The story, as the director liked to tell it, went something like this. In a Hollywood screening room in the late 60’s a number of studio executives are sitting down to watch a rough cut of their new war picture. It’s a timely film, it has a hot young cast, and it’s based on a witty, irreverent novel. Some two hours later the lights go up, and the studio heads are aghast at what they’ve seen. It’s a mess, a disaster, and they are in no doubt that the blame lies squarely with the unknown filmmaker who has overseen this calamity. One anonymous member of the audience utters the immortal words: “That idiot's got everyone talking at the same time”.
That ‘idiot’ was Robert Altman and the film which was met with such disdain was M*A*S*H, the picture that would go on to be one of the year’s biggest hits and would later be revered as a classic. Altman was a true maverick, and he would undoubtedly have taken pleasure in the adverse reaction his film caused for those studio heads mentioned above. His entire career was marked by a refusal to compromise and a uniqueness of approach which resulted in the most eclectic and idiosyncratic filmography imaginable. Sadly, there will be no more additions to that remarkable filmography, because Altman passed away on Monday November 20th at the age of 81. He had shown no signs of slowing down in his old age - his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, was released to warm reviews earlier this year - and whenever an interviewer raised the prospect of retirement he scoffed at the very idea: “retirement? You’re talking about death, right?”.
Robert Altman has left us with an extraordinary body of work which covers three and a half decades; a body of work which features comedies, dramas, satires, musicals, and some films which hardly seem to fit into any genre. In truth, Altman’s career is littered with almost as many terrible films as great ones - and some of his worst features are nigh-on unwatchable - but when a Robert Altman film really comes together, there’s nothing quite like it.
Altman came to prominence, like so many great filmmakers, in the 1970’s. He was never really part of the celebrated ‘Movie Brats’ crowd - being 45 years old when he turned M*A*S*H into an unlikely success - but his work exhibited a youthful zeal and reckless ambition which more than matched his young contemporaries. Altman was interested in capturing something like real life on film, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction. His plots were messy and amorphous, characters wandered in and out of the story at will, and, yes, the idiot had everyone talking at the same time. In the 14 (fourteen!) feature films Altman directed between 1970 and 1979, he displayed a blatant disregard for the standard practices of narrative storytelling. He had spent years working as a writer and director in the world of television, a medium he disliked for its rigid limitations, and when he was presented with the bigger canvas of the cinema screen almost by default (he was given the M*A*S*H job when practically every other director had declined the offer) he decided he was really going to use it.
The next decade saw one masterpiece, a handful of great films, and a few pretty bad ones; but each and every one of them was instantly recognisable as a Robert Altman film. His marvellous revisionist western McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) was muddy to look at and featured chunks of indecipherable dialogue, but it’s a film rich in atmosphere, and already we could see how Altman’s style benefited the actors working with him, as both Julie Christie and Warren Beatty turned in outstanding, fully-formed performances. In 1973 he subverted yet another genre in his own inimitable way, with his loose and lively adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye; and two years after that he produced his finest work, the definitive Robert Altman film. For the incredible Nashville, Altman allowed his actors to improvise and enhance their roles as the movie developed - they even wrote their own songs - and the result is perhaps the apotheosis of Altman’s desire to capture the messy randomness of real life in a movie.
And yet, for many years after Nashville Robert Altman’s career seemed in terminal decline. Few of his films in the late 70’s (including his interesting 3 Women) found an audience, and the trend continued for much of the 80’s. His attempt to pull off the near-impossible - a big-screen version of Popeye - was a costly flop, despite it being a quite brilliant film in many ways (certainly the performances from Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall couldn’t be bettered); and yet, Altman didn’t play it safe in order to claw back some credit with Hollywood, he just carried on making the films he wanted to make. 1984’s Secret Honor is a one-man show which features a stunning turn from Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon, Vincent and Theo is a captivating biopic, and Tanner '88 was a groundbreaking television series; but it seemed Hollywood still wasn’t interested anymore.
That changed in 1992 when Altman hit on the perfect film to appeal to the vanity of the Hollywood hierarchy - a film about Hollywood itself. The Player was a star-packed picture which presented Tinseltown as a back-biting world full of slimy lowlifes; and the film resurrected Altman’s career with every major star desperate to work with him. The next 14 years saw Altman make Short Cuts, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park and The Company - those films could easily have come from four completely different filmmakers, and it’s only their quality which unites them. Of course, Altman wouldn’t be Altman without a few flops among the hits, and he stumbled with films like Prêt-à-Porter, The Gingerbread Man and Dr T and the Women; but perhaps that’s one of the things we most loved about Robert Altman, the fact that you genuinely didn’t know what you were going to get when you sat down to watch one of his films. It could be one of the best things you’ve ever seen or one of the worst, and finding out was always a thrill.
And now, there will be no more. It is fitting, perhaps, that Altman finished with A Prairie Home Companion, the kind of ensemble piece with which he is most readily associated, and one look at the cast list - for a small-scale film about an obscure radio show - tells you everything you need to know about the high regard Altman was held in by people who know their craft inside-out. He was always an outsider, viewed as an iconoclast and a troublemaker by those higher up the Hollywood food chain, but he finally received recognition from his peers earlier this year when he was given an honorary Academy Award after five unsuccessful nominations. As he stood on the stage clutching his overdue prize, this great filmmaker announced the fact that he had undergone a heart transplant ten years ago and he had received the heart of a woman half his age. “By that kind of calculation” he joked, “you may be giving me this award, too early. Because I think I've got about 40 years left on it. And I intend to use it”.
If only it were true.