Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robert Altman Passes On

Legendary director and fellow Missourian Robert Altman died last night at the age of 81. His cause of death has not yet been disclosed.

Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri on February 20 1925. He attended Rockhurst High School and Southwest High School there in Kansas City before being sent to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri. During World War II Altman enlisted in the United States Army Air Force at 18 years of age. His training was in Los Angeles, and brought him in contact with Hollywood and filmmaking for the first time. After the war he settled in Los Angeles to try to break into the film business.

Altman tried his hand at acting, appearing in one scene in 1947's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. While he was no success at acting, he did have some small success in writing. He wrote a story outline for the movie Christmas Eve for United Artists and the script to The Bodyguard to RKO. He moved to New York to try his hand at writing and failed to make a go at it. He then returned to Hollywood, but saw little success. He returned to Kansas City bankrupt.

It was in Kansas City that Altman joined the Calvin Company, then the largest maker of industrial films in the nation. For six years Altman worked as a director for them, directing such films as Modern Football and The Sound of Bells. In 1953 he created and directed the anthology series Pulse in the City. The series was filmed on the cheap around Kansas City and actually ran for one season on the DuMont Network. Tiring of industrial films, Altman left the Calvin Company and directed his first feature film. The Deliquents was a low budget exploitation film produced by Kansas City theatre owner Elmer Rhoden Jr. Following The Deliquents, Altman would co-direct The James Dean Story, a documentary on the recently deceased star, with George W. George.

Although The Deliquents was no great success, it did attract the attention of Alfred Hitchcock. Impressed with Altman's work, Hitchcock hired him to direct several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For the next several years Altman found himself in demand as a television director. Among the many series for which he directed episodes were Peter Gunn, The Millionaire, Maverick, Bonanza, and Route 66. Perhaps his most notorious piece of work for television was an episode of Bus Stop entitled "A Lion Walks Among Us". The episode featured pop star Fabian as a psychotic killer. Although it might be considered tame by today's standards, the episode caused an uproar when it first aired--it was even mentioned on the floors of Congress as an example of television's depravity. Regardless, Altman's career in television continued unabated. Perhaps his most remarkable work would be on the TV series Combat! Altman is credited by many with giving the show's look and feel. The series would prove to have a lasting influence on future Hollywood directors.

By 1965 Altman returned to making feature films. Such movies as Countdown and The Cold Day in the Park met with little success. It was in 1969 that Altman's luck changed. He was offered the script to a movie called M*A*S*H, which had been rejected by over 15 other directors. Altman directed the movie in his own peculiar style, which concentrated on the characters and sometimes contained a strong defiance of authority. And while M*A*S*H was a comedy, Altman did not shy away from the blood and guts of war. Indeed, M*A*S*H was so revolutionary that it was the first major studio movie to drop the F-bomb. M*A*S*H proved to be a smash hit and one of the top grossing films of the Seventies.

For much of the Seventies Altman would direct nearly a film a year. Some were more successful than others, although all of them were certainly far from the typical studio fare. Brewster McCloud centred on a youth who lived in a fallout shelter at the Houston Astrodome and spent his days fashioning wings so he could fly. McCabe and Mrs. Miller was a very revisionist Western. The Long Goodbye turned Raymond Chandler's novel on the head. Perhaps his best film of the decade was the one which best characterised his work. Nashville followed a political convention unfolded in the capital of country music. It was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (twice for Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley).

During this era Altman did have his share failures. He directed a big budget musical adaptation based on the comic strip character Popeye. Although for many years it was his second highest grossing film, there were those who saw it as an artistic flop. It could well be for that reason that Altman's career was not nearly as fruitful in the Eighties as it was in the Seventies. He worked in television again, most notably on the mini-series Tanner 88. He also directed the well recieved Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. While the Eighties may not have been Altman's decade, it seemed that the Nineties would be.

Indeed, his movie The Player, released in 1992, nearly revitalised his career over night. The film lampooned Hollywood and received a good deal of critical acclaim. It was even nominated for three Oscars (Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Altman's films in the wake of The Player, such as Short Cuts and Cookie's Fortune, might not always do well at the box office, but they were usually well done and well received. Gosford Park would become Altman's second highest grossing film and would be nominated for several Oscars (it won Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen). Altman's last film was his adaptation of the popular radio show, A Prarie Home Companion.

Altman has often been characterised as a maverick with regards to Hollywood. Even when he made films for the studios, he almost always insisted on doing things his way. And while he had his fair share of duds (Pret-a-Porter comes to mind), Altman had an astoundingly good track record when it came to movies. The list of classics, near classics, and simply good films he made is impressive: M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. His films were generally very naturalistic, particularly with regards to dialogue--he is the only director I can think of whose characters often talk over each other, as people do in real life. At the same time, however, Altman did have his own particular style. His films always placed more emphasis on the characters than the plot, and he was known to be more interested in his character's motivations than particular plot points. Altman was then an actor's director. This allowed him to work with many well known actors. It also allowed him to do several of a particular type of film of which he was the master--movies with several storylines, often intertwining, featuring a large number of characters. Other directors have tried their hands at these types of movies, but it seems to me that only Altman succeeded at them on a regular basis.

And while Altman was most famous for his work in movies, it must be kept in mind that he had a thriving career in television prior to his work in film. Altman was fired many times from various TV shows (indeed, he was fired by none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself), but his reputation allowed him to get even more jobs on various series. As a television director Altman insisted on doing things his own way and that made the episodes he directed different from those directed by more mainstream directors. Even today the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Combat! that he directed stand up as remarkable pieces of television.

Robert Altman is one of my favourite directors of all time. I cannot say that I like all of his films (Pret-a-Porter is an example), but I have liked most of them. Indeed, M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts rank among my favourite films of all time. And then there are the many TV episodes he directed. If Combat! is one of my favourite shows, it is largely because of Altman. Indeed, it amazes me that Altman never won an Emmy and the only Oscar he ever won was the Lifetime Achievement award he won this year. While critics and audiences recognised Altman's talent, it seems to me that the industry never did. Ultimately I guess this is not important. Film buffs, critics, and film historians have long recognised his talent and long recognised his place in film history. He might not have won many awards, but Robert Altman will be remembered long after others who won more awards have been forgotten.

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