11,500 Words on Robert Altman

Robert Altman (1925-2006) was born on this day. Do you believe he’s been dead a dozen years? He doesn’t seem dead. He’s so present in his films, and his films are so alive and complex, they are like metabolizing, growing organisms. But there have been no new ones from him for some time, nor will there ever be, although I would welcome a posthumous zombie film from him at some point. Increasingly, his work will be said to characterize a historical time period, the last third of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st.

Altman’s career had actually begun over two decades prior to his breaking through into the mainstream. After serving in World War II, he co-wrote the screenplay to RKO’s The Bodyguard in 1948. This early success proved a fluke. He returned to his native Kansas City and made industrials, then broke into television, becoming an extremely successful and prolific director on such shows as Combat!, Bonanza, Peter Gunn and dozens of others in the ’50s and ’60s. He also racked up a couple of early feature film directing credits, both in 1957: the self-produced exploitation film The Delinquents  starring Tom Laughlin (the guy from the Billy Jack films), and the documentary The James Dean Story. These films impressed Alfred Hitchcock enough that he hired Altman to direct two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The two directors share more in common than you might realize: both were total filmmakers who were involved creatively with nearly every element of their productions and never stopped experimenting or growing right up until the end. Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956) and Psycho (1960) were forays into the kind of gritty, intimate, “small” pictures then in vogue (like The Delinquents). For his part, Altman would direct numerous pictures that could be described as mysteries or suspense thrillers (one of them, quite straight and late in his career, 1998’s The Gingerbread Man).

Though less personal than his later work, the subject matter of these two early features are like flares signaling his arrival a decade later. One of the interesting things about Altman is that, while he became associated with hippies and the counterculture, he was older: he was of the Beat Generation. He’d come up in the era when rebellion was an underground, subversive thing. By the time it became mainstream to experiment and defy convention, Altman had decades worth of stored-up (pent up) ideas ready to try and explore all at once so that he quite spectacularly exploded into the film-going public’s consciousness. There were other innovative directors around the same time experimenting in similar ways (John Cassavetes, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Mike Nichols, among them), but Altman seemed to have daring and original ideas on every front. An Altman signature emerged (characterized by a satirical voice, subversion of traditional Hollywood genres, large ensemble casts, overlapping dialogue, improvisation, complex multitrack sound design, widescreen composition, a restless moving camera, frequent use of zooms, etc etc etc) but often his “experiment” or “subversion” came from working outside his own style. You have to keep challenging yourself and working outside your own comfort zone.

Altman also built something like a stock company. The actors he worked with most frequently include Michael Murphy (who appeared in a dozen Altman films or tv productions), Bert Remsen (eight), Shelley Duvall (seven), Paul Dooley (six), Allan F. Nichols (six),  Lily Tomlin (four), Henry Gibson (four), Sally Kellerman (four) and David Arkin (four). Other repeat offenders are too many to count but include Elliott Gould (three), Keith Carradine (three), Rene Auberjonois (three), Corey Fischer (three), and dozens of others. He also worked with old school actors from the Hollywood studio days, which added a special ingredient to his playing around with traditional movie genres: Lauren Bacall, Sterling Hayden, Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman, Lillian Gish,Burt Lancaster, Margaret Hamilton, Patricia Neal, etc.

I briefly considered ranking his movies, as I did with Spielberg, but I gave it up as impossible. Too many (M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Three Women) vie for the top spot, and too many others (The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, The Player, Gosford Park) nip too closely at their heels. So I gave it up as a bad job, and will treat of them chronologically.

Countdown (1968)

With respect to Altman’s career, Countdown is perhaps most interesting for how uninteresting it is.  Tonally, it is more like the tv work that preceded it, impersonal, competent, humorless, even dull. Altman was actually fired from the picture for one of the few interesting touches he tried to bring to it: his patented overlapping dialogue, which studio execs took for incompetence rather than naturalism. It’s easy to mix up this movie with Marooned (1969) which was directed by John Sturges. They are both early entries into what would later become an entire genre of its own, the realistic astronaut film. Both Countdown and Marooned were blown out of the water by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, however. Drab as it is, Countdown does have a bonus in the form of seeing several future stars early in their careers: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Michael Murphy and Ted Knight! Duvall would return shortly to create the role of Frank Burns in M*A*S*H, another saving grace.

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

After hearing for years about how critics and audiences rejected That Cold Day in the Park when it came out, I was unprepared for the reality which is that: a) it is actually quite excellent; and b) delightfully characteristic of the director. Accustomed as we are to thinking of M*A*S*H as his breakthrough picture, in retrospect, we can see a lot of Altman in this thriller, released a year earlier. Granted, That Cold Day in the Park was ahead of its time in ways that audiences seem not to have been ready for in 1969. Sandy Dennis plays a well-off society woman who takes in a good looking young man (former child actor and future historian Michael Burns), whom she initially takes to be a deaf-mute derelict. They develop a sexual relationship and she supports him. When she learns the truth (that he actually has a life of his own, friends, etc) her possessiveness leads to some horrifying results not unlike the climax of Stephen King’s Misery. There’s a lot of sexual adventurousness in the film, including some creepy incest, that might have made the movie distasteful to some at the time. But the film also goes much farther with Altman’s naturalistic experiments with improv and overlapping dialogue than Countdown, and because the young man and his associates are hippies, and their interplay is so frank and free and humorous, we can see the familiar Altman beginning to emerge. Also Johnny Mandel, who wrote the music to the M*A*S*H theme as well as its score, scored this film, and his style is recognizable and enjoyable (Mandel had also earlier scored The James Dean Story). And Michael Murphy has a bit part in it!  At the same time, That Cold Day in the Park is a pivot point,  because it’s a straight-up thriller not unlike some of his tv work and the future The Gingerbread Man.  Hard to believe, perhaps, but Sandy Dennis was actually a hot property at the time, having just come off of several hit films, and about to be in another (1970’s The Out of Towners) so the failure of That Cold Day in the Park must have been an especial disappointment for Altman, who did much genuinely good work here.

M*A*S*H (1970)

I know I’m not alone; this is one of my favorite movies. I have seen it dozens and dozens of times. If it is being played on television, I’ll stop what I’m doing and watch it. This is true of most of Altman’s movies. They are so rich that they will yield something different every time you watch them. M*A*S*H was one of several entry points I had in discovering the work of Altman, and the only one in which I was cognizant of the work of the director himself. (The other entry points? I loved Popeye when it came out, but knew nothing of Altman. Also, my high school girlfriend and I scorned the concept of Elliot Gould playing Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, again before I knew anything about Altman. But I hadn’t seen it, and loved it the instant I did. And I watched several of his cinematic adaptions of theatrical plays in the ’80s, perhaps at best vaguely knowing about Altman). But M*A*S*H was the launch pad — the helicopter pad, if you will. I knew about it for years prior to seeing it. I was a rabid fan of the sit com for many years. And many of the other kids had seen the original film at the local college and talked about it. I remember a conversation with my 8th grade English teacher in 1978, “Your parents actually let you see that?” she asked them. The movie was only about 8 years old then! But the film has the word “fuck” (one of the first mainstream films to include it), it has nudity, and many other sexual references (and, frankly some racial ones) that do make the film inappropriate for children.

Altman was a WWII vet, and had directed episodes of TV shows like Combat. He knew every cliche of the war film genre, and he explodes them in this dark satire about a front line hospital in the Korean War. (As I wrote here, I am quite certain that the 1952 movie Battle Circus was an inspiration for this film. M*A*S*H is to Battle Circus as Krampus is to Santa Claus).  It being 1969, M*A*S*H is really about Vietnam, though it’s set in Korea. I love its combative irreverence, the “counterculture Marx Brothers” tone, which feels akin to the spirit of Abbie Hoffman. I love the film’s texture and colors (awash in khaki with the occasional blood red accent) and the melancholy that hangs over it. A lot of his best work has this quality. Even the theme song to this film has that quality. As he would do in many a later film (McCabe and Mrs Miller and Popeye being two examples) he built an entire world (in this case an army base) for the cast to inhabit.

Altman hired a large talented ensemble, and encouraged so much improvisation that it looked to its stars (Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould) that they were in the midst of chaos and as a consequence they tried to have Altman fired. Gould later apologized and wound up starring in two later Altman films. Sutherland never did. Others in the cast who would appear in subsequent Altman pictures include Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Bud Cort, Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck, Michael Murphy, David Arkin, Corey Fischer, George Wood, and Timothy Brown. Brown and Fred Williamson (actual football players) were stunt cast as football playing hospital personnel. Williamson especially enjoyed a successful career as an actor after this. Also stunt cast was singer/jazz musician/ songwriter (“Route 66”) Bobby Troupe (husband of Julie London). Roger Bowen and Joanne Pflug were both well known outside the film. Four of the actors, Gary Burghoff, Corey Fischer, George Wood and Timothy Brown got cast in the tv series.

The film’s anti-establishment tone, graphic depictions of sex and blood (new at the time), and use of 4-letter words were all broadly influential. But the film also spawned some long-forgotten blatant imitation in its immediate wake. Bud Cort co-starred in Gas-s-s-s (1970), Roger Corman’s energy crisis comedy. There’s Fuzz (1972), the jokey dark action comedy about Boston police starring Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch and featuring M*A*S*H alums Tom Skerritt and Bert Remsen. In 1974, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould teamed up again in the comedy S*P*Y*S. These were superficial nods though. Certain filmmakers show the influence much more deeply I think. Michael Ritchie’s films, especially The Candidate (1972), Smile (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976) and Semi Tough (1977) show Altman influence. (In turn, The Candidate may have influenced Altman, who inserted campaigns into Nashville, HealtH, O.C. and Stiggs, and above all Tanner ’88 ).

I also think the influence of M*A*S*H is perceptible in early screenplays in which Harold Ramis had a hand — Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, and the opening scenes of Ghostbusters, all of which have an anti-authoritarian strain, although much more crudely realized. It’s worth mentioning — the kids at my high school who were fans of the film M*A*S*H were also fans of the National Lampoon (which I disparaged here). There is a certain smartass tone that they share. One problematic element in the film M*A*S*H that Ramis’s films share in common is the attitude toward women. The shower scene in Altman’s film is especially hard to watch nowadays, and there is a tone of bullying in some of the behavior that simply doesn’t fly now. But the film was of its time, the first wave of the sexual revolution, and it depicts an even earlier time. And Altman demonstrated many times over a different attitude in later films like Three Women and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and he frequently collaborated with women like screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury.  Ramis, writing a decade and more later, had no such excuse about the timing, nor did he later redeem himself in any way that I’m aware of.

Brewster McCloud (1970)

Altman briefly made Bud Cort (who’d played Boone in M*A*S*H ) a leading man. Why not? This was the age of Dustin Hoffman. It was immediately after Brewster McCloud that Cort starred in the cult favorite Harold and Maude. This was his brief moment in the sun. Brewster McCloud is like a hangover from M*A*S*H’s monster success, a gleefully self-indulgent exercise that most people will have no taste for but I happen to love. It was the first film released by Altman’s new company Lion’s Gate. It also marked the screen debut of Houston local Shelley Duvall, previously a non-actress. How self-indulgent is this movie? Let’s put it this way, it was written by Doran William Cannon, whose previous film credit was the screenplay for Skidoo. Brewster McCloud tells the story of a young man who is working on inventing a pair of wings so that he can fly. The supporting cast consists mostly of holdovers from M*A*S*H, with the conspicuous addition of Margaret Hamilton, a touch not unlike the inclusion of Groucho in Skidoo. And there is much screwing around. I like to watch a movie like this and look closely at the whites of the actors’ eyes to see which of them were high when it was being shot. In this movie, I’m guessing, most of ’em? All of ’em? In the end, young Brewster attempts to fly with his new wings from the top of the Houston Astrodome. is he successful? Let me ask you one question: have you ever heard of Icarus?

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

One of my favorite movies. I first saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller when I was about twenty and I went into raptures over it. It doesn’t feel like a movie, it feels like a window into the past. As he always does, Altman increases the apparent verisimilitude by an order of magnitude. There is an aura of melancholy over the whole thing, aided by Vilmos Zsigmond’s sepia-tinted cinematography and the Leonard Cohen songs that really, REALLY appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities. Altman built a whole town to film the movie in–it’s not just a bunch of facades on a street like in a traditional Hollywood studio western. We get right in the middle of frontier existence: we see the food on the tin plate, we hear the omnipresent fiddler tune his fiddle, or a chicken cluck in the background. We see the mess that characterizes the way most people live (as opposed to the spare, idealistic cleanliness of a Hollywood set).

Another interesting aspect is that it’s one of the very few westerns set in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of it being dry all the time, it’s constantly raining or snowing, with the constant sound of moaning wind over the soundtrack, reinforcing the feeling of solitude and melancholy.

The film begins like Shane: a man rides up alone on a horse. McCabe (Warren Beatty), in his fur coat and derby, makes a huge impression on the tiny (almost nonexistent) town of Presbyterian Church. He is a bullshitter and not too bright, but since everyone else in town is fairly dim, no one notices. Most of the town is composed of members of the Altman stock company from M*A*S*H: Rene Auberjonois as Sheehan, who owns the saloon, John Schuck, Bert Remsen, Corey Fischer. (Michael Murphy steps in as well a little later). They are impressed with McCabe and falsely ascribe to him a “rep” as someone who has killed a man in a gunfight. McCabe is vague on the subject. It seems to serve his purpose to have that reputation, so he doesn’t clarify anything. Being an enterprising man, he goes to the nearest large town and buys three prostitutes to bring back to Presbyterian Church, hiring the local men to build the whorehouse. The three whores are bottom-of-the-barrel: one is rather fat, one is toothless, and one is a terrified child (as she demonstrates when she stabs one of her customers).

Onto the scene comes Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), and her stable of high class ladies of the evening. She proposes to go into business with McCabe. She is about ten times smarter than him (and they both know it) and quickly secures his acquiescence despite his reservations. The town and the whorehouse begin to thrive. The relationship between Mrs Miller and McCabe is ambiguous. It is mutually rewarding. Something like love seems to be brewing (particularly on his part, for her) but the fact that she charges him $5 for his visits keeps it at a business level. How real is it? Also, we learn that Mrs. Miller smokes opium. At those moments when she is nice to him, she is high. Again, how real?

Then Michael Murphy and another man, representing a mining interest, come into town to buy McCabe out. He is drunk, cocky and stupid, and insults them, holding out for more money. Mrs. Miller warns him that the company is ruthless, they hire gunmen to kill people who are in their way. They come back to McCabe with a higher offer. He continues to be stupid. They give up on him and call in a gun man. We see another side of McCabe when a mysterious stranger (Keith Carradine, in his first film role) rides into town. McCabe goes out to meet him, fairly courageously, and looking like he’s been in a gunfight before. But is it one of his bluffs? It is moot for the moment; the kid is only a cowboy looking for female company. When the three gunmen (including an enormous Englishman and a kid of about fourteen) do come into town, we see that McCabe is frightened — he’s got nothing. He tries to negotiate, but that is not what they are there for. He goes to town and consults a lawyer (William Devane) who is more full shit than McCabe is, promising to try the mining company in the court of public opinion. He tells McCabe he won’t even need marshals, because the company “won’t be able to do a thing.” McCabe returns to town and Mrs Miller quickly disabuses him of the notion. She knows he is going to be killed.

We see what the gunmen are all about when the 14 year old kid kills the Keith Carradine character in cold blood just for the sport of it as a sort of warm-up to the big event. The climax of the film is the real meat of the picture. A western shoot-out with almost no dialogue, we suddenly realize that themes and relationships Altman has been carefully building throughout the picture were there for a reason. The chickens are coming home to roost. McCabe hasn’t got a friend in this town. He never made one. He has built a business here. He has customers. With some, such as Sheehan, he has been downright insulting most of the time. When he needs help, he doesn’t ask anyone to back him up, and no one does. Furthermore, oddly, rather than seek comfort by being in plain view in front of everyone, he skulks about the fringes, he actually SEEKS to deal with these men on his own, like some sort of cornered animal, which he doesn’t HAVE to be. This is individualism to a fatal fault.

Interestingly, the other isolated individual in the town is the apparently insane preacher. The preacher takes McCabe’s rifle from him when he leaves it in the church, braying that it’s  a “House of God”, but ironically cocking it to shoot McCabe as he tries to take it from him. Almost immediately, one of the bad guys shoots the preacher’s arm off. Unfortunately, the other arm is holding a lantern and the church begins to burn. And here Altman clearly shows us his message. Though they continue to squabble, the rest of the town comes together as a community, banding together in a bucket brigade to put out the fire. That is civilization. That is how a community acts. McCabe has built something, but what he built was hollow by comparison, a house of cards. There is no mechanism in the town for keeping peace.

While the community works on the problem at hand, McCabe is on his own, running from place to place, taking on the bad guys on his own. He kills all three of the bad guys but is fatally wounded in the process. He dies ignominiously on his own in the snow, no differently from an animal. Meanwhile, Altman’s other point: Mrs. McCabe is in Chinatown, smoking her opium, tuning out the pain. (“Money and pain, money and pain” has been McCabe’s refrain throughout the picture). We end on a shot of her, stoned, examining a beautiful vase: clearly some kind of comment on American consumerism and self-indulgence. She is artificially contenting herself while someone with whom she has had a close relationship is in the worst trouble of his life. Neither McCabe nor Mrs. Miller represent an appealing alternative to the rapacious mining company. Our only hope is in that bucket brigade.

Images (1972)

I found Images to be an extremely slow moving and self-indulgent movie, patterned all too obviously after Bergman’s Persona. Susannah York is going crazy. She is working on a children’s book. She reads long passages, which were taken from an actual children’s book that York wrote. The phone keeps ringing and voices (possibly her, we decide in retrospect) call and harass her. She and her husband, Rene Auberjonois go to their country house where she has hallucination after hallucination. It is an extremely cool EXPERIMENT and it’s very instructive to watch how Altman does it, but it isn’t much of a story. A man from her past seems to appear, and another man from her past DOES appear, and they both keep switching places with her husband, and she keeps seeing herself in the third person, etc, etc, etc. Eventually the images get violent…she kills these “figments” (if figments they are) off. The twist at the end is very good, though…No spoilers! Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who came to prominence on McCabe and Mrs. Miller, also brought his touch to this film and to The Long Goodbye, after which he ascended the highest Hollywood heights and was probably out of Altman’s budgetary reach.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Altman, as he often does, flips a genre on its head here, but not really. Like McCabe, it’s not a parody of the genre…it works within the genre and comments on it. It’s a bona fide noir/detective story—just a modern version of one. This Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is countercultural, a sort of Holy Fool. His coolness is about being easy-going (“It’s okay with me”); he loves everybody, he has an almost Christ-like compassion. The only things he hates are authority, bullshit, and lies. He has a compulsive, almost martyr like, need not to cooperate with cops or anybody who tries to muscle him. The plot, like all Raymond Chandler, is a twisty-turny labyrinth, but ironically, Altman bends it into shape so that it actually makes coherent sense. In the end, the guy Gould had been defending all along and who’d gotten him into a mess of trouble, and caused all sorts of death and misery—turns out to actually HAVE killed his wife, and used Marlowe. Marlowe learns he’s alive, and in a shocking (but grounded) twist, executes him: “Nobody cares but me”. The one thing that is NOT okay with Marlowe is lying to him. It feels noir in that Marlowe has been sucked down to the level of the criminal. On the other hand, what he delivers is extralegal justice. Lots of great performances. I feel like Gould smirks too much in this role, but it kind of works. It makes you want to punch him the way everyone else does. Sterling Hayden as a drunken writer does some of his best acting ever. Henry Gibson makes his Altman debut as a slimy detox doctor. David Carradine in a jailhouse cameo. The immortal Jack Riley, who had a smaller part in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, has a larger part in this.  John Williams scored the film and cowrote the theme song, which cleverly recurs throughout the film in different versions. It’s an extremely good film; I could write reams about it, but I already wrote too much about M*A*S*H and McCabe. It would make a great double feature with Polanski’s Chinatown — L.A. as a cesspool of depravity. I’m sure I’m not the first who’s thought of that. Alan Rudolph was an assistant director on this movie and on Nashville; Altman would later produce four of Rudolph’s own films, all of which featured actors from the Altman-verse.

Thieves Like Us (1974)

Thieves Like Us didn’t strike it big like some of his other ones, but it ranks with some of Altman’s best work. Coming on the heels of The Long Goodbye, it’s a reminder of a fact that some people seem quite shaky on: film noir and gangster pictures are two quite distinct genres. Based on the same source material as Nicholas RayThey Live By Night (1949), it’s a revisionist hillbilly robber picture not unlike Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde or Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha. A trio of cons (John Schuck, Bert Remsen, and Keith Carradine) busts out of jail. It’s the Depression, in the Deep South. None of the three men are any too bright, although Carradine seems sweet and likely to go straight. He gets romantically involved with Shelley Duvall, who lives at one of the places where they’re hiding out. But gradually over the course of the picture, as they keep “having” to do more jobs, the young man gets more and more hardened and less and less likely to quit, ending in tragedy. Crime never pays! The film is beautifully, evocatively shot, and contains the memorable recurring trope of commentary coming over the radio. Tom Skerritt and Louise Fletcher are also in the picture.

California Split (1974) 

To belabor a metaphor, Altman continued his winning streak with this memorable portrait of a pair of problem gamblers: Elliott Gould as a dude who lives the life, and George Segal as a recreational gambler with a job, who is in danger of falling into the same black hole as Gould. The structure of the film is their binge, from the point where they meet, to where Segal exhausts his enthusiasm for it, and leaves. They are funny and charming, at times they seem like friends, but really are just gambling buddies, quite a different thing. Also in the film is real life professional poker player Amarillo Slim. Both Gould and Segal deliver tour de force performances. Gould had actually been a problem gambler and was friends with the screenwriter/producer, a bit player named Joseph Walsh. Steven Spielberg was the original director of the project but got pulled away to direct Sugarland Express. One of the film’s innovations was eight track stereo sound design, an element that some audience members found confusing (one hears multiple conversations happening simultaneously in crowded casinos). Nonetheless, California Split was named one of the ten best films of the year by the New York Times. 

Nashville (1975)

I first saw this film when I was about 20 and it remains one of my favorites…a musical satire on greed, race, sex and violence in America on the eve of its Bicentennial, a vast portrait in tapestry. The plot is about political handler Michael Murphy trying to organize a show biz rally for his Replacement Party candidate Hal Philip Walker (Thomas Hal Philips, who created a whole fictional campaign for the film). Murphy goes around meeting all the big wheels in Nashville, trying to persuade them to support his candidate and ends up being a sort of unwitting Virgil into this world. Characters include Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) a Hank Snow-like yahoo who’s dumb as can possibly be, and whose songs are among the most satirical in the movie. Fellow Laugh-In alum Lily Tomlin plays record company lawyer Ned Beatty’s wife, who is a gospel recording artist and who also takes special care of her deaf children (an inconvenient intrusion into this world dominated by music). Similar “outsiders” include hapless Keenan Wynn, a senior citizen caring for a sick wife who has NOTHING to do with the music business, but it invades his life anyway. His wife’s hospital bed is next to the cracking up country star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), based on Loretta Lynn and being gaslit by her predatory husband and manager (Allen Garfield). Wynn’s California niece (Shelley Duvall) is compulsively attracted to the show biz people around her, and his tenant (Barry Bostwick) eventually assassinates Barbara Jean. Other outsiders: include Scott Glenn’s character—a soldier who is seemingly stalking Barbara Jean, but ends up being both harmless and heroic, subduing the actual killer in the end; a waitress named Sueleen (Gwen Welles, who’d also been in California Split) who is trying to break into the business, but is completely tone deaf; Barbara Harris, also trying to break into the business and who steals Sueleen’s moment by cravenly stepping up to the mike at the Parthenon when Barbara Jean is shot to sing the closing song “It Don’t Worry Me” (which for some reason, always makes me cry). There are also Haven’s adult son (David Peel), a lummox who is always introduced in public as though he were a child, and who has written a very nice country song, but is hilariously cut off by BBC reporter Geraldine Chaplin (our other Virgil) when she spots a bigger star, Elliot Gould, across the compound; and Timothy Brown as Tommy Brown, one of the top Nashville stars but alienated because he is black (clearly based on Charley Pride). Karen Black plays Connee White, Barbara Jean’s rival, performing several of her own songs, which are terrific. Also Keith Carradine does another of the film’s memorable songs “I’m Easy”, which he sings to four women simultaneously, each of them thinking its for her. His character is a sort of sexually addicted socio-path—initially part of the trio Bill, Tom and Mary—he callously announces the break-up from the stage. Ronee Blakely’s songs are also terrific—her character seems a sort of angel and you get a strong sense of her real back-story…a traditional rural upbringing that has not prepared her for the insane world she lives in. I’ve left so much out!  I could fill ninety pages on this movie someday, and I’m sure I will. Also — very early Jeff Goldblum riding a souped-up motor-trike.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976)

Though I’ve always loved Altman, I’ve always hated this movie. It is unworthy of the Arthur Kopit play on which is it is based, it is unworthy of the life and legend of Buffalo Bill, and it is unworthy of Altman’s own best efforts. Everything is wrong about it, except the art direction, which is top notch. Hard to know where to begin, there’s so much wrong with it. It starts out promising, with a certain presentationalism…credits that look like a 19th century program…and a re-creation of a frontier massacre that is revealed to be just show biz. But then that trope is abandoned…it becomes a rambling, discursive, boring “fly on the wall” look at the plotless proceedings. As Kopit had in his play, you might have made a nice statement by keeping it within the package. Here, when we have scenes of the show within the show they are actually quite boring, apparently purposefully shot so as not to impress. Similarly, another potential framing devise, the storytelling of Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster) is just a part of the tapestry…it could have been the main presentational touchstone. But of course hatred of show biz is Altman’s point, and I guess that left him with him an insoluble conundrum. His real target of course is show business in general, and mythologizing, and the whitewashing of our historical brutalities. But in doing so, he makes a sort of unjust scapegoat out of Buffalo Bill—commits a historical revisionism as egregious as the worst Hollywood western but for different reasons. The real Buffalo bill was actually a person of real accomplishments. He wasn’t all vanity and myth. Not only was he an actual Indian scout, soldier, etc etc etc, but the building of his Wild West show – I hold – was a genuine accomplishment. He wasn’t just some stupid clown, and the show wasn’t just some dumb piece of jingoism. But Altman has to make them so in order to make his satire work. And so, the greatest spectacle of its age is belittled. GRANTED, now, the treatment of the Indians by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was racist (using the modern standard), but the phenomenon was more complex than that, as Kopit showed in his play. Buffalo Bill had great respect for Native Americans and was saddened by what they were reduced to. Altman’s take on the whole issue is simplistic, small-minded, self-congratulatory, obvious, smug, irritating, and not very funny.

Even so, even granted you wanted to make a big target of Buffalo Bill, Paul Newman’s performance here really sucks…it’s not the slightest bit comical. Think of the guy who plays Custer in Little Big Man (Richard Mulligan). This kind of vanity can be really funny. Newman isn’t. Nor is anyone else in the film. Joel Grey’s far-fetched malapropisms. A gaggle of annoying opera singers. But if Newman is not funny, neither is his character sympathetic. He is heinous, and he is our main character and we are forced to spend two hours with him. It’s hell.

Furthermore, the whole thing is so claustrophobic…it adds to the boredom and irritation. Altman seems to be doing his “microcosm” thing, as he had done with the army hospital in M*A*S*H, and the small town in McCabe and Mrs Miller. But even in those films he opened it up some…in M*A*S*H they go to Tokyo; in McCabe, McCabe visits other towns. Here we never leave this small penned in camp, making it feel sort of like those plays Altman later directed in the ’80s. which is ironic because this is about the impact this show had on the public, but we never see touring, we never see his show have any influence. The whole movie is really about Bill’s troubles with Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), a genuine chief who is here treated like crap because he doesn’t conform to the needed stereotype of a war chief for the benefit of a show. He gives Bill all kinds of flack, or rather his much more impressive interpreter (who never interprets) Halsey (Will Sampson) does. There is the injustice of President Cleveland (Pat McCormick) not even listening to Sitting Bull’s request (even though Sitting Bull feels he has summoned the President there with a dream). The only interesting scene in the movie occurs one hour and fifty minutes into it, when Sitting Bull’s ghost appears to Bill, who has an effective monologue. And there is an eloquent scene at the end where we witness the rather fascist spectacle of a fake fight between Bill and Halsey (who now plays Sitting Bull in the show). But it’s too little, too late. The movie is one of Altman’s worst, in my view.

Three Women (1977)

Here Altman integrates the Persona experiment of Images with his gift for satire and working with an acting ensemble. This is one of his best films—possibly points the way to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Sissy Spacek, an immature young woman, comes to work at a physical therapy facility in a desert town. She becomes unaccountably obsessed with another woman who works there (Shelley Duvall), a very ditzy, superficial person whom the other characters in the movie literally don’t listen to. Duvall is rather cruel to her in that high school way—a loser herself, she lords it over the greater loser. Eventually Spacek tries to commit suicide, jumping into a swimming pool off a balcony. When she revives, the positions are reversed. From here the film gets increasingly elusive to describe, but it is effective, dreamlike. The third woman is a mysterious artist (Janice Rule) who has very few lines but is always around. She’s the wife of the guy who owns their apartment complex and the bar they hang out at. She’s painted the bottom and sides of the swimming pool—does this art have magical powers? It sort of seems that way. Swimming pools dominate the story—the therapy is also done in pools. Art/Therapy/Water/Women. Words would only spoil it.

A Wedding (1978)

In some ways the definitive Altman, or “Altman doing Altman”. I remember seeing a 60 Minutes segment about it when I was a kid with my parents; it seemed to be about the scandal of the excess of Altman’s working methods (i.e. lots of lavish partying and consumption of marijuana.) I also definitely remember it playing at the cinema in my hometown. I think the film got a lot of attention because it stars Carol Burnett. I only bring up these memories because I think it was among the earliest Altman product I was ever aware of.  Anyway, I didn’t see A Wedding til the ’90s. I say it is the quintessential Altman because it is not – that is to say, it is really just about the large ensemble of actors…and not too much else (as his best ones are). It’s just a bunch of funny shenanigans about two families coming together for a wedding, but the social satire of M*A*S*H and Nashville seems lacking. Also, it sprawls. I can’t think of an Altman movie that tries to keep track of this many characters. At the very least, it’s tied. Paul Dooley is in it. Lillian Gish, as a bed-ridden matriarch. And about a hundred others!

Quintet (1979)

A fairly abysmal movie. A science fiction film starring Paul Newman…set in a future world where everything is frozen, and people just sit around playing this game “quintet”, a game in which the losers die and the winner gets to live. I’ve given it one or two chances but couldn’t really find any virtues aside from the usual beautiful photography. It lacks most of the typical benefits of watching an Altman movie, an ensemble of stars, humor, etc. Even the game at the center of the film is uncompelling. Unlike California Split, where actors really played actual poker games, here the actors pretend to play a fake, nonexistent game were the rules make no sense. The movie bombed and lost Altman a lot of goodwill. Safe to call it his worst movie.

A Perfect Couple (1979)

Paul Dooley against type (and very good) as an uptight Greek antiques dealer with a very controlling father (Titos Vandis, who ALWAYS plays the Greek fathers) and applies to a dating service, hooking up with a chick from a rock band (Marta Helfin, who’d been in A Wedding ). The film is a study in contrast between the two controlling families. The rock band is led by autocrat Ted Neely (Jesus Christ Superstar). It’s well made, but my guess is that a major reason why it flopped so badly is how excrutiatingly embarrassing the music is. Well, let me strike that – the music is pretty good, it’s just that the sight of Neely all discoed out is blindingly embarrassing. And also the lack of stars. (Hello! Producing a movie!). Apparently, Sandy Dennis was originally the female lead but was fired because she brought her cats to the table reads, sending Paul Dooley, who had an allergy, to the hospital. Sexy! A Perfect Couple is effectively a rock opera, and was co-written with Allan Nichols, who played Bill in Nashville and co-wrote some of the music and collaborated on a ton of Altman films. Also some of the personnel from Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar were involved.  Despite its box office failure, there are good performances, and it is a rich film.

HealtH (1980)

Sometimes it’s just bad luck. Altman became a pariah in Hollywood in the ’80s and the reason why, as far as anyone could tell for many years, was that he’d made four turkeys in a row: Quintet, A Perfect Couple, HealtH, and Popeye. But the reality is somewhat different. HealtH, it turns out, was somewhat great, at least as great as Altman’s usual fare, it just never got released. What happened was there was a shakeup at the studio that was distributing the film (Fox) and Altman’s traditional angel, producer Alan Ladd Jr., was sacked. HealtH, though completed, was put on hold. After a year went by, Popeye was released and flopped, further eroding confidence in HealtH, so that it never got a proper release. Like NEVER. I saw it for the first time only recently, the last piece in my Altman puzzle and I genuinely thought it was terrific. If you think Altman is great, you will think this movie is great. If you don’t, you’d be unlikely to transcend that. (A lot of people said “What a mess!” in the Youtube comments section, but people have always said that about that all his movies. Rest assured, if you say such a thing to me, I will never trust your judgment about anything ever again).

So HealtH is set at a convention for a political organization which promotes healthy lifestyle. The convention is held at a Florida hotel and the entire film takes places there. The plot centers on a campaign for the presidency of the organization, a powerful position (think something like AARP or the NRA). The candidates are Lauren Bacall,Glenda Jackson and Paul Dooley (who co-wrote it). Carol Burnett plays an adviser to the U.S. President who gets horny every time she gets frightened, James Garner plays her ex-husband, who makes sure she gets frightened a lot. Henry Gibson plays a political fixer who goes  disguised in drag. Donald Moffat plays a a guy who think he’s Buffalo Bill. Dick Cavett plays himself. It’s a great satire. All the characters care about is power, money and influence — actual health and nutrition, aside from products that are being hawked, are not on anyone’s minds. At any rate, once more people see this movie, I think its stock will go up. It’s a shame it was kept under wraps, for I suspect it stalled some careers unnecessarily.

Popeye (1980)

I loved this movie when it came out. I loved Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl.  (I even went to a costume party as Williams’ Popeye). I loved the way the film captured the early Max Fleischer cartoons, with the mumbling dialogue, and I loved the look of the Sweet Haven set. I remember the Harry Nilsson songs being the strangest element (they were very oddly mixed). And with the passing of time I have to concede now what audiences knew back then — it’s a real mess!  Altman’s usual techniques, like ambling, leisurely, pseudo-documentary camera work, and overlapping dialogue—REALLY don’t work for a live action cartoon. His thing works strictly for realism—it is simply wrong for stylized performance like this. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall both give truly terrific performances, as do ensemble players—including actors like Paul Dooley and Ray Walston, and clowns Bill Irwin and Michael Christensen (whom I knew from Big Apple Circus). But the camera treats their great work with indifference—as often as not, we have to work to locate it within the frame. Jules Feiffer wrote the screenplay but it’s impossible to tell if it was any good from the way Altman directed it. Feiffer (a huge fan and aficionado of the original Popeye comic strip) felt Altman didn’t shoot his screenplay. At any rate, despite the fact that Popeye earned three times its budget, it was expected to make more so Altman was essentially written out off as box office poison at this stage. He cashed out Lion’s Gate and sold his Hollywood home.

***

Not one to be licked, Altman changed his modus operandi for the 1980s. For most of the decade he concentrated on making low budget adaptations of theatre plays for the screen. This remains an interesting period for him; I saw most of the films on television not long after they came out. For the most part they foreground the playwright and the actor, and Altman focuses very humbly on capturing their work for posterity, without being too flashy behind the camera. The plays were these:

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

By Ed Graczyk, featuring Sandy Dennis, Karen Black,Cher, and Kathy Bates.James Dean was obviously a topic near and dear to Altman’s heart, having started out with The James Dean Story. He had originally mounted the play on Broadway but it closed after a few weeks, so he decided to capture the performances on film. It reunited him with Dennis and Black, and launched a new phase of Cher’s career as an actress: she went on to do Silkwood (1983), Mask (1984), Suspect (1987), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Moonstruck (1987), Mermaids (1990) and two more films with Altman all in rapid succession.

Streamers (1983)

by David Rabe. A Vietnam drama set in a barracks, dealing mostly with racism and homophobia, starring a cast of guys who were then young unknowns. It featured David Alan Grier 7 years before In Living Color and Matthew Modine 4 years before Full Metal Jacket.

Secret Honor (1985)

by Donald Freed and Arthur M. Stone. A monologue starring Philip Baker Hall as Richard M. Nixon, in which he drunkenly rants about Vietnam and Watergate for 90 minutes, eventually coming out with the astounding thesis that he staged Watergate in order to escape the pressure to prolong the Vietnam War being exerted by of the secret committee which elected him. Hall’s performance is electric and Altman does what he can to keep the camera in motion and thus our mind engaged.

The Laundromat (1985)

By Marsha Norman. A tv version of the two-hander starring Carol Burnett and Amy Madigan.

Fool for Love (1985)

By Sam Shepard. The play had premiered two years earlier. The film stars Shepard himself and Kim Bassinger as a couple who are hot for each other but forever going in circles (and are possibly brother and sister). Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, and other round out the cast. Filmed on location in New Mexico.

Beyond Therapy (1987)

by Christopher Durang. A farce of this type seems a bad match for Altman, and he wrote substantial parts of Durang’s script, much to the playwright’s displeasure. Jeff Goldblum, who’d had a nonspeaking role in Nashville returns as one of the stars here, as does Glenda Jackson, who’d been in HealtH. Perhaps the happiest detail is that cast also includes Christopher Guest, who just a few years later would begin directing satirical semi-improvised ensemble comedies that owe more than a little to Altman. It’s all about a couple, their therapists, and their lovers, in the patented Durang traditional farcical style.

Basements (1987)

by Harold Pinter. TV versions of the playwright’s classics The Dumbwaiter and The Room, starring John Travolta, Tom Conti, Linda Hunt, Annie Lennox, Julian Sands and Donald Pleasance.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988)

by Herman Wouk, a tv version of the classic naval courtoom drama, featuring Eric Bogosian, Jeff Daniels, Peter Gallagher, Michael Murphy, et al

From 1982 to 1988, there was but one exception to Altman’s “adapted play” method:

O.C. and Stiggs (1983-7)

This one is especially pleasurable to write about because it is so eloquent about the movie business in the ’80s. It wasn’t released (and then only in a very limited fashion) until near the end of his exile (1987), but he’d directed it shortly after his ostracization began (1983). Like HealtH, if released in a timely fashion, O.C. and Stiggs may or not have prevented Altman’s effective banishment from Hollywood. So that’s the first interesting thing. The second is how very wrong the script is for Altman as a property. It speaks volumes about the idiocy of Hollywood producers that they would think this was right for Altman. But one can also see how they would make that mistake. The film is based on stories written for National Lampoon. It’s a teen comedy of the kind that were just hitting their stride at the time, as we wrote about here. As we wrote above, M*A*S*H can be kind of boorish and stupidly male if all you are is a stupid male. And if the only Altman movie you ever saw is M*A*S*H, you might think Altman might be right for these kind of Lampoon teen comedies, forgetting the inconvenient fact that M*A*S*H was an anti-war satire that visually quotes Antonioni, and so forth. But if you think it’s strictly about Trapper and Hawkeye drinking martinis and banging broads, then you might assign Altman a bro comedy. That’s what happened. And Altman needed the bread and street cred so he took the job, much as Orson Welles had taken Touch of Evil. It’s a job! It’ll keep the lights on!

But what does Altman do with a teen comedy? What he does with all genres. He subverts it. O.C. and Stiggs is a teen comedy that Altman has warped out of all recognition. He obviously hates his two main characters, who seem to live to say and do obnoxious things, especially play pranks on insurance salesman Paul Dooley and his family (which includes secret alcoholic Jane Curtin as his wife and the guy from Pretty in Pink as their son. Louie Nye as a gay school teacher. Tina Louise as a gay nurse. Ray Walston is hilarious as one of the kid’s grandfathers, a crotchety former policeman. Dennis Hopper as a psycho Nam vet. Melvin van Peebles as a pot dealer. It’s one of Altman’s least coherent movies but is so richly crammed with self-indulgent, perverse stuff it’s enjoyable to watch. Also he revives the populist presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker from Nashville and we see him on TV throughout the movie. Needless to say, this movie did not get Altman out of Siberia. But the concept of a campaign? That very much would.

Tanner ’88

This 11 episode tv series for HBO marks the return of Altman Classic. Scripted by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, it stars Michael Murphy as an obscure congressman running for the office of President. It’s done mockumentary style, following Murphy around on his campaign, interviewing people close to him like his campaign manager (Pamela Reed) and his daughter (Cynthia Nixon) and sometimes real people like the actual Bob Dole. This footage is interpolated with real news footage of the actual Presidential campaign that was then in progress (a method not unlike that used by Haskell Wexler in Medium Cooltwo decades earlier). The universe Altman creates is multi-dimensional, with characters represented at every step  of the process, the media, the handlers, the public. Critical opinion at the time was lukewarm but I think it’s brilliant, and an obvious influence on Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts released during the next election cycle in 1992. Altman and Murphy would later revisit the concept in Tanner on Tanner in 2004.

Vincent and Theo (1990)

A drama about the Van Gogh brothers!  One of Altman’s less personal works, made on commission for the BBC. Almost a throwback to Altman’s earlier tv work, except he brings so much to it and it’s so excellent as a film. It’s not a comedy or a satire on any level, nor is it an ensemble piece. The Altmanistic elements are 1) extreme naturalism: it really feels as though we are watching the real events unfold, 2) an abiding interest and exploration of the subject matter, leading to aesthetic pay dirt. The locations and art direction vividly summon Van Gogh’s paintings—the whole movie looks like a Van Gogh painting, full of intensely vivid and vibrant colors. There is nudity and attention paid to bodily functions. We feel textures, sometimes unbearably, as when he drinks paint, cuts off his ear and shoots himself. The movie features Tim Roth and Paul Rhys as the titular brothers, both single minded and crazy though seemingly opposites from each other. Great, memorable performances. And as brilliant stroke, Altman alternates documentary footage of an auction of Van Gogh painting for several million pounds, with dramatic scenes about his obscurity and alienation while he was alive.

The Player (1992)

I was so excited when this movie came out “Altman is back!” was the feeling. I went to see it at the cinema several times, and even read the rather lame book on which it was based. And then I actually went and wrote a school paper on this film and Altman’s whole body of work ( I was an NYU student at the time — it got me an A in Cinema Studies). It’s a very complex movie, holds up to many watchings. It may be Altman’s most self-conscious movie (and that’s saying a lot). It is meant to be decoded and deciphered, critiqued, analyzed…so it was the perfect movie to write about while steeped in all that semiotics crap at NYU. It references Hollywood movies even as it deconstructs them and the entire movie business and the entire act of spectatorship (not just of films but of life, i.e. what is the morality of witnessing something, what is the responsibility?) It opens with one long shot evoking the opening shot of Touch of Evil and the entirety of Hitchcock’s Rope. On and on. This movie sort of picks up on Altman’s contempt for contemporary Hollywood where O.C. and Stiggs left off.   It stars Tim Robbins as a Hollywood studio exec who accidentally murders a screenwriter, Fred Ward as the studio security chief, Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett as cops, and as in Tanner ’88 and Nashville, weaves many real life people playing themselves through the story. The movie was a smash and put Altman back on the map which led to some pretty jaw dropping interviews when entertainment reporters of just the sort that Altman despised asked him clueless questions about the film. It’s not a loving, affectionate “send up” which a lot of these bubble headed reporters seemed to think it was. It was a devastating portrait of a company town without a soul.

Short Cuts (1993)

Certain people at the time talked about this film’s inferiority to the Raymond Carver stories on which it was based. I went and read the stories and found myself unimpressed with the source material. I really, really like the darkness of this film…probably Altman’s “blackest” and very much in tune with the times, the early Clinton years. Last Exit to Brooklyn came out around the same time and I very much associated the two films with each other as being part of the zeitgeist. It is Altman’s sprawling “L.A” film (as opposed to the “Hollywood” film that just preceded it and the Long Goodbye which is a slice of L.A. but not a broad tapestry), with people’s lives interweaving in a Nashville-like tapestry, all of whom have some sordid element to their lives drastically at variance with the image of “Sunny California”. People live in ranch houses on cul de sacs, or in trailer parks. Three fishermen find a dead body but defer telling the authorities til they get their fishing done. A woman delivers telephone sex even as she yells at her children. A kid dies in the hospital (a subplot I found so disturbing I’m not sure I can ever watch the film again). An earthquake covers a murder. 22 people’s lives intertwine in these equally bleak stories, such that we often find ourselves laughing out of shock and horror. Too many people to list but among the cast are Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waites etc etc

Prêt-a-Porter (1994) 

I always refuse to call this movie by the stupid title Miramax bestowed on the film domestically: Ready to Wear, as if Americans are all either already retarded, or the studio executives would like them to be. When the film came out I liked it well enough, but thought Altman had lost control of his huge, sprawling canvas. It’s set in Paris, where Altman lived for awhile during his self-imposed exile. The backdrop is Fashion Week. Nothing much seems to be happening, and what there is you can’t follow, and I think it’s because of the cast size. This must be his largest all-star ensemble, made all the bigger because the usual American suspects are supplemented by foreign luminaries like Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Ute Lemper, Anouk Aimee, and don’t forget the Brits Richard E. Grant and Tracey Ullman and Irish Stephen Rea. This isn’t even a third of them. Plus hundreds of actual fashion models strutting around in clothing ranging from glamorous to preposterous. There’s plenty of satire and plenty of great character acting to keep you entertained, but the story kind of gets tangled up in all the fabric (there’s a murder somewhere in there, but you’ll scarcely remember it).

Kansas City (1996)

Sort of surprisingly this film is about race. One doesn’t immediately think of K.C. as having a major black population or having been a center for jazz, but of course it is and was. (Missouri was a slave state; and think of all those songs with “Kansas City” in the lyrics!) Aside from the fact that Altman himself is from Kansas city, the film seems to have fewer of his usual personal touches, and is told straightforwardly (the predominance of real jazz musicians playing real period jazz music perhaps is the film’s most characteristic gesture). Kansas City may be closest to Thieves Like Us because it’s a heist picture, set in the thirties. Jennifer Jason Leigh playing one of her broad characters—a trash talking, rather ignorant beautician with bad teeth who kidnaps the wife of an important politician so that he (Michael Murphy) will put pressure on the gangster who has captured her boyfriend, who has stolen money from the gangster. The gangster is played by Harry Belafonte—the best acting I’ve seen him do. Steve Buscemi is also in it.

The Gingerbread Man (1998)

An unaccountably impersonal film for Altman to have made, but one that makes more sense once you realize that  Prêt-a-Porter underperformed at the box office, and Kansas City outright lost millions of dollars. Altman’s hand is almost invisible here — it’s almost as though he has returned to his pre-Countdown days, just to see if he could. It’s strictly a John Grisham legal thriller with a typically far-fetched plot, tweaked by Altman, and then messed with again by the studio. Kenneth Branagh as a high powered Savannah defense attorney who becomes emotionally involved with a woman who is being stalked and terrorized by her crazy father (Robert Duvall). Ultimately it turns out he has been tricked by the girl and her husband. The film has very few personal touches…it’s only marginally more complex than typical Hollywood dreck.

Cookie’s Fortune (1999) 

A very warm and fuzzy “little” picture, set in a small southern town. Not hugely ambitious, just another tale well told. Altman deals again with race here. Technically it has the structure of a mystery, but since we know the answer from the beginning (and the characters don’t) and the characters go about it in a very leisurely friendly Southern way, it feels almost like a subversion of the mystery. Patricia Neal is the pipe-smoking matriarch Cookie who’s a little dotty with Alzheimer’s. She misses her deceased husband a great deal, and one day she blows her brains out in her bedroom. She is discovered by her daughters—a fussy, mean-minded one who directs local amateur theatricals (Glenn Close), and one is so spacey she is practically simple (Julianne Moore). Close’s character decides suicide is too scandalous, so she alters the crime scene to look like a break-in and hides the gun. Suspicion falls on the black hired man (Charles S. Dutton), whom NOBODY believes could be the killer, but they must go through the motions of an arrest (even though deputy Ned Beatty is a family friend). Liv Tyler plays Cookie’s granddaughter who’s kind of wild. eventually close’s plan backfires…Julianne Moore sees opportunity to get out from under her thumb and points the finger at her—she’s going to prison. Also, it emerges that the black handy man is actually related to the family. This was Beatty’s first film with Altman since Nashville, 24 years earlier.

Dr. T & the Women (2000)

It took me several tries to watch this movie in its entirety. The first couple of times I found the film’s opening beats and Lyle Lovett’s heavy handed score too irritating. But if you can ride out that opening wave to where things really start to develop, you might enjoy it. In the end, it feels like a rather complex statement. Richard Gere is the titular Dr.T., a gynecologist who is so popular there is a huge waiting list to see him every day. He is not only caring, but good-looking and makes his female patients feel good about themselves. The story is set in Dallas – at first it feels a little too warm and fuzzy…like Altman has lost his teeth. It feels like Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes or something. The women are all extremely privileged – reactionary, almost. None of them work, they’re always dressed to the nines, shopping, etc. But eventually his portrait of Dallas begins to remind you of Altman’s portrait of Nashville; the satire finds its legs. Gere is so loving and caring of his wife (Farrah Fawcett) that she develops what psychiatrist Lee Grant calls a Hestia complex—she reverts to childhood, and is put away. His daughters and sister-in-law (Laura Dern) and all his patients and his office manager (Shelly Long) drive him up the wall…meanwhile he falls into a romance with Helen Hunt, who is completely unlike the 50 other women in the movie. She is athletic (a tennis pro), she dresses kind of like a guy, she is sort of quiet and thoughtful. When his life explodes in a million directions, he runs to her and asks her to run away with him…and we realize that all of his niceness, all of his caring is actually a kind of control. (Hunt rejects him on that basis). He patronizes women, and treats them as pets (they reciprocate, of course, by behaving as pets). In the end, he drives out of town, gets swept up by a tornado, and is awakened by some Mexicans who ask him to help deliver a baby. He does, and it turns out, to his relief, to be a boy.

Gosford Park (2001) 

I love this one so much I’ve seen it 6 or 8 times since it was released (twice in the theatre during its initial run). It’s ingenious…to do the ensemble “Altman thing” with an English cast in an English setting. It’s a murder mystery, set in the 1930s. But Altman is much more interested in the “upstairs/ downstairs” class relations aspect. Perhaps by design this one has so many characters and such a complex story that you literally need to watch it many times to truly know what is going on. Our Virgil seems to be a Scottish maid named Mary (Kelly MacDonald), who serves an old dowager played by Maggie Smith. Michael Gambon is the host who will be murdered, an unlikable, irascible skinflint, who knocks up the maids. Everyone has a motive to murder him. There are like two dozen characters with something to hide, mysterious identities or greedy motives. For me the most powerful moment, the real fulcrum of the things, is when the maid whom the host has been diddling accidentally reveals herself (and their relationship) to all the assembled guests. It is less mortifying because of the acknowledgment of the relationship, but more because—to everyone’s embarrassment—she has presumed to be a human being for a split second in front of them. The servants are all paid to invisible, and seem to live only for and through their masters and mistresses. Even a police inspector played by Stephen Fry, sent to investigate the murder and who presumably has all the authority, is made to feel unworthy. Bob Balaban, who co-produced the film, is in it as an American film producer, as are about dozen major British actors. It was written by Julian Fellowes, who later created Downton Abbey.

The Company (2003) 

The “star” of this film is the Joffrey Ballet. The music juxtaposes dance footage (to music by Van Dyke Parks) with a drama concerning a young dancer (Neve Campbell) who is suddenly kicked upstairs to be one of the principals. Her arc seems slight and a good bit of the film is simply a record of beautiful dance. In the end, Campbell’s character is injured. Was it self inflicted? If it was, I missed that detail, but it would have been stronger if it was. The best element is Malcolm McDowell as the company’s fictional artistic director, kind of a foolish fop. Something interesting here: in the “making of” featurette, McDowell talks about his character straight, with admiration, as though he is merely blunt and brusque and loves his company. Is McDowell just stupid and are a lot Altman’s actor’s pawns? Watching the film, you clearly get Altman’s satirical take. His anti-authoritarianism comes to the fore. McDowell reads as a supercilious fool and a politician (as most artistic directors do) constantly interrupting productive rehearsals with dumb, useless things to say, meanwhile imperiously enjoying his power while underlings scurry to cater to his whims.

A Prairie Home Companion(2006)

When it came out, I thought A Prairie Home Companion was a fairly dreadful movie, with no plot, suspense, or forward momentum of any kind. Garrison Keillor often wove spell-binding, moving tales on his radio show and there is potential and poignancy (and symbolism) in the premise here, that this is the last radio show before the wrecking ball tears down the theater – but the film squanders the potential in a big way. It really seems like an elaborately packaged concert film of an ordinary Keillor radio show. Altman’s style amplified the weaknesses…long passages of rambling backstage chit-chat by the admittedly terrific ensemble. Perhaps an attempt to echo Nashville but the vision is too narrow and it’s Keillor’s rather than Altman’s. WHAT way of life is being destroyed? HOW is it being destroyed? WHY is it being destroyed? It ain’t here. The film’s poignancy is that it is Altman’s last movie…and the one actual plot point is the arrival of an angel (Virginia Madsen) who takes off a dead old-timer. In the last scene, she returns…for whom? It turns out it was for Altman. On subsequent viewings, knowing that it was his last film, I have softened somewhat. Stuff that seemed to ramble seems fraught with meaning. This one will age well as people look at it in that context. Plus Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as Dusty and Lefty, and Maya Rudolph as a producer, and Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep as singing sisters.

But wait! That’s not all!: Altman produced several films which he did not direct, including the Alan Rudolph films Welcome to L.A. (1976), Remember My Name (1978), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), and After Glow (1997); and Robert Benton’s The Late Show (1977). These films feature such Altman regulars and alum as Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Sally Kellerman, Sissy Spacek, Jeff Goldblum, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Julie Christie. But you know what? I’m spent. I’ll have to add those later. This boast is so bloated and sprawling it’s beginning to resemble an Altman movie!