Robert Altman gets all warm and fuzzy on your ass
Say what you like about Robert Altman, the guy doesn’t quit. Altman didn’t hit the big time until 1969, when he emerged from the shadows as the director of M*A*S*H. Altman has hit the heights, and the depths, half a dozen times since then, but at age 77 he’s back on top with one of his best, Gosford Park.
Gosford Parkstarts with a scene lifted from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game — servants at a grand country house getting drenched during a rain storm in the service of their betters. A shooting party is gathering at Gosford Park, home of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Knowing Altman’s general dislike of the human race, I had expected the Gosford Park crowd to be a gang of coke-sniffing, sibling-humping child molesters, but I was pleasantly surprised. These aristocrats are wicked, all right, but they’re not terribly decadent. All they want is cash. Sex may get you through the night, but it doesn’t put bread on the table. For that you need brass, and Sir William seems to be the only one who knows how to make it. Everyone clusters round his table and hungers for scraps.
Altman’s flat directing style, coupled with the mammoth cast, makes it all but impossible to keep track of the guests. At least I couldn’t do it, and I saw the film twice. Along with Sir William and Lady Sylvia, there are two married daughters and their husbands; an unmarried daughter, Isobel (Camilla Rutherford), still living at home; Lady Sylvia’s brother Lord Stockbridge (Charles Dance) and his wife Louisa (Geraldine Somerville); and the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), who may be Lady Sylvia’s aunt; as well as English film star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), related to someone or other, who has brought along a friend, Hollywood film producer Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), who does the Charlie Chan film series.1) In addition, there’s an apparently unconnected couple, whom I couldn’t identify at all, and two young bucks (Laurence Fox and Trent Ford, probably), one out to marry Isobel while the other provides moral support. And this is less than half the cast, because half the action takes place below stairs, where the servants live.
It’s the split between those above and those below that is the real point of the film — the aimless, idle elegance of those above stairs and the endless, backbreaking work necessary below to make it happen. Jennings (Alan Bates), the McCordles’ butler, presides downstairs, but the servants’ hall is really a fiefdom ruled jointly by two feuding women: Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren), the housekeeper, and Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins), the cook. For the most part, we see the action through the eyes of Mary Maceachran (Kelly MacDonald), the countess’ novice maid, whose lisping, put-upon innocence is a bit hard to take.2
Upstairs, the guests jockey desperately for position with Sir William, but he doesn’t care much for anyone except his doggie, whom he stuffs with creampuffs and other goodies while the humans seethe. Ivor, who knows why he’s invited, sings and plays the piano to dissipate the tension, to the delight of master and servant alike.3)
The actual shooting party sequence is lifted more or less directly from The Rules of the Game but is infinitely less powerful than the original. Renoir believed in the vanished greatness of the European aristocracy and mourned its loss even as he depicted its collapse.4 Altman contents himself with obvious jokes (Sir William is a terrible shot! Ha, ha, ha!) and doesn’t even make us feel the cruelty of the slaughter.5
Despite Sir William’s best efforts to keep it light, one by one his guests corner him and make their demands, and one by one they get the bad news that they’re shit out of luck. Over dinner, Sir William offends everyone so much that he retreats to the library. With the guests’ nerves stretched to the breaking point, Ivor puts in a long night at the keyboard. In a protracted, somewhat self-congratulatory sequence, we’re shown the power of popular entertainment to bring a touch of beauty to the drab, meaningless lives of ordinary folk.
While Ivor sings, we see guests slipping mysteriously in and out of rooms, and ultimately some dinner-jacketed fellow plants a carving knife in Sir William’s chest! We’ve gone from Jean Renoir to Agatha Christie, and Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) is summoned. However, the joke is on us, or Agatha, or somebody, for the inspector’s part is ridiculously overwritten and overplayed.6 As is always the case in Altman’s films, the suits are fools, and it’s up to little Mary Maceachran to solve the case, which she does, but she doesn’t bother to tell anyone, because Sir William rather deserved his untimely end.
The mystery really isn’t the point of Gosford Park. It’s just a convenient theme on which Altman can work his slow, voluptuous variations. What he’s really after is texture. This is the most carefully composed and lighted film I’ve ever seen — scene after scene of silently screaming subtlety and obsessive understatement. It can be exhausting, but ultimately Altman does have something to say.
There are half a dozen subplots in the film, but the one that counts involves Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Wilson. It turns out that they’re sisters. Long ago, they both worked in one of Sir William’s factories, and the old fellow managed to get them both pregnant. Mrs. Wilson gave up her child to be adopted, at Sir William’s urging. Mrs. Croft kept her child, but he died.
All this ancient history has been pulled into the present because Lord Stockbridge’s new valet, Robert Parks (Clive Owen), proves to be Mrs. Wilson’s son, though he doesn’t know it (and she doesn’t tell him). Parks does know that Sir William was the bastard who made him a bastard and sent him to live in an orphanage. He’s come to avenge himself and his mother, and he’s the one who gives Sir William the knife.
However, he’s too late. Mrs. Wilson believed her son was given to a loving couple. When Parks arrives and tells his story, she realizes that Sir William sent her son to live (and, more likely, die) in an orphanage. Infuriated, she doused the old boy’s whisky with a lethal poison before Parks stabbed him. At the end of the film, the two angry sisters, women worn and beaten by life, finally speak of everything they’ve held silent. In a poignant scene, the love they still bear for each other breaks out at last and they grieve for their lost sons in each other’s arms.
M*A*S*Hproved to be one of the most influential of all sixties films,7 no more than half a step behind Bonnie and Clyde. Altman’s flat, undramatic, neo-documentary style, his bloody operating rooms, and his bawdy, insolent doctors all had the ring of truth for the Youth Generation: here at last was the real dope, instead of Hollywood’s candy pills. Somehow, they missed the fact that Altman was a Billy Wilder-style fifties cynic, not a laid-back hippie. Hawkeye and Trapper John were into dry martinis, tight pussy, and birdie putts, not peace and love.
Altman’s cynicism, never more than an inch from the surface in any of his films, was frequently self-destructive. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, should have been a monster hit, but once Altman finished deconstructing the Old West and Old Hollywood, audiences had nothing left to love.8 But M*A*S*H had given Altman a reputation as the ultimate Hollywood outsider that no disaster could tarnish.
Altman managed to get his demons more or less under control in Nashville9) (1975), his magnum opus, concealing his general contempt for mankind under a PC guise. The Establishment (aka white guys) were all shits, while the sympathetic characters, almost invariably women, were either humiliated or shot.
Nashvillegenerated more press than profits for Altman, but it gave him the clout to go on to high-priced train wrecks like Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), Quintet (1979), and Popeye (1980), all of which helped destroy the market for “directors'” films as the seventies drew to a close.10
Altman limped through the eighties without a single hit, doing a lot of TV, but revived his career single-handedly with The Player in 1992, a satire on Hollywood that received enormously favorable reviews, despite being a complete fraud. The whole point of the picture is that “the player,” Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins), really isn’t a player, he’s a mid-level management wimp. He doesn’t hang with the stars and can’t make a picture happen. Altman gives worshipful treatment to the dozens of “great stars” who appear in cameo, notably Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts,11 and the picture has the ultimate PC heroine, Whoopi Goldberg as a black lesbian12 detective.
The Player affected Altman’s career exactly as Nashville did. He followed it with a series of highly anticipated, all-star disasters, including Short Cuts and Prêt-à-Porter. But he’s bounced back once more, with perhaps his most satisfying film.
- Weissman’s character provides the excuse for a lot of lame, self-referential gags of the sort that marred Altman’s wildly overpraised The Player. (See the “Afterwords” for my crushing demolition of this worthless piece of crap. [↩]
- We’re supposed to feel sorry for her, of course. Altman finds it difficult to express sympathy for a character except by showing her being humiliated. [↩]
- But not the countess, who has a bad word for everyone. The inclusion of “Ivor Novello” as a character is some sort of elaborate in-joke that I didn’t get. We’re explicitly told that the film is taking place in November 1932. While Novello is singing we hear a maid say “I saw him in The Lodger, but I’ve never heard him sing in person.” Novello may have been a singer, but I doubt if he sang in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version of The Lodger, which was a remake of the 1926 original, a thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and well known as Hitchcock’s first “Hitchcock,” a sort of first draft of Psycho. (Novello appeared in the Hitchcock version as well. Both films were made in England, not Hollywood, as Altman implies. [↩]
- The Rules of the Game is one of the greatest films ever made. In less than two hours, Renoir achieves a depth and richness comparable to Tolstoy. Many of Renoir’s films, including this one, are available on VHS, but at this writing only The Grand Illusion can be obtained on DVD. [↩]
- By using beaters to drive the game to the waiting hunters, the European aristocracy reduced the thrill of the hunt to assembly-line butchery. On June 17, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria bagged 2,763 ring doves in one day. Two weeks later, he was assassinated, setting in motion a chain of events that led to the start of World War I. [↩]
- Overwritten and overplayed, but it brings down the house. As long as cheap laughs get big laughs, why should directors listen to smart-ass critics? [↩]
- M*A*S*H was the first major Hollywood film to use “fuck” and remains one of the few Hollywood films to show a true contempt for religion. Father Mulcahy, a virtual saint in the long-running TV series, is portrayed as a pathetic moron, sprinkling his holy water aimlessly about and getting in the way of doctors who can actually save lives. [↩]
- They also had nothing left to hear. McCabe and Mrs. Miller probably had the least intelligible soundtrack of any major studio release in Hollywood history. “Audible” and “Altman” are two words that rarely occur in the same sentence. [↩]
- Nashville is famous in part for a hysterically favorable review by Pauline Kael that appeared in The New Yorker several months before the picture was actually released. (Kael wanted to make sure that no one “discovered” the film before she did. Once Nashville was in theaters, she did have the guts to admit that she didn’t like the “America sucks” ending. [↩]
- Buffalo Bill and the Indians, which starred Paul Newman, was a sort of Nashville in buckskin, an achingly PC film that relied on the two equations White Man = Show Business = Evil, and Red Man = Nature = Good. Quintet also starred Newman, along with an international cast, and got terrible reviews. Popeye, which starred Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall, was extremely expensive, generated enormous expectations, and was a complete flop. Other famous highbrow disasters of the era were William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1978), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). [↩]
- Don’t get me started on Julia. Don’t even get me started. [↩]
- I didn’t say that. [↩]