View from the Cheap Seats

On Robert Altman (and a New Biography on his Life and Work)

May 6, 2015 - 11:45 am   |   by
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(Photo by Robin Holland Photography)

Robert Altman said his last “that’s a wrap,” can you believe it, some eight or nine years ago and it seems as though any hope of mainstream studio films with emotional weight, sharp characters, social satire and natural, cliché free dialogue was buried right next to him.

Every Hollywood director since the beginning of the medium owes a debt to Robert Altman. His style was so distinctive, so fresh and so natural that people would say to themselves, “Oh that’s what directors do.”  [Read on here...]

Altman owned the 1970s, which many historians will most certainly remember as being the greatest decade in American film history. After years of toiling in television drama, he directed, far away from interfering studio eyes, M*A*S*H, which would be, ironically, the largest financial hit of his career. From that point until his death, he never hesitated, never stopped. When studios would abandon him, he turned to television; when TV couldn’t find a place for his vision, he went to Broadway then to opera then to film school, where he filmed a masterful single character drama in a sorority house. Then, as though he never left, Hollywood remembered him as his sword became sharper and he worked until he died, with a deal memo for what would have been a masterful final film on his fax machine.

Every Hollywood director since the beginning of the medium owes a debt to Robert Altman. His style was so distinctive, so fresh and so natural that people would say to themselves, “Oh that’s what directors do.”

Altman by Kathryn R. Altman & D'Agnolo Vallan Giulia (Book)A concerted effort to bring Altman and his work around again is paying large dividends – the best movie of last year, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, was a kissing cousin to Altman’s take on Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye and, following an exquisite documentary, which achieved the rare distinction of telling, with equal finesse, both Altman’s personal and professional biography, comes an oversized book that could quite possibly be the most intelligent and thoughtful of its kind. And it’s written in a partnership with Giulla D’Agnolo Vallan and Katherine Reed Altman, as in Mrs. Robert Altman, as in his most effective creative partner, his muse and the love of his life.

And I got to interview her. She may now be the love of mine. A fiercely opinionated yet quite charming and effusive, Mrs. Altman is the keeper of the flame. Would that Orson Welles or other artists who had rollercoaster personal lives, married and divorced and kids here and there had someone that was such a real partner.

Mrs. Altman was an actress, of sorts, and met Mr. Altman during the television stage in his career, they got married with three children of his and one of hers looking on and two more would join the firm later.

She describes the director ever so wistfully as a “honest to goodness boy next door type,” with mid western sensibilities and a strong sense of family and Altman’s brood watched as he continued to slog through television and through his first two major studio features, which were Countdown in 1968 and That Cold Day in the Park a year later. While both films are now considered now to contain signals that would very soon launch an extraordinary career, they were both afterthoughts at the time. In fact, Countdown, which starred James Caan and Robert Duvall, neither the box office star they eventually would become, was released as the bottom of a double bill with The Green Berets. Altman’s third feature was released with little fanfare, mostly as 20th Century Fox had absolutely no idea what to do with it. Featuring a rather starless cast and a feeling of ensemble perhaps unseen in any major picture, Altman, hiding from studio executives during its filming, delivered M*A*S*H.

We all know what happened next, well, actually for the next 25 years. Movies, glorious movies. What we perhaps didn’t know was that Altman’s family traveled for the most part to every location, and that Mrs. Altman, even now, remembers each film mostly by where it was shot, so ensconced was she with the production. The children entered the business too, for the most part – they’re production designers and cameramen and musicians and in the case of Wesley Ivan Hurt, Altman’s grandson, who played, with relish and style, the role of Swee Pea in Popeye added acting to their resume.

Altman’s early output as an “A” list director was astonishing. Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, Thieves Like Us, California Split and The Long Goodbye all hold up grandly today. But, in the Altman canon they were the first pitches toward a home run.

Watch Nashville today. Watch the Criterion Blu-ray. There is absolutely nothing like it.

“Altman” offers a wonderful essay by Kurt Vonnegut (Altman announced in Playboy that he was going to make Breakfast of Champions which, sadly, never happened) regarding Nashville.

“Most that has been done with a movie camera so far has been as silly as a penny arcade. But now Robert Altman has used the camera to produce a ribbon of acetate that, when illuminated from behind, projects onto a flat surface in a darkened room anywhere a shadow play of what we have truly become and where we might look for greater wisdom. The name of the film is Nashville.”

Also included in the book is a 1983 letter to Altman from no less than Richard Nixon, who leaves a giant footprint on Altman’s career, from Nashville, to Philip Baker Hall portraying the president in a one man play filmed by Altman entitled Secret Honor.

Nixon says: “In talking with my daughter Julie recently she told me that one of her all time favorite movies was your Nashville.”

I did not get to see it and wondered if by chance it has been or will be released on cassette. Don’t go to too much trouble but if your secretary would check it out, I’d appreciate it.”

Say that again?

Julie even saw Nashville? Please. She would have needed an interpreter. Mrs. Altman said her husband cherished the letter but what is that about? He was trying to mooch a copy? Those were form letters to every director in town so that he could build up a library?

Post Nashville, there’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, certainly not the film Dino De Laurentiis envisioned, then a series of pictures for 20th Century Fox including 3 Women, A Wedding, A Perfect Couple, Quintet, and, a feature considered so bad that Fox never officially released it and the only such that is not available in home video, Health.

Next up, Popeye, Altman’s musical take on the classic cartoon character. Co-produced by Disney and Paramount, one can only imagine the bone headed studio executives who envisioned the ruination of this character as they later would Yogi Bear, The Cat in the Hat and countless others. I think Popeye, released right at the burgeoning of home video, was the last movie I saw in the theaters over three or four times (I’ve only gone back to see one in the last 20 years, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which I might watch again tonight.)

Popeye was ravaged by the critics and is probably considered a flop today, although it was hugely successful financially. Word to the wise, it’s a masterpiece and plays as wonderfully today as it did thirty years ago.

“Reviewers took aim at Popeye, and made it somewhat of a joke,” said Mrs. Altman. “The reception to that particular film broke Bob’s heart.”

Post Popeye it was slim pickings for Altman and he eventually moved to Paris. It is during this period that the magnificent Vincent and Theo, originally shot for a four hour television mini-series, Beyond Therapy, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which Altman had directed on Broadway, Fool for Love and The Caine Mutiny Court Marshall and other films for television were made Many of these were released very sparsely and most appear today as afterthoughts.

But the old master wasn’t finished yet.

The Player began a strong renaissance of Altman’s work and was a major hit, leading to Short Cuts, Kansas City, Cookie’s Fortune and his last masterpiece Gosford Park.

A true sleeper among this last batch of brilliance was The Gingerbread Man, based on a script by John Grisham and starring Kenneth Branagh. The film went through a very public struggle until Altman’s version was released.

Gingerbread Man is a wonderful, beautiful film,” Mrs. Altman said. “I remember Bob was particularly proud of that one and he fought with all he had to see it released correctly. We had a wonderful time during production, but it zapped Bob that he had to fight so hard for it.”

Altman would receive an honorary Oscar, direct a final film, A Prairie Home Companion and die. And leave behind a voice as lovely as his own to celebrate his career and catalogue his legacy.

“Actors loved Bob,” said Mrs. Altman. “All the greats in the movie business either worked with him or wanted to – from his stock company of Shelley Duvall and Paul Dooley and Keith Carradine to genuine superstars like Paul Newman, Elliott Gould and Meryl Streep, they all realized that he was a wonderful, gentle spirit who made his actors and his crew part of the family and his family at home part of the crew. That was his genius.”

“Altman,” published by Abrams and available where fine books are sold, could be considered a film lover’s holy grail of a coffee table book. Mine would never serve that purpose – it might mean other people would touch it.

Director Robert Altman

 

New on Blu-ray & DVD

Kino Lorber is an important distributor of both classics and brand new independent films which, frankly, need to be seen. In their words, the company “brings critically acclaimed classic and contemporary world cinema to discerning audiences, whether in theaters, at home or online.”

In fact, the above discussed The Long Goodbye, on my all time top ten list, as well as Thieves Like Us and Buffalo Bill and the Indians are available there in magnificent Blu-ray editions.

The company also has, in its library, modern day classics, all mostly forgotten gems, like Hickey and Boggs, Last Embrace, John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pickup, based on the Elmore Leonard novel, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and too many more to mention, but all that you’ll want. (My Oklahoma City friend and noted attorney Mark Brown regularly hides his credit card bills from the little woman with regard to purchasing masterpieces such as these.)

For May, Kino Lorber announces the Blu-ray and DVD releases of two films by masters of European horror: Mario Bava’s The Evil Eye (along with the alternate European cut, The Girl Who Knew Too Much), about a young woman who launches her own investigation of a murder only to learn that she might be next on the killer’s list, and Jean Rollin’s The Escapees, which follows two female mental patients who have escaped from a hospital and embark on a dreamlike journey across the French countryside.

Go to www. Kinolorber.com

While we’re on web addresses, here’s a change – one can no longer find these fabulous, one of a kind films of Warner Archive at its old site – you must now go www.wbshop.com to search for these glorious masterpieces. Just for one day I would love to be the person, or on the committee, who decides what films to release and which ones to dangle in front of us mere mortals as “coming soon.”

This month Warner Archive has released the Blu-ray of the magisterial 42nd Street in glorious black and white. You’ve seen copycats of this showbiz masterpiece, and you may have even seen its Broadway incarnation but this is the real deal and it’s a wonderful piece of history that I’ve watched about eight times.

Get these other titles, many of which, even I, your humble servant who knows all, never dreamed existed. The Goldwyn Follies with Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and the Ritz Brothers, who I still insist, despite negative connotations from those ignorant, are funny; the complete set of Tony Anthony’s (his real name belongs in the forward of The Godfather as these are all Italian westerns) The Stranger and its sequels; Arrow in the Dust, which I would watch just to see its star, Sterling Hayden, as well as my longtime family friend Jimmy Wakely, from Rosedale, Oklahoma; The Marauders with Dan Duryea; Black Patch, starring George Montgomery, who I had dinner with once in Reno, Nevada and Black Gold, with Anthony Quinn, directed by no less than Phil Karlson.

Remember wbshop.com

I love a company called Cheezy Flicks – they come up with some real whack job pictures from who knows where, along with the now and again revival of a true forgotten classic. It was from these fine folks that I recently got my copy of the comedy classic Viva Max.

This month is no different – grab these while you can – Summer Heat, a deep and provocative character study which probably played every drive-in in America; Shelter a new post apocalyptic thriller which merits ownership and Chiller 3, which I’m sure can’t much the subtlety and deep human emotions of the first two. They’re fabulous.

Ah, but Cheezy Flicks has found a real sleeper, one totally lost to time, Silver Bears, a somewhat complicated caper with Michael Caine, who I’ve decided might be the greatest leading man in movie history, Louis Jordan, the great Martin Balsam and, get this, legendary comics Tommy Smothers and Jay Leno. If you have never seen this movie, directed by Ivan Passer, who made many wonderful pictures in the 70s, you should purchase this today.

Go to cheezyflicks.com

Criterion is the granddaddy of all re release platforms for classic films and, lately, they are batting 1000.

First up is the lost film noir Ride the Pink Horse, in fabulous black and white Blu-ray. This is one that hardly shows up on TCM and is a must own. Directed by its star Robert Montgomery with an Academy award nominated performance from classic character actor Thomas Gomez, the rough tough picture is based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, who also wrote the novel upon which perhaps my favorite Bogart movie, In a Lonely Place was based. There are of course tons of extras.

Another crime thriller, this one from the early 70s, is also receiving the Criterion Blu-ray treatment. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, based on the novel by George V. Higgins, the late, great, George V. Higgins, stars a perpetually weary Robert Mitchum, need we say more, as a low life Boston crime figure in over his head. In fact, wasn’t Mitchum always in over his head. Extras here too and a must own.

Go to criterion.com

The great Jean Paul Belmondo stars in two influential and still wildly funny comedies from the Cohen Collection – the first, That Man from Rio, is a real find and a sight to behold on Blu-ray. This spy spoof released in the throes of James Bondage but plays as fresh as the day it was released. Up to His Ears is also available in this package, another Belmondo classic that has the same sense of humor as some of the wonderful Blake Edwards pictures of the same era.

Also this month from Cohen is a personal favorite – Hotel Sahara, directed by Ken Annakin and starring two time Oscar winner and legendary performer Peter Ustinov, as well as Yvonne De Carlo and David Tomlinson, he of Mary Poppins.

Actually, give this wonderful company a hard look. They love movies and I’m proud to know them.

Cohenfilmcollection.com

There are two recent Blu-ray pictures released from Olive Films that I must take the time to discuss, both from the heyday, so it seems, of Republic Pictures.

Stranger at the Door, directed by the William Whitney, the man who no less than Quentin Tarantino says is his supreme influence (also he’s from Oklahoma) is one of the weirdest B picture westerns ever made, and absolutely stunning.

I think this movie had to be one of the first in Hollywood, actually released in 1956, to use generic religion as its key element, with minister MacDonald Carey trying to reform seemingly unredeemable outlaw Skip Homier (an actor who gave it all up and is still among us – he also made an independent feature in Norman, Oklahoma directed by my favorite all time OU professor Ned Hockman). There are some stunts in this film, especially one by what must have been a real wild horse, that are as exciting and cogent as any Avengers picture today. This picture is highly rated and a collector’s item for any lover of the great Hollywood westerns of the 50s.

Also from Olive, is a treasure called The Shanghai Story, which, in 1954, was directed by one of the true giants of American cinema Frank Lloyd, he of the original Mutiny on the Bounty and now almost 20 years later toiling in “B” movies. The Shanghai Story is a distant cousin to Grand Hotel, with a disparate group of western expatriates held prisoner in a Shanghai hotel by the commies. In 90 minutes, this one covers it all and stars noir icon Edmond O’Brien, who that same year would win his Oscar for The Barefoot Contessa and Ruth Roman, a classic Hollywood beauty who had been in Strangers on a Train several years before and worked until her death in the late 70s. Also in this picture is an impossibly young Richard Jaeckel, one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors.

Also available from Olive is Billy Wilder’s masterful Kiss Me Stupid, which would have been much better had original star Peter Sellers not have taken ill, Without a Clue, a terribly overlooked Sherlock Holmes comedy with Ben Kingsley and, again, a splendid Michael Caine and The Beat Generation, an oddball picture of all oddballs, with Steve Cochran, Ray Danton and Mamie Van Doren.

Olivefilms.com

Our terrific friends at Twilight Time read my dreams. They keep releasing these marvelous Blu-ray extravaganzas in very, very limited qualities. Here’s one I must mention specifically.

The Fortune, I think, was considered a dud when it was hit theaters. It’s not. Talk about your all star team, this period piece, released in the mid 70s starred Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, both never better, and was directed by Mike Nichols, who I still can’t believe isn’t with us anymore. If any copies of this comedy, which was never on VHS and never plays on TV, remain in the Twilight Time library, get your copy immediately while you still can.

This month Twilight Time makes available The Story of Adele H., Francois Truffaut’s fabulous tale of obsessive love, starring Isabelle Adjani; The Fantisticks, a wonderful transfer of the classic stage musical, directed by Michael Ritchie; a 1930s based Richard III, starring Ian McKellen, re creating his stage role with other cast Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr. and Annette Benning; Pat Boone and Shirley Jones in April Love, with a lovely score by Alfred Newman; Anthony Hopkins’ greatest film portrayal, as the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day, with Emma Thompson and the legendary English character actor Peter Vaughan, still kicking at 92 and my personal favorite of the lot, the weirdo Zardoz directed by John Boorman and starring Sean Connery.

Screenarchives.com

I’ve mentioned several westerns in this column and, if you are even remotely interested in their cinematic development and the novels upon which they are based, or actually any movie at all, look up my friend Cullen Gallagher. Get on Facebook with him and join the discussion. He and I usually talk… oh, maybe every night, but he’s a young man with both vision and understanding of how that vision was created. He has a wonderful website, pulpsernade.com that he should update more.

Like I should do this column more.

See you at the flix.

- Bud Elder

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