Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
By Mitchell Zuckoff
(Knopf, 592 pp., $35)
Here is your exam question: who is the last American movie director who made thirty-nine films but never won the Oscar for best director? Name the film by that director that cost the most money, and name the film of his that earned the most. Clue: The Departed, which must have been around Martin Scorsese’s thirtieth picture, and did win the directing Oscar, cost $90 million (four times as much as any of this man’s films cost)--so don’t go that way. Background info: Gosford Park cost $15 million; Nashville cost $2.2 million; M.A.S.H. cost about $3.5 million, and earned around $70 million; Popeye cost $20 million (in 1980). Here is your assignment: assess and reconcile these allegations in an essay of approximately 3,000 words. (Note: banish from your mind any insinuation that nowadays a director who makes thirty-nine films has to be given a best director Oscar--though it is not easy to think of many that fecund who don’t have a bronze fetish to nurse at night.)
So while you have something useful to do, let’s consider Mitchell Zuckoff’s book on Robert Altman. In the recent history of rather stale or perfunctory books about movie directors, Zuckoff has done something quite special. Although the author is not known as a writer on film, he shows an unusual sense of the collaborations and the conflicts in a group process. Also, he grasps the way in which Altman was always inclined to make a battleground of his own projects--the earnest but passionate misunderstandings between Altman and Warren Beatty on McCabe & Mrs. Miller are so beautifully rendered that we begin to see how the actor’s notion of John McCabe and the director’s had to be at odds for that film to be so funny and so poignant. This is a smart, amusing, lively book, full of anecdotes and a generous step toward perceiving the glorious and perverse ways of Altman himself. I hope the book prospers, because that will assist the enjoyment of some complex films, and because Zuckoff’s achievement is preparation for a full appreciation of what Patrick McGilligan delivered in his book Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, which appeared twenty years ago. (Zuckoff falls short of the obligation of "biography" by not even mentioning the earlier book.)
Today Altman is regarded with automatic respect. As a film-maker, he worked past the age of seventy-five (despite a heart transplant). He eventually won an honorary Oscar from the Academy for a career "that has repeatedly reinvented the art form." And, compared with the outlaw celebrated by McGilligan, we know Altman as the director of The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park, major works in the estimate of most critics and all coming after 1989. Let us remember that when McGilligan jumped off the cliff of taste, his subject’s most recent works had been HealtH; Popeye; Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; Streamers; Secret Honor; Fool for Love; Beyond Therapy; and O.C. and Stiggs. There is something to be said for some of those films--Secret Honor, Jimmy Dean, even Popeye--but the greatest Altman enthusiasts would admit that this was the period of his doldrums. Yes, he kept working under adverse financial conditions, and nearly everything he did was "unexpected," but in general the gap between Nashville and The Player, 1975 to 1991, is one in which Altman seems adrift, or more than uncommonly out of love with himself and the world. It is a period that has to be accounted for in any analysis of his greatness as an artist.
Altman was eighty-one when he died, in 2006, which places him in the generation of American directors shaped by World War II and the remarkable place of cinema in the testing days of the 1930s and 1940s. He was born and brought up in Kansas City, and he was a pilot at the tag end of the Pacific war, a member of a crew, and someone who survived great peril in flimsy aircraft. It made a gambler out of him--or someone who declined to be as responsible as others. He was a big handsome kid who ran through a couple of early marriages as he took up documentary film-making at the Calvin company in Kansas City, a Midwest business for industrial films--but no fiction. This was rare training, and every biographical account testifies to how far some early ties lasted for decades in Altman’s life. But it is striking that he did not really "go" Hollywood. Calvin was a robust, independent company in the non-fiction field, and a place where Altman learned everything he needed about the techniques of film.
Where do film directors come from? When you ask that question, you begin to grasp Altman’s maverick nature. Directors came from good schools--Joseph Losey and Bob Rafelson were Dartmouth; Elia Kazan was Williams College; Howard Hawks was Cornell. There were some from the military--William Wellman, Henry Hathaway, Sam Fuller. There were kids who somewhere or other immersed themselves in show business from the earliest age, learning everything--Hitchcock, Minnelli, Ford. Some were refugees--Wyler, Zinnemann, Wilder. There even came a time, in the 1960s, when would-be directors strolled in and out of film school--Bogdanovich, Coppola, Lucas--as if bypassing life. There were also people who came out of the theater--radical, experimental, wayward souls such as Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, or Preston Sturges. And in America there had always been the tradition of the adventurer who had tried a bit of everything, who had written or acted on stage, who boxed, rode horses, gambled and searched for gold--John Huston is the champion of that school, and it followed that Huston seldom agreed with, say, Hitchcock that making movies was the only possible occupation in the world.
Robert Altman fit none of these molds, just as he never managed to conform to the image of a Hollywood director. At school he was not much taken with anything except pranks and mischief. He liked to have a good time and he enjoyed the facilities of that philosophy--a little booze, some girls, late nights, and spare time. He had an instinct for moviemaking, proved on training films at Calvin, and occasionally he decided that he really ought to try Hollywood. But several visits in the post war years came to nothing. He was busy and well-intentioned, but sort of aimless--is it possible that he never took himself that seriously? A few years later, he admitted that "I started in the film business not too long ago, right here on this soundstage. It was a stormy beginning, and as I remember, I was in such a hurry to ‘make it’ that I often forgot to stand still long enough to do what it was I was trying to do. I’m not sure--even today--that I knew what it was I was trying to do, but I do know that I tried very, very hard, and ran around and around my goal until either I or it became like tigers turning into a circle of melted butter. And never once stopping to wonder what it was I was chasing--or was it, by then, chasing me."
Ambition in movies was supposed to be more sharply focused, but Altman seemed to exist in his own haze. Gradually, during the 1950s and early 1960s, he gathered real credits: he did a bad picture called The Delinquents, and that got him the co-directing job on a maudlin documentary, The James Dean Story. (But there was no hint that Altman identified with Dean, or his troubled generation, or the mawkish theme song on the Dean film--"Let Me Be Loved.") He did some work directing television and he made a sci-fi picture called Countdown. What that meant was that as he came to make M.A.S.H., in 1970, he was already forty-five--in a movie world in which people such as Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, and Spielberg were getting their break at half his age. Was the Kansas City man a late developer, or a drummer who moved to his own lazy beat?
Altman nearly missed out on M.A.S.H. He was not well known enough. There were arguments that it was right for Stanley Kubrick. But two friends, George Litto and Ingo Preminger, carried the day, despite the studio’s refusal to give Altman any points on profits. Then the picture was a breakout hit after Fox had thought it would need a lot of changes. Riotous preview screenings showed that Altman’s insouciance and irreverence had caught a new young mood of 1970. So the military field hospital in Korea abandoned every hallowed sense of duty and respect. It treated the doctoring as a bloody job for hip young guys worried about tee times and fucking nurses. Of course it was truer to life than any war comedy had ever been, and beneath the blood and the wisecracks it was easy to mistake Korea for Vietnam--who really knew, when it had been shot at Malibu and in the L.A. canyons? M.A.S.H. was a merciless celebration of a men’s club--perhaps the only sane way to handle a war--and was so steadily funny that audiences were either offended or charmed. But they were never indifferent. As much as any movie of the 1970s, M.A.S.H. divided the crowd--and though it got a best-picture nomination and a nod for Altman himself, the grindingly archaic Patton won those Oscars. In hindsight, we are left wishing that the inspired teasing and disrespect of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould could be ladled over the pomp of George C. Scott!
M.A.S.H. came from a novel that the distinguished scenarist Ring Lardner Jr. had adapted. But then Altman proceeded to trash and re-do Lardner’s script--the Oscar was the writer’s reward, said the deadpan Altman. At last a personal style was at work: the film was an excuse for an ensemble in which outward codes of rank and duty were dismantled by improvisation and insurrection. The players refused to take anything seriously, and Altman reduced everyone to the level of "support." All of a sudden you could detect an attitude in Altman that most set-piece American movies were stuffed, and deserved deflation and deconstruction. In time M.A.S.H. was a smash (the only one of Altman’s career), and so liberating that it paved the way for a TV series that increasingly settled for the sweet routines of character, comedy, and anti-war sentiments. The astonishing thing about the movie M.A.S.H.--and Altman made not a penny from the TV show--is that it did not even bother to be anti-war.
Neither McGilligan nor Zuckoff really explains how the breakthrough of M.A.S.H. changed Altman, or directed him. In part, this is because both authors found him elusive, rather less than honest, an opportunist, a man who rarely liked to reflect (in public) on his inner being or processes, but someone who could take steady advantage of all those around him. Altman does not make a natural or a comforting hero. He was a drinker, a marijuana connoisseur, a womanizer, a regular exploiter of his own writers. He seems to have had an innate antagonism to the storytelling contribution of his scripts. In interviews Altman could be skittish. Was he unreliable, forgetful, or stoned? In 1975 (after Nashville), this prompted a searching essay by Robin Wood called "Smart-ass and Cutie-pie," on how far Altman was an artist or just a whimsical man at play. Wood’s point remains valid, and it is sad that Zuckoff never picks it up. As with his own best characters, some sense endures of Altman as a lost soul or a bereft nihilist. He was also something of a fraud.
Yet a lot was revealed by the success of M.A.S.H. An astonishing calm and self-confidence--an arrogance nearly--took over in a series of films in which Altman pursued intense personal fantasy or began to strip the old wallpaper from Hollywood genres. Once lackadaisical or casual, he now seemed impassioned and driven: Brewster McCloud; McCabe & Mrs. Miller; Images; The Long Goodbye; Thieves Like Us; California Split; Nashville; Buffalo Bill and the Indians; 3 Women. It is one of the great runs of work in American film. The Chandler film is a satire on or a travesty of private-eye pictures, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller might be re-titled How the West Was Lost; and all these movies caught the audience off guard. As a bicentenary picture, Buffalo Bill was an exposé of all the hype and fraud in Americana. Rather than a tribute to country music and its spirit, Nashville was a pastiche in which any actor could and did write a country hit song. Country music hated the picture.
And just to torment the industry aroused by that $70 million take on M.A.S.H., the next nine films were disasters, flops, near misses, or half-hits. The blithe pattern of Altman’s career was established, well in advance of the "independent" movement in American cinema. If he could somehow find the money to make a film--albeit at his own ground level, where big names contributed themselves for scale--he hardly cared about the result. He would never recapture the fiscal dynamic of M.A.S.H., but he would never go to ground, or stop working.
There was more going on. Often using wide screens, Altman was developing a drifting camera style that roamed around its own imagery. He seemed sometimes to ooze in and out of his own film world. The cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was vital to this effort, but just as important was the way Altman began to mix multi-track sound recordings so that the sound focus seemed to move, with the result that no one could be quite sure what was said or heard. The creative climax of this style must be McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where Warren Beatty, the precise, controlling actor, grew increasingly angry and flummoxed that audiences could not hear every word he was agonizing over. Altman was nonchalant about the blur or the fuzz--it was a strength, he said, it was just like life. His films were becoming like a shifting surface, a labyrinth of ambiguity in which very little was fixed or certain. He was also rejecting the idea--the old Hollywood scheme--that films and life are about just a few people. Life, Altman insisted, is always a ragged circle in which anything that happens is contingent on how it registers on others. Misunderstanding may be a surer path of existence than the old tidy understanding.
Many people said that seeing an Altman picture was like being in a haze, a daze, a drug trip. For every claim that the style was ushering in a new openness of attitude, there were counters that it was just a lazy, dreamy director incapable of making up his mind. That is why the director-star conflict on McCabe goes to the heart of the film: is McCabe a tragic hero or a hopeless chump? Does Altman care, and is he trying to get us to care, or does nothing really matter in the drift? Mrs. Miller’s opium habit promotes the same detachment.
The argument is still open over the group of films as a whole. Nashville--much praised in its day by Pauline Kael, who lashed herself to Altman’s uncertain mast (thereby guaranteeing her subsequent betrayal)--looks like a perilously chic contrivance, with twenty-four characters for the sake of that many, vivid in performance but very sketchy in writing, and in a languid circus that needs the sudden intrusion of assassination to give it shape and an ending. So Nashville may be overrated. On the other hand, The Long Goodbye and McCabe & Mrs. Miller are surely among the most beautiful and musical films ever made. Altman loved music, and jazz especially (see the jam session movie that goes along with Kansas City), and Goodbye and McCabe are eccentric musicals--with one refrain all through the first and Leonard Cohen’s mutterings in the other. Moreover, Altman had reached a visionary insight that while Warren Beatty was a piercing but neurotic movie star, Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe was quite simply one of the hippest pieces of acting in the annals of film.
The Altman of those years was like Ingmar Bergman in the way he had gathered a creative family. It was a gang of oddball actors who had never quite found themselves elsewhere: Gould, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Henry Gibson, Shelley Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, and Lily Tomlin, awkward in everyone else’s films, but stunning for Altman. And he had his team behind the camera too, variously co-producers, co-writers, co-friends, and enablers--Tommy Thompson, Joan Tewkesbury, Robert Eggenweiler, Scott Bushnell, and Alan Rudolph. He was a producer for friends--and so he helped such valuable people as Alan Rudolph (Remember My Name) and Robert Benton (The Late Show), and much later there was a friendship and artistic alliance between Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson. It seemed a happy family until, all of a sudden, Bushnell sought more power and all was upheaval. Both McGilligan and Zuckoff do pretty well at tracing the internecine politics and the odd escapism with which Altman was a capricious emperor who would distribute favors and then give you the back of his hand.
He was not always an easy or safe man to like, or take for granted. The two books show very different experiences. Zuckoff was hired, he says, near the end of Altman’s life, to help write a memoir that would make a nice payday. (Altman was always short of money.) It was to be a book about the work, not the life. They had long sessions of talk and smoking. They became friends, and Zuckoff succumbed to comradeship with an old man who was frail but persevering. Altman’s great kindness to Zuckoff was in dying, for that took away any chance of chagrin and dismay in an abused author. But Zuckoff was persuaded by Altman’s loyal and long-suffering third wife, Kathryn, and by opportunity, to do a book about the life, too--and to do it as an oral biography, adapting to the director’s habit of a circular form and letting everyone have his or her say, even if it comes down to Faye Dunaway’s official kiss-off--"I don’t have anything to say about Mr Altman. I never worked with him. I don’t have any time to give you on the subject"--instead of deep dish on the temperature of their implausible affair.
Zuckoff is a good interviewer and a better editor of the results. But his circle of contacts is smaller than McGilligan’s, and it does not carry the bitterness of McGilligan’s discovery: that the self-serving haze of forgetfulness in Altman’s life often demanded a painstaking readiness to track down the small people who could give the lie to the great man’s lofty and sentimental version of things. The McGilligan book is finally more revealing, because its author was never taken in by Altman or smothered in his embrace.
In the end there is room for both books, because Altman’s best films and his rather chilly elegance have entered our imaginary existence. Very few directors have been so good at detecting the lonely people in the crowd. Beatty’s John McCabe seems like the cock of his jaunty walk, yet he yarns away to himself to prove he exists; Gould’s Philip Marlowe is so twisted out of shape by old codes of honor that he may have his best conversations with his cat. Altman left traps in the ground around himself: no major director made so many awful films. But if some director had made only M.A.S.H., McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women, and Short Cuts, there would be no doubt about his ultimate importance. Yes, he was a trickster and a tricky bastard, a bit of a double-cross. But do not forget that he introduced those lifelike realities at the very moment when innocent and foolish film followers were ready to believe that directors must be heroes, saints, or Santa Claus. We owe him plenty.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.