Robert Altman's Non-Masterpiece

The news that Robert Altman was no longer America's greatest living film director immediately triggered a memory rush of the string of amazing movies he'd given us -- Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts, Thieves Like Us, California Split, even the sweetly nutty valedictory A Prairie Home Companion. He was a cinematic Balzac, brilliantly if haphazardly mapping out an unruly human comedy rooted in the dreams and/or delusions of American existence: His movies are, at their best, bitter and pessimistic, cynical about power and politics, yet with such a rough-and-tumble energy and such an unexpected fondness for the marginal and down-and-out - and such an appreciation for actors and actresses who can play marginal and down-and-out - that they're also elating.

I also found myself this morning thinking about an Altman movie that doesn't exist, a possible masterpiece that never was - at the very least, one of the great missed opportunities in movie history. Altman was set at one point to direct a movie adaptation of the 1975 novel Ragtime, EL Doctorow's feverish kaleidoscopic fantasy about this country in the era before World War I.

The producer, Dino de Laurentiis, took Altman off the project, and gave it instead to Milos Forman, director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Doctorow's screenplay was scrapped too.) Forman's Ragtime, released in 1981, turned out to be a rather pretty but also rather clumsy movie. It has an excellent score by Randy Newman and one lovely sequence with Mandy Patinkin on a train. But I don't recall it having any of the book's strange, unsettling sense of the twin American strains of complacency and a restlessness that can edge into panic, destruction and death. If Altman had made the movie, yes, I think those things would have been there: that's the sensibility that haunts so many of his other movies, even oddities like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which ends with the desolate image of an abandoned diner. In this regard, Altman and Doctorow would have seemed a perfect match. Beyond that, it's not hard to imagine a dream production of naturalistic period detail and Altman's delight in finding actors for Ragtime's vast, interlocking cast of characters, including magnate JP Morgan and the notorious beauty Evelyn Nesbitt. Altman always took a showman's pleasure in gathering up performers and cramming them into his movies. It was an outlaw's sensibility with a touch of DeMille.

But that movie, that Ragtime, doesn't exist.