Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Altman: The Oral Biography" (2009), by Mitchell Zuckoff

(BellemeadeBooks is on vacation during the month of August. Here's a review originally posted in October, 2009.)

Robert Altman now has a well deserved biography by Mitchell Zuckoff, in which the director's associates and friends get to speak their piece about working with one of Hollywood's most visionary (if cantankerous) directors.

Altman: The Oral Biography (Knopf) resembles one of Altman's own films in its crowded, overlapping, conversational style and layered points of view, a tale-telling device that enhances Altman's own public and private image -- the book's press release uses words "eccentric" and "rollicking," but it would be difficult not to see that many of his associates thought of Altman as a meticulous craftsman with a mercurial temper, to put it mildly. Producer Richard Zanuck recalls a discussion with Altman about shooting on location:

"When he was gearing up he came in and said, 'I want to go scout Korea.' I said, 'Why? We're not going to Korea. We're going to the studio ranch in Malibu.' He said, 'This is ridiculous.' I said, 'Go out and look. I'll show you pictures of mountains in Korea. They match perfectly with what's out at the studio ranch.' It was probably more Korea than had we gone to Korea. Nobody knows what Korea looks like, anyway. That's what I said to him and he got very angry.

He said, 'We're going to shoot that golf scene in Tokyo.' I said, 'No we're not. We're going across the street to Rancho Park. There's a golf course. All you have to do is get a couple of Japanese girls and dress them up and they're caddies.' One golf course looks like another. Why would we ever do that?

In those exchanges, Bob was a guy who didn't like authority. He was a real rebel. I always felt that underneath that anger there was kind of a playboy. I would see the way he would dress, in the Paris airport, with the hat, the flashy white suit. I think there was a rogue element about that."

The unexpected commercial success of M*A*S*H made the 46-year-old director appear like an industry newcomer, but he already had years of series television work (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, Route 66, Maverick). He abandoned linear storytelling -- television's hourlong episode with the tidy ending -- for movies that seemed more like a vision of real life: confounding, with seemingly wandering plots and often morally ambiguous characters.

Sometimes the approach backfired: the follow-up to M*A*S*H was Brewster McCloud, a zany fable featuring Bud Cort. It was gamble that he would not repeat but the movie featured actors who would work with Altman through the years: Michael Murphy, Sally Kellerman, Rene Auberjonois, Shelly Duvall.

The cast of familiar faces became legion. If his movies became more episodic and seemingly disjointed, the troupe of recurring names in an Altman film became a directorial trademark. It was a neat twist on his years of serial television work: the same actors appeared in film after film, just as in a television series, but the characters they played were always different, with a new set of challenges. It was a riff on the 1950s-variety TV dramas that he had characterized, dismissively, as "cheese."

Making films, he found, bruised his ego even more. Hollywood, for its part, resisted almost to the end. "I don't like what you do," Jack Warner told him before the success of M*A*S*H. His abrasive, hard-drinking reputation only made Altman's ego more of an issue in an industry becoming increasingly corporate. And if the studio heads were confounded by his personal style, actors were equally mystified by his directorial techniques. Michael Murphy gets quoted as saying that the director's standard speech, after an evening of heavy drinking, was to declare that "no one in this room knows what this movie is about except me."

Such certainty was guaranteed not to make him many industry friends, and for his part Altman didn't seem to mind the neglect. "We're not against each other. They sell shoes, and I make gloves," he once quipped about working in Hollywood. He found actors who respected his fierce independence, directing Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Julie Christie. He kept working, and kept butting heads with writers, producers, studios. He felt he had been badly treated, was angered at studio interference, and balked at playing Hollywood games. (Altman was Warner's late and uncertain choice to direct M*A*S*H after producers realized that "Kubrick will probably turn you down.")

Although he was nominated five times by the Motion Picture Academy for best director, Altman never won -- a testament, perhaps, to his lifelong skirmishes with Hollywood. It's a distinction he shares with Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. Finally, mellowing at 81, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award, which he accepted with some grace considering his well-known battles. Zuckoff interviews Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Paul Newman, Julie Christie, Elliott Gould, Martin Scorsese, Robin Williams, and many others in his book, who speak frankly and with great affection.

Altman's films may have been shrouded with what Jack Warner called "fog on the lake" -- constantly-shifting dialogue and the ricochet of half-heard conversation -- but his movies are more about character than clarity. Altman: The Oral Biography is a fair and unblinking portrait of a director who carefully crafted his image as a tough guy, and offers as much clarity as those who remember him will allow. The rest is left up to the moviegoer. "To me, I've just made one long film," Altman said on receiving his Lifetime Achievement Oscar, in 2006. "I know some of you have liked some of these sections. And others, well, that's all right."

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