Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Robert Altman, by Mitchell Zuckoff

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, by Mitchell Zuckoff. New York: Knopf, 2009. Hardcover, $35.00. 576pp. ISBN 0-30726-768-7.

Mitchell Zuckoff did a clever thing in Robert Altman The Oral Biography. He captured dozens of interview subjects, from Lily Tomlin to Harry Belafonte to acolyte Paul Thomas Anderson, then chopped up their words into a long chain of testimonials. There’s confirmation and collusion as recollections are made, and until memory itself is indeterminate. One suspects Altman would have approved the results. In its embrace of subjectivity, it has a touch of Rashomon, a film he admired. In its parade of those who were there, it suggests the witnesses in Reds. It exults in his genius. And it is, ultimately and inevitably, Altmanesque.

It’s standard knowledge that actors worshipped him. Likewise that executives sparred with him, and that he coveted artistic control with uncommon fortitude. His ensembles, overlapping dialog, genre remastering, and penchant for jazz and unillusioned morality go back for decades. So what is left to be said about Robert Altman? Morsels here shed light on a director who’s had his psyche, methods, and aesthetics plumbed for ages. He was terrible at backgammon. Weather fascinated him, and in his Kansas City youth, he flirted with a career in meteorology. Why was the final act of McCabe & Mrs. Miller filmed in snow? According to Altman, it was because it snowed that day.

The late Henry Gibson dismissed the common impression that his shoots were one big bacchanal: “Working on an Altman picture requires tremendous concentration, tremendous focus, and I felt a heightened obligation because of the trust that he placed in you.” Robert Altman didn’t become Robert Altman by being everybody’s friend. A few actors in his unofficial stock company fell from grace and were never again summoned. If estrangement happened, it wasn’t accompanied by explosions; Altman had no taste for special effects. Julianne Moore said “all this talk about Bob being this kind of irascible, difficult kind of person? Well, he was never that way with an actor or with a creative person that I saw. Never, never, never. He saved all that for the money people.” Not coincidentally, the money people contribute very little to this book.

A skimming of Altman’s œuvre reveals two high periods and one trough. Following a protracted apprenticeship directing television (Combat!, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bonanza, Route 66), there came the commercial and critical triumph of M*A*S*H in 1970 when he was 45. He topped that by the individual spirit in each of his uncompromising, never-sell-out encores made with the speed and/or desperation of Fassbinder. His ‘70s lineup includes Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, and Thieves Like Us, with A Wedding and Three Women toward the end of the decade. Who would follow up a success on the level of M*A*S*H with such a parade of oddballs so uncommitted to stature, bankability, or longevity? Only Nashville in 1975 returned him to the approximation of a M*A*S*H-sized hit, though it made far less money. Nashville doesn’t need the affirmation of profits. If it’s not Altman’s greatest movie, it may be his most exhilarating to mind and body. Keith Carradine, among others, saw in it the prophecy of Jimmy Carter and John Lennon. “The great artists are the ones who see who we are becoming more so than those who see who we are,” he told Zuckoff.

The era of unreturned phone calls arrived with four stinkers in a row, Quintet, A Perfect Couple, HealtH, and the big-budget mishap Popeye. They came just as Hollywood discovered Indiana Jones, the Force, and ET, making Altman an overnight fossil. He lost a lot of money, sold his home and production company, and even his car, but kept on working in low-budget filmed plays, opera, and television. His reverence for acting never wavered, hence the miracle he pulled off with Cher’s film debut Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy, Jimmy Dean, and Philip Baker Hall’s commanding Richard Nixon in Secret Honor. And whether Altman was in or out, the faithful accepted that he was going to deliver the occasional stillborn child. The amount of goodwill given to the maker of Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, Prêt-a-Porter, and The Company is fairly remarkable. Fans, not producers, smiled and shrugged, and said better luck next time.

His second great movie career began with The Player in 1992, a satire of Hollywood so knowing that it demanded Altman’s full reordination as comeback survivor. He was hip again, pulling in big-name walk-ons for his best “oh, look, there’s . . .” movie. (“Oh, look, there’s Jack Lemmon. Oh, look, there’s Burt Reynolds. Oh, look, there’s Julia Roberts.”) If a few later titles didn’t do well (Kansas City, The Gingerbread Man), there was once again the delighted anticipation of “the new Robert Altman movie.” Cookie’s Fortune and his last, A Prairie Home Companion, are a dreamy double bill of fond eccentricities and leisurely, confident moviemaking. Short Cutsand Gosford Park are the twin glories of his later period. The former, a kaleidoscope of Los Angeles, had critics singing, but left some displeased at so much acid reflux. Gosford Park was a sublime English class study by way of murder mystery in which Altman, true to form, delighted in the process more than the outcome. But, my God, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Charles Dance, Kristin Scott Thomas, Alan Bates, Eileen Atkins, Derek Jacobi, . . .  Was the West End dark while Gosford Park was shooting?

Zuckoff does not ignore the personal, though director Alan Rudolph noted that there were no obvious borders in Altman’s life. “Everything about his movies and everything about him, were completely inseparable.” His first two marriages were flops, but his third, to Kathryn Reed, lasted 47 years and ended with his death in 2006. His five children said he was a hands-off dad, yet none of them sound residually bitter. After a heart transplant in the 1990s, he mellowed. Son Michael recalled that “The last few years we would have these get-togethers and I would catch him sitting in the corner looking at everybody with this grin on his face. And he would say something like, ‘Look what I made.’ It was like one of his better movies.”

Knopf made sure this book was like one of his better movies, too. The cover photo is an extreme close-up mug shot that manages to be simultaneously puckish, avuncular, and satanic. The Oral Biography is long, 500-plus ragged-edged pages set in a dynamic Janson font with plenty of white space and a generous display of photos. It is finished with A Note on Methods, Cast of Characters, Filmography, Awards and Honors, Acknowledgments, Illustrations, and Index. Even the spine is purposefully different, with the names ROBERT ALTMAN and MITCHELL ZUCKOFF rendered in bold, but not much bigger than the page type. An alphabetical list of major contributors, from ANOUK AIMEE to ROBIN WILLIAMS, crawls down the length vaguely like the flickering neon credits that open Short Cuts. In its construction and design, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is a homage across art forms.