”I feel my time has run out. […] The movies I want to make are movies the studios don’t want. What they want to make, I don’t.”
— Robert Altman, in an interview with The New York Times, 1981
“Norman Levy (president of 20th Century-Fox) and the rest are scum. […] They’re not interested in movies. They’re interested in ski lifts and Coca-Cola.”
— Robert Altman, in an interview with New York Magazine, 1980
Robert Altman might be the greatest American filmmaker of all time.
In the 1980s, Altman had been struggling to find the money to make his characteristically sprawling ensemble pieces, movies like his ’70s masterworks Nashville or MASH. He had mostly abandoned studio collaboration, producing his own films independently under the company Lion’s Gate (a company he eventually—and out of desperation—sold to producer Jonathan Taplin for $2.3 million). His ’70s films, although critically lauded and many reaching almost instant cult status, were often seen as commercial failures, even when they made more money than they cost to produce. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark had changed the notion of commercial success in Hollywood and had transformed the “blockbuster” into an ever narrowing category of impossible money-making venture, and—given this industry shift—Altman had felt out of place and left behind.
Alan Ladd Jr., son of Hollywood actor Alan Ladd (Shane) and a 20th Century-Fox executive, had both helped initiate this industry shift (when production of George Lucas’ Star Wars met with studio complaint, Ladd Jr. became its most ardent executive supporter) and been repelled by it (unhappy with the quality of productions at the studio, Ladd Jr. left Fox to form his own independent production company). Ladd Jr.’s departure marked the emptying at Fox of any executive influence with enthusiastic support for artists like Robert Altman. In 1981, after notable commercial “failures” Quintet, A Perfect Couple, and Health (a movie that, deemed a terminal financial failure, never received a nationwide release from distributor 20th Century-Fox, and, to this day, has not been released on any home video format), Altman frustratingly reported to the press, “Suddenly, no one answered my phone calls.”
Adapting to the climate, Altman began working with smaller budgets. Films like 1984’s acclaimed Secret Honor or the 1985 Sam Shepard-penned Fool for Love utilized single locations and tiny casts. Altman had begun directing theater on the side and the influence of the stage became apparent in his work. He collaborated with independent producers on shoestring budgets for nearly a decade, only working with a studio partner once for the abortive National Lampoon-based 1985 buddy comedy O.C. and Stiggs, a film which sat on shelves for years before receiving a commercial release only to be met with poor critical reviews. In 1990, astutely negotiating a television contract, Altman was able to direct the ambitious Vincent & Theo, a biopic chronicling the relationship of painter Vincent Van Gogh (play by Tim Roth) and his art dealer brother Theodorus. Although originally slated as a television mini-series, Altman insisted that he cut a shorter edit of the work to be released theatrically.
The deal was a stroke of genius for Altman; Vincent & Theo was well-received by film critics and helped grant Altman the cache to re-enter the industry with some confidence. Although Altman was not producer David Brown’s first choice for hire, all parties ahead of the luminous filmmaker passed on the project. The Player, a crime satire of the Hollywood industry based on the Michael Tolkin book of the same name, would become Altman’s next film.
It was fitting that Altman would make the film and that it would be his hailed return to larger, more handsomely financed work. Given his trouble finding work throughout the ’80s, Tolkin’s book, which viciously skewered ’80s Hollywood, was a perfect source material to channel Altman’s particular frustrations (as well as his affections) for the studios he knew so well. Moreover, someone with Altman’s virtuosic talents and knack for naturalistically capturing busy spaces, with lots of people moving in and out of the scene, would be perfect to authentically reproduce the studio lots of Hollywood.
The film, starring Tim Robbins as an executive at war with a screenwriter contemplating murder after receiving a series of death threats he believes are sent from his prima donna rival, was a huge success. Receiving three nominations at the 65th Academy Awards (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing) and winning two Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture—Comedy or Musical, Best Actor—Comedy or Musical), The Player won over critics and audiences alike. Even a satire of Hollywood flatters the industry and so Altman was granted a blank check of sorts for his dream project, 1993’s Short Cuts, his late masterpiece based on a collection of Raymond Carver short stories.
The Player screens at Indiana University Cinema on Friday, March 30th at 6:30 pm as part of the continuing 5X series on Robert Altman, From the Margins to the Center. Before The Player, make sure to see Altman’s grand, mysterious and hidden masterpiece, the Shelley Duvall/Sissy Spacek dream-saga of doppelgangers, pools, and free-flowing identities, 1978’s 3 Women, screening Saturday, March 24th at 3:00 pm.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.