Remembering Robert Altman

I was understandably nervous and excited to meet this man.

It was May 5th, 2004 in Stamford, Connecticut. As co-founder of a newly restored landmark cinema called the Avon Theatre, it was my privilege to host Robert Altman at our gala re-opening event. Better still, as part of the program, we'd get acquainted with Altman and his wife Kathryn at a small private dinner beforehand.

My nerves came from opening night jitters, but also from the director's reputation as a maverick and the fact he rarely smiled in photos. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded: soon after the couple's arrival at a cozy restaurant close to the theatre, I found myself completely disarmed and at ease. Robert Altman was turning out to be one of the more generous and unassuming people I'd ever encountered.

True, he was not a big smiler, but it was quickly apparent this was due solely to a natural mid-western reserve. In addition, Kathryn, his spouse of 45 years, was consistently gracious and delightful. Altman ordered a drink for Kathryn and himself, told me to call him "Bob", and we were off to the races.

We spoke of his early days learning his craft, directing episodes of the 60's TV series "Combat". He said it was the best training he could have hoped for, and was grateful to have been paid to learn the tricky, time-sensitive art of directing for live television.

After the meal, strolling with me to the Avon, he made a comment I'll never forget: "People should realize that when they revisit a truly great movie, they'll always see it with fresh eyes. It's always better to see a great movie again than an average one the first time."

That night, both houses of the Avon were packed, with the larger theatre showing Altman's classic "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", and the smaller house featuring "The Company", a more recent production starring Neve Campbell. Patiently, Bob went from one theatre to the other, gave everyone the same self-deprecating welcome, and introduced each movie.

After the screenings, the audiences merged into the large house for a Q&A session that lasted a full hour. The director (then almost eighty) was engaged and eloquent throughout. At about half past eleven, it was all over, and after warm farewells, the Altmans headed back to New York City.

Two and a half years later, when I heard Robert Altman had passed away, beyond the inevitable sadness I could only feel exceedingly grateful to have met him that one magical night in Stamford.

In my own speaking engagements since then, I've often repeated Altman's advice about the joy of seeing great movies again. Leading up to what would have been the director's 85th birthday in three weeks, I propose we honor his memory and legacy by revisiting some of his most enduring work.

M*A*S*H (1970)-
Altman's breakthrough black comedy details the shenanigans of three rogue surgeons (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Tom Skerritt) assigned to a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Their uproarious hijinks, including impromptu golf matches, stealing requisitions, seducing comely nurses, and tweaking the military establishment- serve to distract them from the daily horrors they face in the operating room. In the end, they get away with it because they take the saving of potentially wasted lives seriously, excelling as surgeons. This ground-breaking film remains my personal favorite Altman work, a sharp, seamless blending of comedy and anti-war film that still feels completely fresh and innovative (example: the extensive use of overlapping dialogue sequences was a first at the time.) Top-notch performances throughout (the Oscar- nominated Sally Kellerman stands out as Nurse Houlihan, dubbed "Hot Lips") and some unbearably funny, fast dialogue distinguish this memorable outing, soon to be adapted into one of TV's longest-running series. Altman received his first Oscar nod for Best Director, and Ring Lardner, Jr. deservedly nabbed the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. A caustic, hilarious, delightfully irreverent triumph.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) -
John McCabe (Warren Beatty), gambler turned entrepreneur, finds a remote community in the 1900's Pacific Northwest, and with the help of savvy madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie), builds it into a thriving town. Soon, some determined business interests want to buy McCabe out, but he refuses, forcing an eventual showdown. Altman's dark, ironic tale is more mood piece than classic western, painting an unidealized portrait of our country's expansion. Though we side with McCabe against the corporate interests, we realize we're actually rooting for a crooked card-shark whose relationship with a drug-addicted prostitute is anything but healthy. The movie's filled with stark, stunning visual set-pieces (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond), and boasts one of Beatty's best performances. This is more peak Altman, and don't miss that finish!

Images (1972)-
Altman's subtle, under-exposed chiller concerns Cathryn (the late Susannah York), a woman whose last vestiges of reality are giving way to schizophrenia. Her disintegration occurs mainly at the Irish country home which she and her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) share. Other mysterious, predatory men pop in and out of the film as well, but since the viewer is trapped inside Cathryn's diseased mind, it's hard to tell just who or what is real. Weird, creepy film builds dread and disorientation as we experience madness right alongside the central character. Altman's choice of rustic Irish setting is ideal, as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (again) uses its dank, remote quality to accentuate Cathryn's building isolation and paranoia. The movie's bleak, opaque quality will not be to all tastes, but psychological horror fans should pounce. York is outstanding in the lead.

Nashville (1975)-
This ensemble drama finds mean-spirited, patriotic crooner Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), mentally fragile country queen Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), philandering folkie Tom (Keith Carradine), and more than 20 indelible characters--performers, wanna-be stars, groupies, runaway wives, and Bible thumpers--crossing paths over a long, eventful weekend in the Country Music Capital of the U.S.A., where a political campaign is also underway. Altman's sprawling masterpiece cleverly satirizes both the wholesome image of the country-music industry and the values of the "Me Generation". But the enduring strength of the film lies in the hands and hearts of the many talented actors-- Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Jeff Goldblum, Karen Black, and Shelley Duvall, to name a few, who populate this rich cinematic mosaic. Real-life singer Blakely stands out as a troubled star modeled after Loretta Lynn. In yet another grand Altman-esque gesture, the actors composed their own songs for "Nashville"--and a most tuneful soundtrack it is.

3 Women (1977)-
Shy Texas gal Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) has just relocated to a small North Carolina town, where she takes a job working at a rehab center for the elderly. After befriending garrulous co-worker Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), the two move in together. Over time, Pinky becomes obsessively attached to Millie, whom she idolizes. But Millie's dalliance with Edgar (Robert Fortier), a former TV stunt man, threatens to turn Pinky's world inside out. This moody, dreamlike drama of psychological obsession was one of Altman's finest films of the 1970s, owing mostly to his two female leads, whose performances are surreal and strangely touching. Altman, who based his script on an actual dream, focuses heavily on atmosphere and symbolic visual imagery, but he allows his actors--especially Duvall, as the chattering Millie--plenty of room to unravel their weird Southern personas. Vague, provocative, and awash in a hazy blue-and-yellow palette, "3 Women" is a bewitching tale of naiveté and emotional distress.

Secret Honor (1984)-
Shortly after his resignation following the Watergate scandal, former U.S. president Richard M. Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) sits alone in his private study late at night, dictating his memoirs, with a bottle of Chivas close at hand. Downing a few drinks, then a few more, Nixon rants bitterly about Khruschev and Kissinger, Castro and the Kennedys, revisiting his past glories and failures while attempting to rehabilitate his tainted image. A filmed adaptation of Philip Baker Hall's tour de force one-man show, Altman's "Secret Honor" presents Nixon as a blustering paranoid-obsessive consumed by rage and a crippling insecurity, but also as a man with deep regrets about his life and legacy. Hall is haunting as the broken, isolated former leader, and Altman's unique visual sensibility lends a restrained but effective cinematic quality to the single-actor, single-setting environment. Disturbing and poignant, "Secret Honor" is a complex look at a misguided, misunderstood, and ultimately, quite pathetic figure.

Vincent and Theo (1990)-
Dark, complex film delves into the fraught relationship between artist Vincent Van Gogh (Tim Roth) and younger brother Theo (Paul Rhys), a struggling art dealer who single-handedly supports his penniless, eccentric older brother for most of Vincent's life, sacrificing his own happiness and fulfillment. The long-suffering Theo spends his time either selling inferior art work to rich dilettantes, pushing his brother's work to a dismissive public, or struggling to keep Vincent from descending into madness. There exist several worthy films on the character and work of Van Gogh, this now revered artist who ironically sold only one painting during his lifetime. But only Altman's entry probes the mysterious, mystical connection between the brothers. Vincent's tormented genius acts on Theo like some invisible magnet, drawing him into a caretaker role, while making him keenly aware of his own relative ordinariness. Altman evokes a rich sense of period, and elicits winning performances all around (most notably, a juicy turn by Jean-Pierre Cassel as a pompous art patron). The two leads shine as well, particularly the intense, mesmerizing Roth in an Oscar-caliber portrayal. At the end credits, this unsung film leaves us sensing the immense frustration of ill-timed brilliance.

The Player (1992)-
Studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) has a comfortable, if hectic, life as a Hollywood green lighter, listening to pitches for bad sequels and misbegotten action flicks while schmoozing with a who's who of silver-screen luminaries. Mill's cushy life begins to unravel, however, when he starts receiving anonymous death threats. Spooked and frustrated by the harassment, Mill has a fateful parking-lot confrontation late one night with pushy screenwriter David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) that leads him to the brink of ruination. No one has an eye for human behavior like Altman, and this caustic satire of backstabbing power brokers and anxious movers and shakers in La-La Land really soars, thanks to a brilliant script by Michael Tolkin, adapted from his own novel. Robbins is creepily understated as a put-upon exec, the drifting center of a sprawling cast that includes Greta Scacchi as a painter and Buck Henry, Dean Stockwell, Fred Ward, and Peter Gallagher, all incarnating various types of preening, unctious "players" in Hollywood. Watch for cameos by A-list celebrities too numerous to mention, and too much fun to give away.

Short Cuts (1993)-
In the director's ambitious follow-up to "Player", featuring a decidedly different side to the City of Angels, myriad lives crisscross and intertwine in a sprawling ensemble drama adapted from Raymond Carver stories. As various couples bicker and struggle with love, sex, marriage, and alcohol, three friends on a fishing trip (Fred Ward, Buck Henry, and Huey Lewis) find a woman's dead body but decide not to report it, an aging philanderer (Jack Lemmon) confesses his infidelities while his grandson lies comatose after an auto accident, and a birthday-cake baker (Lyle Lovett) seethes with anger over a trivial slight. The inspired match-up of Carver and Altman makes for movie magic in "Cuts," a character-driven comedy/drama that wrings a lot of emotional truth from its engaging, ever-proliferating storylines, much like the director's previous film quilt, "Nashville." And you'd be hard-pressed to find a quirkier, more accomplished cast, including Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Matthew Modine, Andie McDowell and Bruce Davison, who inject humanity and eccentricity into their roles with effortless naturalism. The film is long at just over three hours, but "Short Cuts" is such an enthralling (and constantly varying) slice of life that you hardly feel the time passing.

Gosford Park (2001)-
"Gosford" transports us back to Great Britain circa 1932, and a weekend shooting party at the country estate of war profiteer Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his much younger wife Lady Sylvia (Kristen Scott-Thomas). Guests include Sir William's sister the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith), the proverbial poor relation, assorted other relatives and in-laws, even stage and movie star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam). The verbal sniping and assorted bed-hopping one might expect from the blasé, debauched upper classes takes an even juicier turn when Sir William gets offed. Scotland Yard gets called in, and it's up to Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) to unravel who done it- but is he up to the task? Here the director takes a page from Agatha Christie (and also tips his bowler to "Upstairs, Downstairs") in fashioning a sublime murder mystery that's really more about character and atmosphere than actual crime solving. The fabulous Gambon makes a hateful despot (you're not sorry to see him go), and Smith is divinely acerbic as his sister, who's terrified her brother will cut off her allowance. And with hired help like Emily Watson (the maid), Helen Mirren (the housekeeper), and Alan Bates (the butler), the servant's quarters proves every bit as interesting. Nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, this late Altman triumph about the English class system remains in a class all its own.

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