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Robert Altman in Nine Seminal Movies

On the anniversary of Robert Altman's death we have a look back at his career with a list of seminal films in his career. Not necessarily the best (although we include both MASH and McCabe & Mrs Miller, which are his best) but the ones that sum up the maverick auteur.  Most people do lists in 10s and we usually do them as 11s, but what could be more Robert Altman than a 9?


The Player (1992)

Starring: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Brion James, Whoopi Goldberg

With its absurd elevator pitches ('Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman,' anyone? ), The Player could be described as 'Sunset Boulevard meets The Bad and the Beautiful.' But this type of simplistic thinking drove Robert Altman insane later in his career. It helps to explain why this poison pen letter to Tinseltown is such a nasty, stinging affair in which no component of the studio structure comes out smelling like roses. Tim Robbins plays studio suit, Griffin Mill, venal and greedy in the best studio exec traditions, who murders the wrong scriptwriter and realises that it's not just traffic that's a jerk, but karma as well. There are scores of A-list appearances (Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, etc.), yet Altman's view on Hollywood is anything but. This ain't no entourage.

Boring fact: According to screenwriter Michael Tolkin, at least one studio is interested in financing his film-within-a-film, Habeas Corpus.


McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)

Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine

In an, at times, near-violent battle of egos, Altman was frequently at war with his notoriously high-maintenance leading man, Warren Beatty, over pretty much everything in this mud n' rags Western. Altman wanted to abandon the script and improvise. Beatty did not. Altman planned to utilise zoom lenses. Beatty hated the idea of losing even a single close-up. Altman wanted to keep things moving a pace.  Beatty demanded countless retakes. Despite struggling long after the gruelling location filming was completed, they managed to create something spectacular. Many, including his star actor, believed Altman's overlapping speech and muted sound were often near unintelligible. However, Altman disliked re-dubbing in post-production. "Warren was enraged," he shrugged. "He's still enraged. He'll simply have to stay enraged."

Boring fact: Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond filmed the picture in such a way that the studio could not change the murky appearance in post-production.


M*A*S*H (1970)

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall


MASH wasn't Altman's debut feature, but it was the one that got the most attention. It was a big deal because it was based on a popular novel, but the execs at Fox were more interested in filming Patton and the unusually problematic Tora! Tora! Tora!  The studio didn't even know what Altman was doing for a long time. This allowed him to get away with a chaotic, loose plotted, often improvised, barely organised counter-culture shambles that we now love today. Even though Fox was terrified by the final film when it was delivered, they were overjoyed when it became a hit. The film's 'structure', effectively dividing neatly into four episodes, pointed to the path to future television success – which Altman refused to be a part of. Despite his protests that hardly a word of his screenplay was filmed, Ring Lardner was awarded the film's lone Oscar for best original screenplay.

Boring fact: Gary Burghoff as Walter' Radar' O'Reilly was the only actor to continue as a regular from the film to the TV programme.


Gosford Park (2001)

Starring: Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson

No one can deny that Downton Abbey would not exist without Gosford Park; on the other hand, you may revel in its old-world grandeur, scheming, and exquisite sensitivity to English social attitudes (with appropriate credit to screenwriter Julian Fellowes).   The magnificent Maggie Smith spearheads an outstanding Altman ensemble that contains Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Clive Owen, Charles Dance... every one with a plum in their mouth seems to be in this movie.

The film coolly dissects the assumptions of this upstairs/downstairs society - that all aristocrats are elegantly dominating and all servants are cap-doffing diffidents - and offers us a mix of chancers, blunderers, and misanthropes, made more chaotic by the startling news that Michael Gambon's host has been killed. Altman's signature approach evokes a world in graceful turbulence with its fast-moving camera, vibrant actors pouring out of the frame, and overlapping conversation.

Boring fact: When Altman's film Gosford Park failed to win any Oscars, he had a losers' party at his house. "Bob would reach into a hat," recalls Bob Balaban, "and pretend to pull out [a card]... 'And the loser is...'"


Short Cuts (1993)

Starring: Matthew Modine, Lily Tomlin, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Jack Lemmon, Frances McDormand

Short Cuts Robert Altman

Raymond Carver was Robert Altman's inspiration for this multi-plot slice of Americana long before Riggan Thomson grabbed him for Birdman. This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, and at times fairly depressing three hours from two outstanding chroniclers of everyday life's cadences. Altman had got hold of some of Carver's short stories on a melancholy trip back from an unsuccessful movie in Rome. "I got off the plane, and I remember walking down the ramp and thinking, 'There's a movie here'," he told the New York Times. "I guess what I did is I built 'Carver soup' out of these stories." Probably only Altman could have pulled off the formula, combining the 22 characters he and co-writer Frank Barhydt culled from nine short tales and a poem into something utterly smooth and unsoapy.

Boring fact:  The film had a companion book to go along with it. Short Cuts compiles all of the Carver tales that served as inspiration for the film, each with a unique introduction by director Robert Altman.


Nashville (1975)

Starring: Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Henry Gibson, Geraldine Chaplin, Karen Black, David Arkin.

Nashville Robert Altman

If Short Cuts was Altman making soup, Nashville was the auteur making a casserole in a dish far too small.  The home of Country music is barely big enough to fit all the array of people and narratives he crams into the frame. It's the kind of thing that sends trailer editors and marketing departments running for the hills. A purposefully messy-sounding audio track blends one discussion into another, and ambient noises assault our ears in a way that highlights the claustrophobic clamour of the city and makes a fair bit of the dialogue completely inaudible. Altman compares it to the journey of life. Although the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam funk never fully envelopes the screen because of the larger-than-life characters (Ronee Blakley and Henry Gibson's brittle, C&W star stars, in particular), there are no neat endings or convenient meet-cutes on offer.

Boring fact:  It's Jeff Goldblum, a.k.a. 'Tricycle Man,' who rides the three-wheeler while performing magic tricks. This and California Split, both directed by Altman, served as launching pads for his career.


OC & Stiggs (1985)

Starring: Daniel H. Jenkins, Neill Barry, Dennis Hopper, Paul Dooley, Melvin Van Peebles, Cynthia Nixon

OC and Stiggs movie Robert Altman

At a low point in his career, Altman agreed to this unusual job gig in exchange for a pledge to film the script exactly as it was written. We don't know whether or not he delivered on his word or if he was attempting to do anything "straight", nor do we know his intentions. Based on characters from National Lampoon magazine, it is, to put it kindly, a fiasco, and Altman more-or-less abandoned it (but defended his performers, insisting it wasn't their fault). Even though Altman knew the film was a failure, he chose not to battle the studio and instead left it incomplete. After five years of filmmaking, it was ultimately released in 1997.

Boring fact:  A spoof of OC & Stiggs, DR & Quinch, appears in Alan Moore's 2000AD comic strip.


The Long Goodbye (1973)

Starring: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson

The Long Goodbye movie Robert Altman

Altman changed the setting, but not the character of private detective Philip Marlowe, staying true to the spirit, if not the letter, of Raymond Chandler's longest, most complicated, and most cynical and despondent novel. It's practically autobiographical: Marlowe, as played by Elliott Gould, is a shuffling anachronism in a contemporary '70s LA that he finds mystifying and disgusting. But, hey, he has his cat. For a while. When he recalls. While Sterling Hayden's alcoholic author is overtly Hemingwayesque, he also has a hint of the Altmans. While The Long Goodbye is all about its director, equal credit should go to veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who worked on Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep almost 30 years earlier.

Boring fact:  Brackett's masterstroke finale, which was far from Chandler's, was the determining factor in Altman's decision to take on the film. He specifically stated in his contract that the predetermined conclusion could not be modified.


Popeye (1980)

Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul L. Smith, Paul Dooley, Donald Moffat

 Popeye movie Robert Altman Robin Williams

Hugely underappreciated but unquestionably odd, the mind-boggling as to how co-studios Disney and Paramount believed placing this high-profile family-friendly blockbuster in Altman's hands was a good idea. I love everything about the show, but the plot is disjointed and boring for the first hour while we meander around Sweethaven listening to Harry Nilsson.  Nilsson and Altman take the main moments of characters bursting into song that you'd expect and then trample them to death. Take the night-before-the-wedding number when Olive's bridesmaids goad her into sharing her true love for Bluto, yet she can't actually think of anything. "He's large... he's tall... he's got money... he's large..." In Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson reused "He Needs Me" to great effect.

Boring fact:  The Paul Dooley track 'Everything Is Food' was not included on the soundtrack. Yet the dreadful 'Din' We' by the town drunk Bill Barnacle  (Robert Fortier) made it onto the album but was deleted from the film. Pretty much sums up the movie, really.


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