A Player Once Again

journalism

TIME – April 20, 1992

A Player Once Again

 With a new movie as witty and thrilling as M*A*S*H and Nashville, director Robert Altman makes a provocative comeback

EVERYBODY HAS HIS PROFESSIONAL UPS and downs, and the ups and downs in show business tend to be extreme. But even by the standards of the movie industry, Robert Altman’s ups and downs have been both numerous and extravagant. After making his first feature at 30, Altman slid back into yeoman Hollywood anonymity for a decade, directing episodic TV. Then in 1970 there was M *A *S *H, a commercial blockbuster and generational lodestar. Within a year came the dense, dreamy, elegiac western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, then other sly, quirky dramas (The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split) at a rate of almost one a year — leading up to Nashville, perhaps the best American movie of the 1970s and among the most influential.

Then, as if ordained by some law of pop thermodynamics, came a very long rough patch: beginning with Buffalo Bill in 1976, Altman movie after Altman movie failed at the box office and displeased the tastemaking establishment. The director even tried his hand at an expensive high-concept movie — the $22 million Popeye, starring Robin Williams — and it seemed only to certify his career death. During the ’80s Altman lived mainly in Paris, returning to the States to direct small movies (Streamers, Beyond Therapy) that did little to rekindle the passion of his erstwhile devotees. Not many people saw Tanner ’88, Altman and Garry Trudeau’s highly original cinema verite series for HBO about the 1988 presidential campaign, but it did get the cultural mandarins buzzing positively again.>

So now comes The Player, a dark comedy with heart, a movie about the movie business as thrilling as M *A *S *H, already as beloved by the screening-room cognoscenti as Nashville. Altman agrees with a chuckle that it probably represents his third comeback, and at 67 he is wise enough to know that a fourth or fifth may lie ahead. “Talk to me after my next movie,” he says, half-assuming that this latest up means, in short order, the inevitable down. He smiles and gives a que sera shrug.

Of course, equanimity comes easier when you’re riding a wave of praise like that The Player is provoking. Even jaded actors feel privileged to be part of the film. Cast members Peter Gallagher, Fred Ward, Malcolm McDowell and Whoopi Goldberg saw The Player together at a private screening. After the final credit roll, Gallagher recalls, “we were sitting with our heads down, looking at our feet and just kind of saying, ‘It’s so cool to be involved with this movie.’ ” Yet the huzzahs worry Altman a bit — he remembers that Nashville “got overhyped by the press.” And the gush that greeted M *A *S *H and Nashville, he says, was “nothing like the response to this. This is just . . . weird. I’ve already got more mail than I had total on all the other films I’ve ever made.” Surely he’s heard some quibbles, some intelligent criticism? “No. Or unintelligent.”

The Player is both very good and a quintessential Altman movie — meaning smart, hip, satirical, charming, ironic but not callow, rich with telling offhand incident. “What’s unique about The Player,” says Trudeau, “is that he brings all this signature observational detail to a picture that Hollywood completely understands. In many ways it’s a very traditional Hollywood movie, but he’s given up nothing. That’s why people are so astonished.” It is, in a word, crypto-conventional, self-consciously including all the obligatory elements of commercial moviemaking — stars, violence, unclothed women, lockstep plotting — but messing with them. The really big stars parody themselves; the sex is not very sexy.

The film’s clean, hard edge and people-playing-themselves verisimilitude come, Altman says, from his collaboration with Trudeau. Without Tanner, Altman says, “I don’t think I could have made this film.” It probably also helped that he stopped drinking, though Altman bridles at the suggestion. “I stopped drinking for health reasons. I’ve never jeopardized anything by either the drinking or the gambling” — he plays poker, backgammon and the horses — “or the pot smoking. I do smoke pot. I sit on the front porch like a grandpa and try to enjoy the weather.”

The reflexive knock against The Player is that its satire is too inside. In the opening scene, for instance, the studio executive played by Tim Robbins sits listening to a series of real-life screenwriters pitching plausibly dopey movie ideas — among them Buck Henry, who co-wrote The Graduate, proposing a ridiculous Graduate sequel. Michael Tolkin, who wrote the screenplay and the 1988 novel on which The Player is based, also appears in the film as a screenwriter. But all the in-jokes are a secondary pleasure, not the essence. Even if you don’t know what turnaround means, The Player is a satisfying thriller — and besides, after reading magazines like Vanity Fair and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and watching shows like Entertainment Tonight, ordinary moviegoers are surprisingly fluent in the nuts and bolts of show business. Indeed, ET’s Leeza Gibbons appears in The Player as her chirpy self, delivering lines written at Altman’s behest by a real ET writer. “Why should I try to imitate somebody who does that?” explains the director. “I mean, he writes it as bad as it’s going to be written.”

The movie makes knowing fun of all sorts of Hollywood types, but the satire never seems heartless. “Everything that’s in there that’s mean is about me,” Altman says. “I mean, I talk like those guys. I get on the phone and I make those pitches the same way. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve said ((about a proposed film)), ‘Well, it’s kind of like Nashville, it’s a Nashville kind of structure.’ The film does not escape its own satire. We didn’t let anybody off the hook.”

Indeed not. As casting began, Altman knew he needed someone to play a movie star playing a smirky action-adventure hero, somebody else to play a movie star playing a humorless ingenue — a Bruce Willis type and, say, a Julia Roberts type. He asked Willis and Roberts. “They were the first people we chose. I was going to start going from there — I never dreamed we’d get both of them.” He also got Burt Reynolds, Jack Lemmon, Rod Steiger, Cher and a horde of other six- and seven-figure actors to play themselves for a few hundred dollars apiece. “None of them were paranoid,” Altman says. “None of them came wanting to read the script, none of them.”

None of them read the script?

“No — none of them. I’d say, ‘I’m doing this film about a studio executive who murders a writer.’ And they’d laugh and say, ‘O.K.’ “

The fondness of actors for Altman is legendary. Unlike directors who treat performers like two-year-olds — bothersome, silly, not entirely rational — Altman genuinely encourages them to help invent the film, not just do as he says. “I collaborate with everybody,” Altman says, “but mostly the actors. You could point out any really good thing that happened in any of my films ((and ask)), ‘Whose idea is that?’ ((and)) it is almost invariably somebody else’s. And I don’t even know whose.”

Of course, writers tend not to share Altman’s easy, fungible attitude toward dialogue. And as in almost all things, he remains blithely impolitic in his regard for the screenwriting craft. “I get a lot of flack from writers. But I don’t think screenplay writing is the same as writing — I mean, I think it’s blueprinting.” On Tanner, fortunately, because the story zigged and zagged according to actual events and incorporated real political figures, the writing was necessarily quick, sketchy, Altmanesque. “What Bob makes is a kind of visual jazz,” says Trudeau, “and I thought of myself as providing scat lyrics for him. They were always just a departure point.”

Altman may be a genius, but linear analytical rigor is not his thing. He lives and works amid a genial hurly-burly, with room for all kinds of stray inspirations and serendipitous touches to worm their way into his movies. What Altman pursues is not looseness for its own sake, but surprise — both for himself and for moviegoers: he didn’t know beforehand the tics and shadings performers like Lyle Lovett and Whoopi Goldberg (who play police officers) would bring to their characters, for instance, and the movie-within-a-movie surprise he gives the audience near the end of The Player is profoundly pleasurable.

When it works, his seat-of-the-pants filmmaking is grand. Yet it carries great risks. As disciplined and carefully plotted as The Player is, it’s still an Altman movie. The end of the movie seems a bit contrived, he is told, not quite consistent tonally with the rest of the film — and he freely admits, “We had no ending to the picture when we went into it. We had no way to end it that anybody liked.”

While Altman is a big-hearted, risk-taking, pot-smoking, actor-loving paterfamilias (he has five children by three wives, including two by Kathryn Altman, whom he married 32 years ago), he is not always Mr. Mellow. When he thinks a crew member has screwed up or an executive has done him wrong, his anger can be ferocious. Volcanic is the word that two former colleagues use to describe his temper. “It’s something to behold,” says Trudeau.

Given that he depends on the Hollywood establishment to help make and sell his movies, his undisguised contempt for certain Hollywood big shots is also something to behold. Earlier this year, when The Player was being shown to prospective distributors, Altman got in a public spat with two top studio executives over what he considered their disrespectful attitude. Ask Altman innocently about his 1985 movie that Sam Shepard wrote and starred in, and he cannot stop himself. “Fool for Love . . . I mean, I can’t abide Sam Shepard.” As an actor? “As a person. I just had it up to here with him. But I think that’s a really good film — a really good film.”

Altman says that beginning last winter, “about the time all the studios saw ((The Player)),” he started being courted by the unlikeliest of people. “Even Disney wants to do something with me,” he marvels. Of course, being Robert Altman, he only wants to make the not-obviously-commercial films that interest him. For most of the past decade, he tried and failed to develop a script about the Paris haute couture scene, and now “I’ll probably get it done next year — I imagine directly as a result of the heat on The Player.” He is negotiating a development deal for a movie about Mata Hari, and he also wants to film the life of Jean Seberg. L.A. Shortcuts, a script he co-wrote from a set of Raymond Carver short stories, seems to be the project about which he’s most enthusiastic.

One recent afternoon in New York City the director, dressed all in black, sat at his desk in his all-black production office, hustling deals. It is a Robert Altman sort of place. Just behind him is the neon onstage logo from his production of Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, giving him a perfect glitzy-tacky roadhouse penumbra. An old cheese and some scraps of baguette sit on the coffee table, and beyond the table sits his William Morris agent, listening in on a phone extension as Altman assures someone else’s agents that he really is quite committed to directing A Death in Ireland, a script by the actor Tom Berenger. He hangs up. “These are all projects that interest me,” he says of the various movies he’s trying to get made. “They say, ‘The ((movie principals)) will think you’re not doing it for art, but just for the gig.’ ” Altman’s not really angry, just a tad . . . frustrated that at this late date he is obliged to convince agents of his artistic integrity.

Still, better to be accused of being a sellout than a has-been. And while Altman gleefully nurses some particular grudges — against certain producers, certain executives, certain critics, Sam Shepard — he seems free of general bitterness. Sure, he feels a little gypped out of M*A*S*H money (“I never got paid anything ((from the TV series)) — anything”), but for all his visceral mistrust of Hollywood, he doesn’t seem sour about his decade of reputation shrinkage and quasi-exile. After all, every few years he has been lucky enough to turn out something great. So what’s to be bitter about? “There’s not a film I’ve got made that I don’t like,” he says. “As far as my life and career go, and comebacks and all that — I mean, I’ve had a great roll. I mean, please — I’ve got no complaints anywhere.