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The Gambler

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

by Mitchell Zuckoff
Knopf, 560 pp., $35.00
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Warner Bros./Photofest
Robert Altman directing McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

I love him,” says Julianne Moore. “And he means more than anything to me.” Keith Carradine speaks of a lifelong “love affair with Robert Altman,” while Tom Skerritt “just loved the guy from the first.” “You’d always love him,” says Geraldine Chaplin; “You’ve got to love him,” adds Mark Rydell. “I loved Bob and…I’d do anything for Bob,” says Sally Kellerman, and it’s true: for Brewster McCloud, he filmed her prancing naked in a public fountain in Houston during the morning commute.

Actors may have swooned over Robert Altman, but his producers, for whom he lost vast amounts of money during his fifty-year filmmaking career, were less enchanted. “Bob called me ‘the Jew with the money,’” says Peter Newman, who produced O.C. and Stiggs, the least-celebrated bomb of Altman’s career. “He wished me dead,” says David Picker, a former head of Paramount. “I had a gall-bladder operation…. It wasn’t something I took lightly.” Altman was sued for slander after telling a newspaper reporter that the Dutch producer of Vincent & Theo was “a thief, liar and pimp” whom he hoped “would get cancer and die.” And woe to any studio executive who got too close to the lion’s cage. Lily Tomlin remembers a Columbia Pictures representative asking Altman to trim six minutes from California Split. Altman socked him, and the man splashed into a swimming pool.

The Hollywood outcast, in complete control of his art, fending off the pinstriped gorillas who would sacrifice artistic vision for commercial gain—this has long been Altman’s reputation. But the portrait of the man that emerges in Mitchell Zuckoff’s oral biography is often at odds with this legend of the aggrieved auteur. Altman, it quickly becomes clear, understood the value of myth. And like all great Hollywood directors, he knew how to exploit it.

Hucksterism was in his genes. The Altmans were a rich, prominent Kansas City clan of German Catholic descent; when Altman was a child there was even an Altman Building downtown, built by his grandfather, with its own movie theater. But Altman’s father, Bernard Clement, known as B.C., was the family scallywag: a gambler, womanizer, natty dresser, get-rich-quick entrepreneur, and small-time con man; the “salesman of the world,” as one of Altman’s cousins puts it. He made a living selling life insurance, often to men he chatted up at his country club, at bars, even in hospital waiting rooms while they waited for their wives to give birth.

B.C.’s eldest child and only son was born in 1925. The resemblance was clear from the start. At Catholic school, where Bob was a poor student, he put snakes in girls’ lockers and the eighty-year-old Sister Hildegard would chase him around the classroom with a stick. In high school he took courses in rhetoric, salesmanship, and weather. He drank heavily, gambled, and talked his way out of speeding tickets. He dated every blond in his high school and before long he was competing with his father for the same women. As soon as possible he got out of Kansas City, enlisting in the Air Force in 1943; he flew a B-24 Liberator bomber and survived more than one crash. Garrison Keillor, in a memorial speech for Altman, noted that any crewman who flew more than thirty missions in the war had only a 30 percent chance of coming back alive. Altman flew nearly fifty. After that, asked Keillor, “What’s the worst they can do to you in the movie business?”

Altman soon found out. M*ASH, his burlesque war comedy, is the film that established him as a director, but he was forty-four years old by the time he made it. In the decade after his military discharge he moved to Hollywood three times, and each time struggled to find work. Between trips he returned to Kansas City, where he worked in the Altman Building, shooting industrial films and directing local theater. In 1956 a young Kansas City businessman approached Altman with the idea of making a movie about teenage gangs. Altman accepted the man’s money and in three days wrote a script for an exploitation flick called The Delinquents. Alfred Hitchcock liked it enough to offer him jobs on two of his television series, and Altman moved back west.

For the next fifteen years, Altman excelled in television; his producers on both Bonanza and Combat! call him the best director they’d ever had. But studios were reluctant to hire him for film. For this he blamed his rebellious reputation, earned not just from his antagonistic relationships with his superiors, but from his iconoclastic ideas about technique—he cast stars against type, diverged from his scripts, and portrayed violence so graphically that in a congressional hearing on juvenile delinquency, Senator Thomas Dodd used Altman’s work as an example of television’s subversive influence.

In 1968, when he was finally given a studio directing job—Countdown, about a space mission to the moon, starring James Caan and Robert Duvall—he was fired before the film was finished. Jack Warner, having seen the dailies, was enraged that Altman had directed the actors to speak over each other’s lines, obscuring whole stretches of dialogue. When Altman showed up at the Warner lot the next day, a guard at the front gate was waiting for him with a cardboard box containing his personal belongings.

He was hired for M*ASH only after fifteen other directors—including Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, George Roy Hill, and William Friedkin—had declined; a Fox executive even tried to remove Altman before filming began, warning the producer, “You’re making a deal with trouble!” A comedy about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, M*ASH is a sardonic, cynical take on the horrors of war, with Korea standing in place of Vietnam. But Altman shot his war picture without the war—that is, without battle scenes. The MASH unit is three miles from the fighting, and the doctors are far more interested in hijinks—tormenting the uptight Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan or anesthetizing their commander and photographing him in bed with an Asian hooker—than, say, the Inchon invasion. The war enters the film only through the wounded, usually unconscious soldiers who are operated on by the unit’s surgeons in scenes that are both strikingly casual and, for their time, unprecedentedly gory. As Altman’s agent George Litto says, “It was the first time you saw guys during an operation covered with blood saying, ‘Nurse, get your tits out of the way.’”

M*ASH and the ten films that followed represent the purest expression of Altman’s style, the most unrestrained application of the techniques he had honed in television but until then had not been able to let loose. This was made possible not just by M*ASH ‘s enormous success—it grossed more than ten times its $3.5 million budget and earned five Academy Award nominations, including Best Director—but by the fact that Hollywood had entered an era in which directors enjoyed more power and freedom than ever before. Rapturous reviews by the influential critic Pauline Kael, who became close friends with Altman and his wife, did not hurt. And during production Altman was savvy in limiting his studio’s involvement—shooting his films on location, for instance, not so much for verisimilitude as to keep far away from his bosses. As a result of all this, Altman in the 1970s enjoyed a degree of independence and control that is almost unique in the history of the American film industry.

There is a nimble, acrobatic quality to these films, evident in the way Altman glides between numerous characters, plots, and images, often in a single scene. The apotheosis of this approach is Nashville, from 1975, with its twenty-four characters—celebrity musicians and aspiring musicians, political hacks and music industry hacks, a British television reporter and a lone assassin—who converge in America’s country-and-western capital. In an early scene a pile-up on the freeway brings traffic to a stop and hundreds of people file out of their cars, enacting a ballet of physical comedy reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films: a swap meet and a Frisbee game and a keg party break out, a gasket blows, a man sells ice cream out of his truck, and people climb on top of cars, vans, and highway barricades, arguing and embracing, while a presidential candidate recites a campaign speech over a loudspeaker. As Altman moves through the scene he picks up scraps of dialogue, short exchanges that introduce many of the film’s characters. For the most part he maintains this approach throughout the film, using large group scenes, staged at musical performances, political rallies, and busy hospital corridors, to bring his characters together. Nashville always feels poised on the brink of chaos, and it balances there until the final minutes, when an assassin’s bullet sends it over the edge.

The films have the clamorous energy and showmanship of a traveling circus. This is especially true of Brewster McCloud, Nashville, and even the atypically dull Buffalo Bill and the Indians, all of which end with staged pageants of one form or another. But beneath this mania and whimsy lurks a deeper despair. In the underrated Brewster McCloud (still awaiting its DVD release), the film that followed M*ASH, a boy’s obsessive desire to fly is thwarted when his mechanical wings fail him and he crashes to the ground. California Split is a gambling fairy tale about two hapless, quixotic gamblers to whom the unexpected happens—down to their last dollar, they actually win, and keep winning. Only when their dreams are fulfilled to an obscene degree do they come face to face with the overwhelming desolation of their lives. 3 Women, a loopy, nightmarish rumination on identity confusion, in which Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) assumes the personality of Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), ends with the characters having lost all sense of themselves, spirits without souls.

Yet in ways both subtle and intrusive, Altman is constantly asserting his presence. This is most conspicuous in his use of the camera, particularly the zoom lens. Though the zoom was then, as now, widely disdained by cineastes for its inherent artificiality—the human eye cannot, after all, zoom—Altman made it his defining visual characteristic. Sometimes he uses it to assume a certain character’s perspective, as in the first encounter between Millie and Pinky in 3 Women. The women are chatting in a swimming pool, Pinky cocks her head to one side, and the camera zooms across the length of the pool, where two identical blond girls are eerily staring at her—and at the camera. (“What’s a matter,” says Millie, “haven’t you ever seen twins before?”)

Altman also uses the zoom to the opposite effect, as a form of dramatic irony, drawing the viewer’s attention to some detail that a character has missed. But the motion of the camera is not limited to the zoom. In large scenes Altman bounces between conversations, but also away from conversations, sometimes until the speakers are themselves offscreen. One is always aware of his restless eye, forever searching and never staying put in one place for long.

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USA Films/Photofest
Gosford Park (2001), with, from left to right, Natasha Wightman, Tom Hollander, Claudie Blakley, Michael Gambon, Geraldine Somerville, and Kristin Scott Thomas

Altman’s use of sound was even more dexterous. He refused to redo dialogue in the studio, preferring live sound, even when actors muffed their lines; he made obsessive use of ambient noise; he had every actor wear a personal microphone so that he could, in editing, modulate the levels of each individual voice; he even invented the first eight-track sound mixer: “I wanted to force the audience into a situation where…they wouldn’t necessarily hear everything that was said.” The experience of watching his films is not unlike being in a crowded bar, when your ear catches the most salient phrases while ignoring the rest. But if you pay attention you can always tell when Altman is turning his knobs, selecting which voice should dominate and which should fade out. Though the effect seems naturalistic, it is the result of artful contrivance.

The deepest contradiction with Altman lies in this disparity between the spontaneous, anarchic feel of his films and the rigorous planning that produced them. It’s certainly true that he encouraged improvisation on set, and had a genius for seizing on fortuitous accidents. The best example may be the dazzling conclusion of the western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, in which McCabe (Warren Beatty) is pursued in a heavy snowstorm by a hired gunman. The script had not called for snow, and the crew, including Beatty, was more than happy to wait for the weather to pass, but Altman insisted on filming. In the process he rewrote the film’s ending, so that McCabe, instead of simply being shot dead, freezes to death—a haunting, entrancing allegory for the slow death of the frontier dream.

It’s also true that he gave his actors little by way of specific advice (“I don’t direct my actors”) and encouraged them to diverge freely from the script. (Altman’s screenwriters, incidentally, are about as fond of him as his producers.) He made his actors feel like equal collaborators in the filmmaking process; in interviews he called them his “artists.” Yet many speakers in the biography suggest that this was a pose. “Bob’s great facility as a director is he would get the actors to do the things he wanted them to do, but they thought they came up with the idea themselves,” says the producer of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. “He made actors believe that they were doing something for him that they couldn’t do anywhere else,” says the writer Buck Henry. “I’m not sure that was true—but the belief was true. An Altman set was different because everyone felt they were collaborating—of course they weren’t.” These comments, and several others that echo them, are more convincing than Geraldine Chaplin’s memory of meeting Altman on the set of Nashville : “He said, ‘Have you brought your scripts?’ We said yes. He said, ‘Well, throw them away. You don’t need them.’” It doesn’t ultimately matter. Whatever kind of sorcery he used, it worked. As Chaplin says, “All the circus acts you had inside your body you’d do just for him.”

To Zuckoff’s credit, he doesn’t try to resolve the many contradictions surrounding Altman’s life and work, but lets them stand awkwardly beside one another for the reader to sort out. Robert Altman was conceived as a memoir, with Zuckoff as ghostwriter, but Altman died in 2006, shortly after signing the contract. The book might be better for it. As a form the oral biography is well suited to a director who loved the sound of noisy conversation. It also allows for discussion of personal details that Altman might have preferred to pass over. Particularly upsetting are the accounts of his distant relationships with his four sons, which he only sought to repair very late in life. “We weren’t his priority,” says Stephen Altman, who worked as a production designer on his father’s films:

His priority was himself and his job. At one point, I think I was around ten, though maybe I was a little older, he had everybody sit down in his Malibu mansion, the movie-star house, and told us all that if it ever came down to it and he had to choose between all of us and his work, he’d dump us in a second. We were like, “Oh, okay.” And we went back to playing.

In light of comments like this by Stephen and his brothers, it’s hard not to wince during the many passages in which actors praise Altman for creating, on his film sets, a “family-like” atmosphere.

Altman’s on-set families dwindled after Popeye, his goofy if sporadically charming 1980 adaptation of E.C. Segar’s comic strip. It was seen at the time as Altman’s Heaven’s Gate, a big-budget, career-ending whopper—Paramount executives called it “Evansgate” after the film’s producer, Robert Evans—and Altman would never make another major studio film. The irony, not lost on Altman, was that this bomb that pitched him into the abyss earned a profit of $40 million, making it the second-biggest hit of his career.

His budgets and cast sizes decreased dramatically in the next decade, and his boozing and gambling increased, but his professional stamina never wavered. Though he left L.A., selling his studio and his house in Malibu, he continued to make a picture every year, many of them adaptations of plays, and all of them unprofitable. Has there ever been another director who failed at the box office so often, and so regularly? Most Hollywood directors don’t survive one flop, let alone twenty-five. But Altman the gambler, the schemer, kept finding ways to make films.

A fascinating distillation of Altman’s style can be seen in Secret Honor, his 1984 adaptation of a one-man play about Richard Nixon. Altman, in severe financial difficulty at the time, had accepted a film professorship at the University of Michigan. Down to a cast of one, and forced to finance the film out of his own pocket, he transformed a college dormitory into Nixon’s study and shot the film in seven days, with graduate students serving as his crew, and a score performed by the student orchestra. Philip Baker Hall’s Nixon is an astonishing portrait of paranoia and bravado, qualities enhanced by Hall’s unusual recitation of the script. He digresses, trails off in the middle of sentences, interrupts himself, talks about two different subjects almost simultaneously; he manages, in other words, to recreate the effects of Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue—as a monologue.

Despite Altman’s statements to the contrary (“I find there’s nothing for me to do in America because of the kind of films they make there”), it seems he always wanted to return to Hollywood. “He was always fighting with the studios but he sought acceptance,” says the composer John Williams. “He sought praise of the establishment in his own way as hard or harder than other people did. He craved the approval of the people out here.” The set designer Wolf Kroeger says, “If anyone was Hollywood it was him. The real Hollywood. He wanted to be a famous film director…. And by being difficult he got a lot of fame out of it, too.”

Altman got back to Hollywood—and at Hollywood—with The Player, a black farce about the film industry. According to the producer, Altman begged for the project: “You own a property I was born to direct.” (In Altman on Altman, a series of interviews conducted late in his life, he proudly claims otherwise: “I was offered The Player, which was really a dreadful script. I didn’t want to do it particularly, but I said, ‘OK.’”) Immediately he realized that he could use his high standing with actors to convince them to appear in cameo roles, and they did: more than sixty of them. The plot of the film—a studio executive kills a writer—often seems incidental, a slack clothesline on which to hang a series of insider jokes about the film industry and constant shoulder-rubbing with the era’s movie stars. This kind of referential humor soon becomes tedious, especially almost twenty years later: a passing glimpse of actors like Martin Mull, Ray Walston, and Marlee Matlin is hardly tantalizing in 2010 (though perhaps it wasn’t in 1992 either). And in his attack on the industry, Altman pulls his punches.”The Player is a very, very soft indictment,” he admitted. “Hollywood is much crueler and uglier and more calculating than you see in the film.”

But The Player provided a prototype for the films Altman would make for the rest of his life: episodic films with large casts that were almost documentarian in style, a day (or year) in the life of a large, diverse community: racially divided Kansas City in 1934 (Kansas City), racially divided small-town Mississippi in the present day (Cookie’s Fortune), the fashion industry (Prêt-à-Porter), the Joffrey Ballet (The Company). Critics liked to compare many of Altman’s later films, because of their large casts and their use of a single geographical setting, to Nashville. But Altman had largely abandoned the style of filmmaking he had invented in the 1970s—the sense of a barely restrained chaos, the digressive lunacy, the artful merging of dozens of voices into a single harmony.

His camera no longer had a mind of its own; it became predictable and often stationary. Characters don’t speak over each other’s lines, but politely wait their turn. There is still plenty of chatter but it is safe, indistinct noise that remains in the background. And he replaced his oddballs and eccentrics with movie stars. “I used recognizable artists for all the characters so that the audience would remember who they were,” Altman said of Short Cuts, a justification he repeated in reference to Gosford Park, though the sentiment is hardly convincing since he had used few stars in M*ASH, Nashville, or A Wedding, with its forty-eight principal characters. Having returned to Hollywood, he was determined to stay for good.

Altman in his last decade was no longer the same filmmaker who gave a boy mechanical bird wings or staged the political assassination of a country-and-western singer or cast a shirking, mumbling Elliott Gould in the role of Philip Marlowe. But some of his late films demonstrate a depth of emotion that surpasses his earlier films, which often ended with his characters numbed by trauma or blissfully immune to it. There is nothing in those films like the scene in Short Cuts where a wife learns that her husband, unwilling to leave a fishing trip prematurely, waited three days before reporting his discovery of a woman’s corpse in a river; or the final twenty minutes of Gosford Park, in which the lives of aristocrats and their servants, cooped up together for four days in 1932 at an English manor, converge in a powerful emotional crescendo. Altman the gambler may have lowered his bets, but he never left the table.

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