving actors freedom could draw things out of them that they did not know were there. “I look for actors where there’s something going on there, behind that mask,” Mr. Altman said. “Tim Robbins fascinated me. This John Cusack guy: I always see something going on in there and I don’t know what it is.”
He never mellowed in his view of the movie business.
“The people who get into this business are fast-buck operators, carnival people, always have been,” Mr. Altman said in a 1993 interview. “They don’t try to make good movies now; they’re trying to make successful movies. The marketing people run it now. You don’t really see too many smart people running the studios, running the video companies. They’re all making big money, but they’re not looking for, they don’t have a vested interest in, the shelf life of a movie. There’s no overview. No one says, ‘Forty years from now, who’s going to want to see this.’ No visionaries.”
Independent spirit of US cinema
Wednesday November 22, 2006
Robert Altman is the only truly independent American movie director who had a sustained career - 40 years, nearly. Griffith and Preston Sturges managed it for about 10 years. Orson Welles for less, and intermittently.
There are other great names - Hawks, Wilder, Lubitsch, Ford - but they made mainstream pictures, according to industry dreams and audience expectations. But as someone who had begun in Kansas City making industrial training films, and who had done a lot of TV on murderous schedules and budgets, Altman knew that Hollywood's system was corrupt, pretentious and stupid.
So he tried to make Altman films. He took studio money sometimes, but he seldom countenanced interference, and he had the nerve to charm the suits, the Griffin Dunnes, into thinking how lucky they were to be making another Altman "failure". Of all his pictures, M.A.S.H. was the biggest box-office success, after which he never gave any hint about that great, gulping audience that showed itself ready to swallow worse and worse rubbish. He made his films and reckoned that if he was on, there were a few million Americans ready for them. If you're a novelist, a few million readers is glory.
In his early years, he did a series of pictures that took old Hollywood conventions and threw them in a bath of acid: M.A.S.H. was a war film in which the doctors talked about screwing the nurses and getting an afternoon tee-time instead of Duty or Being a Marine; McCabe and Mrs Miller was a Western - with the West turning into business before your very eyes - in which the legendary candle light of loner operators was snuffed out; and in The Long Goodbye, there was Elliott Gould claiming to be Philip Marlowe (Bogart territory) but hardly able to feed his cat.
Then came Nashville, the first of the great panorama movies in America which asked, with all these demented storylines driven by self-interest, can the country survive? By the time of Nashville, it was easier to see that Altman didn't actually like his characters too much. The lesson of Nashville is a version of Jean Renoir's famous credo "everyone has his or her reasons".
That means a kind of madness or chaos, and it hardly leads a director to trust his characters. So the most independent thing about Altman was that he made films about people, but warned us - don't fall for these people, they're not like the characters in the golden age movies. The world has moved on.
And it's a big adjustment. We take it for granted that a novelist hardly needs us to "like" the characters. But in the movies, with looks, charm and stardom at issue, that's a greater test.
Film world's farewell to the veteran who broke the rules
Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
Wednesday November 22, 2006
The great film director Robert Altman once summed up his career: "To me," he said, "I've just made one long film."
On Monday evening that film came to an end when Altman died at the age of 81 in a Los Angeles hospital.
The cause of death remained unknown, although Altman had been in and out of hospital in recent months. Earlier this year he surprised even his closest friends when he revealed that he had received a heart transplant.
Accepting an honorary Oscar at this year's ceremony, he said that he had been given the heart of a young woman a decade ago. "I've always thought this type of award meant it was over," he told the audience at the ceremony. "I think I've got 40 years left on it."
Kevin Spacey, artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London, where Altman directed a critically mauled production of Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues earlier this year, said: "Robert Altman was a truly unique director and an extraordinary man and we were privileged to work with him at the Old Vic. We are all saddened by this news and send our condolences to his wife, Kathryn, and family." Garrison Keillor, the author who appeared in Altman's final film, Prairie Home Companion, said in a statement: "Mr Altman loved making movies. He loved the chaos of shooting and the sociability of the crew and actors. He didn't care for the money end of things ... when working, he was in heaven."
The actor Elliott Gould, who appeared in two of Altman's greatest films, M.A.S.H. and The Long Goodbye, also paid tribute: "He was the last great American director in the tradition of John Ford. He was my friend and I'll always be grateful to him for the experience and opportunities he gave me."
This year's lifetime achievement Oscar was a rare moment of reconciliation between the Hollywood establishment and the director who had done more than any other to buck the studio system.
"The Oscar was very belated," said Peter Rainer, film critic with the Christian Science Monitor, who interviewed the director shortly before the Oscar ceremony. "He held his tongue at the Oscars. He was never really accepted by Hollywood because he was someone who could do without the studios."
Paradoxically, one of his greatest commercial successes, in a career that produced few hits, was The Player, his portrait of the vagaries and vanities of the Hollywood system that was a love letter and indictment of the studios. The Player was emblematic of the Altman approach, a style which was often been imitated but rarely matched: he used long-sweeping tracking shots, a large, ensemble cast and overlapping, naturalistic dialogue.
Altman's biggest box office success was M.A.S.H., the portrait of an army field hospital that was released in 1970 at the height of US involvement in Vietnam. Altman got the job directing the film after 15 other directors had turned it down. The studio behind the anti-war satire, however, insisted that he insert a disclaimer at the beginning of the film to identify the location as Korea.
Although the film spawned a hit TV series - which Altman loathed - he received no residuals for the film and made little money from it. But it was the breakthrough that provided a template for Altman's use of his films to address the condition of American society.
"Altman was the most American of directors ... because he seemed to express what was roiling the country and the sense of loss you have," said Rainer.
After M.A.S.H., the following year Altman recast the western with the elegiac McCabe and Mrs Miller. In 1973 he put a contemporary spin on another part of movie lore, the noir, with his rendering of the Raymond Chandler story The Long Goodbye. Two years later he addressed another element of American culture, country music, in Nashville.
Altman ensured his survival in a career as a film director that spanned 49 years by making overlapping films. Before one film was finished, he had already started work on the next. He also insisted on retaining final cut on all his films. Almost uniquely, he succeeded.
Born in Kansas City in 1925, Altman started his career making industrial films after serving in the second world war in the US air force. He then progressed to television, spending a decade making humdrum programmes with titles such as Whirlybirds. He also directed episodes of the western series Bonanza, and was hired by Alfred Hitchcock to direct episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. At 44, after making several unsuccessful films, he broke through with M.A.S.H. His technique earned the adoration of actors, whose decisions to waive their normal fees to work with him enabled Altman to make many of his films.
At this year's Oscar ceremony he was introduced by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who presented the award to him in a spoof of Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue. Both actors appear in Prairie Home Companion.