Sunday, April 11, 2010

Terrible Judgment and Excellent Taste (Mitchell Zuckoff's Robert Altman: The Oral Biography)

1. Although I was vaguely familiar with Altman's Catholic, jazz-loving, Kansas City, Mo. upbringing, I didn't realize until reading Mitchell Zuckoff's Oral Biography how long he had lived there before going Hollywood. For years he honed his craft making industrial films for the Calvin Company, whose offices were incidentally in the Altman Building, located in downtown KC and named after his grandfather.

2. I also didn't know that Altman was a WWII fighter bomber pilot who flew over 50 missions, when surviving 30 was considered miraculous.

3. Altman was married three times, the last 47 years of his life to the same woman: Kathryn Reed. When they met, the first thing he said to her was, "How are your morals?" She replied, "A little shaky. How are yours?"

4. Bob and Kathryn met on the set on Whirlybirds, one of many TV shows where he was a director-for-hire and she was an actress with a bit part. Working with helicopters on that show would later inspire the famous opening credits sequence for M*A*S*H.

5. Altman's television work became widely admired. "He was fantastic on Bonanza," reminisces producer David Dortort. "He was the best director I had. The series became sharper, more focused. He was born with a camera in his brain."

6. He had also already acquired a reputation for being difficult. Shot an episode of Combat! (featuring Vic Morrow and Michael Murphy) that the studio told him not to do (and was subsequently fired). Wrote a nasty letter to Alfred Hitchcock accusing the latter of stealing one of his ideas for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Harbingers of things to come.

7. Altman's general contempt for producers and screenwriters dates way back to this period. So too does his admiration for actors. Throughout the book, Murphy and countless other performers marvel at how open Altman was to their ideas compared to other filmmakers. Reza Badiyi, who worked on Altman's first directorial credit, The Delinquents, says, "If you go on the set of a Sam Peckinpah and you want to tell him anything, he kills you right there."

8. While Altman's body of work is primarily known for its collection of remarkable performances, Zuckoff makes a convincing case for his innovations in technical aspects of moviemaking. These originated even before he went to television, while making documentaries at the Calvin Company. A sound engineers recalls that he "had this passion for sound. He was always looking to do sound a different way, different than everybody else." Additionally, a former cameraman praises Altman's ability to find "something different in the way of camera angles, the way he accomplished shots."

9. These qualities failed to come together for Altman's late-60s forays into film, Countdown and That Cold Day in the Park. They did come together in 1970 for M*A*S*H, but only after every other major director had turned the picture down. Altman also originally turned it down.

10. Stanley Kubrick was the first choice to direct M*A*S*H. Needless to say, that would have been a different movie.

11. Despite what became his glowing reputation with actors, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould so hated working with Altman they tried to get him fired. Says Gould: "I think that, in hindsight, Donald and I were two elitist, arrogant actors who really weren't getting Altman's genius."

12. Although there is a great deal of fawning by many from Altman's ensembles in Zuckoff's book (too much of it, in my opinion), the most interesting reflections come from the contrarians. For every ten or twelve actors rhapsodizing how Altman made them feel "safe," there's a Julie Christie who, recalling her reluctant walk-on in Nashville, says that "Robert by no means got his way by being sweet all the time. He could be manipulative." Keith Carradine, Robert Duvall and Shelley Duvall echo each other's sentiments that the first time you ever turned down a part for one of Altman's movies (as Carradine did the lead for Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Bob Duvall did Haven Hamilton in Nashville, and Shelly D. did the female lead in A Perfect Couple), there was a good chance you'd never be asked to work with him again.

13. The director's technical wizardry also receives a compelling critique from Warren Beatty, who, at the end of a lengthy chapter on McCabe & Mrs. Miller where he's roundly mocked and dismissed by several from Altman's stable, makes a good case that the movie would have been even better had Altman taken time to improve the sound.

14. Still, his bursts of inspiration, when they arrived, could be flabbergasting. McCabe's famous climactic shootout in the snow was filmed by Altman on the fly (against Beatty's protests). The recurring variations of John Williams' theme for The Long Goodbye was also Altman's idea. Ditto the inspiration for "Suicide is Painless," the famous theme song for M*A*S*H written by his son, Michael Altman (who ended up making more money for his work on the movie than his father did). Paul Newman, who starred in two of his films (Buffalo Bill and Quintet), goes deeper than most other actors by explaining that "Bob directs using active verbs....I was playing a scene with another actor....and (Altman) said, 'Crowd him.' It was so clear and so defined and unmistakable what he wanted from that scene and from that character that he made it easy to play."

15. For all of Altman's fights with Hollywood "suits," his reputation as an undisciplined freewheeling director has been widely overstated. Little known is the fact that he usually delivered his films on budget and on time, often coming up with ingenious ways to save money. (The crowd at the Parthenon at the end of Nashville, for example, originally came for a cookout. Secret Honor was shot at the University of Michigan -- its lead, Philip Baker Hall, recalls -- because they "could get certain special conditions from the Screen Actors Guild...because he could shoot it as part of his class work, and he could also use the kids.") His own money slipped regularly through his fingers (as did Michael Altman's lucre from M*A*S*H), but Altman was relatively conscientious about handling the finances of others.

16. Also misunderstood, Zuckoff suggests, is Altman's emphasis on "improvisation." Many of the scripts he directed were quite formulaic. Altman would disguise this not through improvising but density: overlapping characters, dialogue, situations on top of each other to create the illusion of spontaneity. I think I agree with this. A good example that comes to mind is Gosford Park, where many of the crucial exchanges between Helen Mirren and Clive Owen occur along the edges of scenes.

17. I lost the quote in the book, but one interviewee notes that Altman had a curious quirk while directing movies: after a patient, painstaking preparatory phase, he would frequently rush to finish a film when he neared the end. John Considine, one of his longtime collaborators, believes that physical problems prompted Altman to hurry through the editing phase of Buffalo Bill: "I always thought if he went back and recut it, it could have been a more successful film."

18. Zuckoff captures the pain of Altman's "wilderness years" in the 80s, following the disastrous reception for Popeye (which still managed to gross $60 million on a $20 million budget). But he also highlights some important artistic successes, namely Secret Honor and the groundbreaking Tanner '88 series for HBO. 

19. As a teenager during this time, I was underwhelmed by Nashville and one or two other movies of his that I had seen on crummy VHS tape. The first Altman film I liked was actually one of his return-to-television movies, 1988's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. I still remember being taken aback by Eric Bogasian's rambling drunken monologue at the end of the film, where he calls out Queeg's critics for their hypocrisy. Not in the original, I'm guessing.

20. This anecdote isn't in The Oral Biography, but I also recall warming to him again after reading an interview he gave about ten years later, following the unexpected box-office success (by his standards) of 1999's Cookie's Fortune. The conversation turned to film criticism, and the interviewer brought up James Cameron's infamous letter-to-the-editor to the Los Angeles Times where the King Of The World called for the firing of Kenneth Turan on account of the critic's negative review of Titanic. "James Cameron, can he write?" Altman deadpanned. Then added: "He deserved a negative review. It's a shitty movie."

21. At the 1993 Academy Awards, where Altman and his seminal comeback, The Player, were nominated for several Oscars but up against Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, he and Kathryn sat in the front row and munched on a bag of her pot brownies. "We'd clap and appreciate," she laughs, "and every time we'd tuck in our legs so (Eastwood) could get to get his Oscar...By the time he got up there to get Best Picture -- we were all for him."

22. Neve Campbell, who worked with Altman near the end of his life on The Company, corraborates his love of weed, which seemed to increase after he gave up drinking: "I don't know any eighty-year-old who could smoke as much pot as he could and still function."

23. Altman was in dangerously poor health in the mid-90s, while making Ready to Wear and Kansas City. Soon after he had a heart transplant, which wasn't revealed until eleven years later, when he accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2006 Oscars.

24. Altman was not allowed to make A Prairie Home Companion until Paul Thomas Anderson, his protege and close friend in the last years of his life, agreed to be on the set as backup director. "The last day we shot the last scene, the one with Kevin (Kline) with the garbage falling and him playing the piano," Anderson recalls. "And Bob definitely had a melancholy feeling about him, in his face."

25. Although A Prairie Home Companion has an aura of finality about it -- Altman's Tempest -- he continued working up til his death. He directed a play in London, Resurrection Blues, whose poor reception producer Scott Griffin blames on its star, Kevin Spacey. "He's the Norman Bates of show business," Griffin colorfully states. "One minute he asks you to come in from the rain, have a sandwich, and talk about his bird collection, and the next minute you're standing there buck naked and he's dressed as an old lady, coming at you with a carving knife. At least that's how he treated Bob."

26. There were also plans for another movie, the wonderfully titled Hands on a Hard Body, to be an ensemble picture about a group of people who "try to win a truck by keeping a hand on it longer than anybody else." Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Steve Buscemi, Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Chris Rock, and Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson were among the cast. Wish we could have seen it.

27. Upon completing Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, I came away with a vivid sense of how clearly his art was based on actual life experiences, as opposed to the film-school brats whose works often seemed to reflect other people's movies.

28. I don't mean to imply that the latter directors were wholly impersonal. A constant theme in Spielberg's films is fear-of-abandonment, the result of his parents' divorce; Coppola's recurring obsession is the tension produced by familial bonds; Scorsese's best movies have frequently focused on the struggle of the individual within an urban environment. All these filmmakers have channeled their lives into their art. Nevertheless, it's one thing for a young man to make a war movie (as Spielberg did in his teens, setting off firecrackers in the desert), and quite another for one to experience real combat. Moreover, the book underscores the difference between studying great movie scenes in film school (or at a video store) that an aspiring auteur may come to steal pay homage, and developing a singular style as Altman did.

29. There's also a good lesson in Altman's ability to adapt in hard times, his refusal to give up. However, Zuckoff is keen to note that Altman brought many of his problems on himself. It was admirable to not sell out following the success of M*A*S*H, for instance, but it also smacked of petty jealousy to accuse Larry Gelbart's TV version of being "racist." (For me, seeing the original movie after years of watching the show was a discombobulating experience, so I can imagine the reverse was true for Altman. Still, in some ways I think the early years of the series hold up better than the film. Gelbart, the showrunner for the first handful of seasons, was as comedically brilliant and biting as Altman, his roots steeped in more of a vaudevillian tradition.) 

30. On the heels of Richard Schickel's recent tirade against Altman in a non-review of Zuckoff's book, it's richly amusing to see an image of an early poster in the book with a huge rave at the top by none other than Schickel himself: "M*A*S*H is what the new freedom of the screen is all about!"

31. Last, my favorite anecdote from the book comes from producer Peter Newman, who introduced Altman to his teenage son following a panel discussion of A Prairie Home Companion. "At the end of the evening I brought my son up, and said...'I just want you to know his favorite movie of all time is Brewster McCloud,'" Newman recalls. "Bob grabbed the bottom of his beard, stroked it a little bit, and smiled. He said, 'You have excellent taste -- and terrible judgment.'"


The Film Doctor said...

Nice notes, Craig.

I have the book on hand, but I haven't had a chance to finish it yet. I liked the point about how once Altman had flown all of those war missions, it made him fearless in Hollywood. What could Hollywood do to him that would compare? I also noted that the recent Beatty biography also mentioned Warren's problems with Altman's sound in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. M*A*SH still strikes me as unnecessarily vicious, but I was just thinking of teaching it again. The Player is still my favorite of Altman's movies.

preriabl said...

As someone who loves Altman and still remembers "Touch the Truck" - the genuine gameshow that presumably inspired "Hands on a Hard Body" - I wish we could have seen it too.

Unknown said...

Great review post. No mention of Short Cuts though! My personal fave. Another good book is Altman on Altman. The whole book is one big interview - it covers all the Whirlybird stuff and the the frictions and tensions on set etc. I'll have to get this book. He was my favourite director after I'd only seen one of his fims. I am still convinced that every line of Short Cuts is in time with the background music! Interesting point for me in your review was that he commanded strong performances from his actors.

Edward Copeland said...

The drunken monologue is a staple of The Caine Mutiny. Jose Ferrer is great delivering it in the film version starring Bogart as Queeg.

Craig said...


I liked the point about how once Altman had flown all of those war missions, it made him fearless in Hollywood. What could Hollywood do to him that would compare?

That resonated with me too. Don't know if you've come to it yet, but there's a section about a young author who wrote a WWII book that resonated strongly with Altman because it depicted all the pilots not as war buddies, but rather hating each other's guts. Just as Altman's fellow pilots hated him.

M*A*SH still strikes me as unnecessarily vicious, but I was just thinking of teaching it again. The Player is still my favorite of Altman's movies.

I'd be curious to read your report on a class reaction to M*A*S*H. As I mentioned, I've always had trouble getting into it because I'd experienced the TV series first. But if your students aren't too familiar with the show, maybe the movie would be a fresh experience for them.

Hard for me to pick a favorite Altman film. Nashville is the movie he'll be primarily remembered for, and justly so. Yet I adore McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Craig said...

preriabl --

I haven't seen the game show, but did you know there's a documentary called "Hands on a Hard Body" that the movie was going to be semi-based on? I didn't, but now I'm curious to see it.

Pass me the laser beam --

The book has a nice chapter on Short Cuts that discusses the similarities, differences and mutual admiration between Altman and Carver, as well as Tess Gallager's crucial role in making the movie possible after Carver's death. Altman told her that he wasn't going to do a literal translation of Carver's stories, and she supported that. I think you're right about the music.

Craig said...

The drunken monologue is a staple of The Caine Mutiny.

Is it? Unbelievably, I've never seen all of the Bogie version. The way Altman staged Bogosian's was fascinating, wall-to-wall with his usual overlapping dialogue. I'll have to watch for the end of the other one to compare.

Jason Bellamy said...

Just wanted to second the appreciation of these notes. Some great stuff here.

There are still a few essential Altman movies I've never seen, McCabe being the biggest, I guess. I'm kind of conflicted about his style. M*A*S*H does little for me, but I'm not a big fan of his lead actors (I liked Sutherland later in his career). Nashville is brilliant in stretches and yet still in need of a healthy edit, though Altman's biggest fans would smack me for suggesting such a thing. The Player might be my favorite Altman, but even in that film my attention wanders. Maybe Altman's movies don't speak to me, but I find that they most resonate when I haven't seen one of them in a while -- as a contrast to other filmmakers. Watching them in close succession robs them of some of their power, for me.

Craig said...


I admit Altman is an acquired taste, one I didn't even like for a long time. His movies do have this weird effect of being relics of their era yet also aging quite well. Not sure why that is.