|Birth name:||Robert Bernard Altman|
|Date of birth:||February 20, 1925|
|Birth location:||Kansas City, Missouri|
|Date of death:||November 20 2006 (aged 81)|
|Death location:||Los Angeles, California (leukemia), aged 81|
|Height:||6' (1.83 m)|
|Academy Awards:||Life Achievement Award (2006)|
|Spouse:||LaVonne Elmer (1946-1949)
Lotus Corelli (1950-1955)
Kathryn Reed (1959-2006)
Altman has frequently been a favorite with most of the best critics and many actors and actresses, and some of his films have been highly successful at the box office. However, he cannot be regarded as being a mainstream Hollywood director because of his rebelliousness and irreverence and because his films are sufficiently different in that they challenge or subvert that mainstream. He worked in Hollywood and to some extent was of Hollywood, but never exactly a part of it; his films have a distinctive style, tone, and emphasis that is at least partly anti-Hollywood. His films are certainly significantly different from the Hollywood work that preceded his.
Yet, for all that, Altman has come to be highly regarded by most critics and cineastes, although there are also those who give strong detractions of him and his films. His films MASH and Nashville have been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 2006, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized his work with an Academy Honorary Award.
Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of wealthy insurance man/gambler Bernard Clement Altman, who came from an upper-class family, and Helen Mathews, a Mayflower descendant from Nebraska. Altman's ancestry was German, English and Irish; his paternal grandfather, Frank Altman, Sr., changed the family name from "Altmann" to "Altman." Altman had a strong Catholic upbringing. He attended St. Peter's School for elementary school. He later attended high school at Rockhurst High School and Southwest High School in Kansas City, and was then sent to Wentworth Military Academy in nearby Lexington, Missouri, where he attended through junior college. In 1943, at the age of 18, Altman joined the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and flew as a co-pilot on B-24 bombers during World War II. It was while training for the Army Air Corps in California that Altman had first seen the bright lights of Hollywood and became enamored of it. Upon his discharge in 1947, Altman began living in Los Angeles and tried out acting, writing, and directing.
Altman tried acting briefly, appearing in a nightclub scene as an extra in the Danny Kaye vehicle The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He then wrote a vague storyline (uncredited) for the United Artists picture Christmas Eve, and sold to RKO the script for the 1948 motion picture, Bodyguard, which he co-wrote with Richard Fleischer. This sudden success encouraged Altman to move to the New York area and forge a career as a writer. There, Altman found a collaborator in George W. George, with whom he wrote numerous published and unpublished screenplays, musicals, novels, and magazine articles. Altman was not as successful this trip, but back in Hollywood, he tried out one more big money-making scheme. His pet care company soon went bankrupt, and in 1950 Altman returned to his friends and family in Kansas City, broke and hungry for action, and itching for a second chance to get into movies.
To get experience as a filmmaker, in the absence of film schools, Altman joined the Calvin Company, the world's largest industrial film production company and 16mm film laboratory, headquartered in Kansas City. Altman, fascinated by the company and their equipment, started as a film writer, and within a few months began to direct films. This led to his employment at the Calvin Company as a film director for almost six years. Until 1955, Altman directed 60 to 65 industrial short films, earning $250 a week while simultaneously getting the necessary training and experience that he would need for a successful career in filmmaking. The ability to shoot rapidly on schedule and to work within the confines of both big and low budgets would serve him well later in his career. On the technical side, he learned all about "the tools of filmmaking:" The camera, the boom mic, the lights, and so on.
However, Altman soon tired of the industrial film format and sought more challenging projects. He occasionally went to Hollywood and tried to write scripts, but then returned months later, broke, to the Calvin Company. According to Altman, the Calvin people dropped him another notch in salary each time. The third time, the Calvin people declared at a staff meeting that if he left and came back one more time, they were not going to keep him.
In 1955 Altman left the Calvin Company. He was soon hired by Elmer Rhoden Jr., a local Kansas City movie theater exhibitor, to write and direct a low-budget exploitation film on juvenile crime, titled The Delinquents, which would become his first feature film. Altman wrote the script in one week and filmed it with a budget of $63,000 on location in Kansas City in two weeks. Rhoden Jr. wanted the film to kick-start his career as a film producer. Altman wanted the film to be his ticket into the elusive Hollywood circles. The cast was made up of the local actors and actresses from community theater who also appeared in Calvin Company films, Altman family members, and three imported actors from Hollywood, including the future Billy Jack, Tom Laughlin. The crew was made up of Altman's former Calvin colleagues and friends with whom Altman planned to make his grand "Kansas City escape." In 1956, Altman and his assistant director, Reza Badiyi, left Kansas City for good to edit The Delinquents in Hollywood. The film was picked up for distribution for $150,000 by United Artists and released in 1957, grossing nearly $1,000,000.
The Delinquents was no runaway success, but it did catch the eye of Alfred Hitchcock, who was impressed and asked Altman to direct a few episodes of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series. From 1958 to 1964, Altman directed numerous episodes of television series, including Combat! Bonanza, Whirlybirds, and Route 66, and wrote and directed a 1961 episode of Maverick about a lynching, called "Bolt From the Blue," featuring Roger Moore. One episode of Bus Stop, which he directed was so controversial, due to an ending in which a killer is not apprehended or punished for his crime, that Congressional hearings were held, and the show was canceled at the end of the season.
Altman co-composed the hit single "Black Sheep" by country music recording artist John Anderson.
Altman then struggled for several years after quarreling with Jack Warner, and it was during this time that he first formed his "anti-Hollywood" opinions and entered a new stage of filmmaking. He did a few more feature films without any success, until 1969 when he was offered the script for MASH, which had previously been rejected by dozens of other directors. Altman directed the film, and it was a huge success, both with critics and at the box office. It was Altman's highest grossing film. Altman's career took firm hold with the success of MASH, and he followed it with other critical breakthroughs such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1974), and Nashville (1975), which made the distinctive, experimental "Altman style" well known.
As a director, Altman favored stories showing the interrelationships between several characters; he stated that he was more interested in character motivation than in intricate plots. As such, he tended to sketch out only a basic plot for the film, referring to the screenplay as a "blueprint" for action, and allowed his actors to improvise dialogue. This is one of the reasons Altman was known as an "actor's director," a reputation that helped him work with large casts of well-known actors.
He frequently allowed the characters to talk over each other in such a way that it is difficult to make out what each of them is saying. He noted on the DVD commentary of McCabe & Mrs. Miller that he lets the dialogue overlap, as well as leaving some things in the plot for the audience to infer, because he wants the audience to pay attention. He uses a headset to make sure everything pertinent comes through without attention being drawn to it. Similarly, he tried to have his films rated R (by the MPAA rating system) so as to keep children out of his audience—he did not believe children have the patience his films require. This sometimes spawned conflict with movie studios, who do want children in the audience for increased revenues.
Altman made films that no other filmmaker and/or studio would. He was reluctant to make the original 1970 Korean War comedy MASH because of the pressures involved in filming it, but it still became a critical success. It would later inspire the long-running TV series of the same name.
In 1975, Altman made Nashville, which had a strong political theme set against the world of country music. The stars of the film wrote their own songs; Keith Carradine won an Academy Award for the song, "I'm Easy."
The way Altman made his films initially didn't sit well with audiences. In 1976, he attempted to expand his artistic freedom by founding Lions Gate Films. The films he made for the company include A Wedding, 3 Women, and Quintet.
In 1980, he attempted a musical, Popeye based on the comic strip/cartoon Popeye, which starred Robin Williams in his big-screen debut. The film was seen as a failure by some critics, but it should be noted that it did make money, and was in fact the second highest grossing film Altman directed to that point (Gosford Park is now the second highest). During the 1980s, Altman did a series of films, some well-received (the Richard Nixon drama Secret Honor) and some critically panned (O.C. & Stiggs). He also garnered a good deal of acclaim for his presidential campaign "mockumentary" Tanner '88, for which he earned an Emmy Award and regained critical favor. Still, popularity with audiences continued to elude him.
Altman's career was revitalized when he directed 1992's The Player, a satire on Hollywood and its troubles, which was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Director, though Altman did not win. He was, however, awarded Best Director by the Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA, and the New York Film Critics Circle, and the film reminded Hollywood (which had shunned him for a decade) that Altman was as creative as ever.
After the success of The Player, Altman directed 1993's Short Cuts, an ambitious adaptation of several short stories by Raymond Carver, which portrayed the lives of various citizens of the city of Los Angeles over the course of several days. The film's large cast and intertwining of many different storylines hearkened back to his 1970s heyday and earned Altman another Oscar nomination for Best Director. It was acclaimed as Altman's best film in decades, and Altman himself considered this his most creative work, along with Tanner '88 and Brewster McCloud. In 1998, Altman made The Gingerbread Man,', critically praised although a commercial failure, and in 1999 Cookie's Fortune, a critical success. In 2001, Altman's film Gosford Park gained a spot on many critics' lists of the ten best films of that year.
Working with independent studios such as Fine Line, Artisan (now Lions Gate, ironically the studio Altman helped to found), and USA Films (now Focus Features), gave Altman the edge in making the kinds of films he has always wanted to make without outside studio interference. A movie version of Garrison Keillor's public radio series, A Prairie Home Companion, was released in June 2006. Altman was still developing new projects up until his death.
After five Oscar nominations for Best Director and no wins, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Altman an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006. During his acceptance speech for this award, Altman revealed that he had received a heart transplant approximately ten or eleven years earlier. The director then quipped that perhaps the Academy had acted prematurely in recognizing the body of his work, as he felt like he might have four more decades of life ahead of him.
In the 1960s, Altman lived for nine years with his second wife in Mandeville Canyon in Brentwood, California, according to author Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998). He then moved to Malibu but sold that home and the Lion's Gate production company in 1981. "I had no choice," he told the New York Times. "Nobody was answering the phone" after the flop of Popeye. He moved his family and business headquarters to New York, but eventually moved back to Malibu where he lived until his death.
City Councilmember Sharon Barovsky, who lives down the street from the Altman home on Malibu Road, remembered the director as a friend and neighbor. "He was salty," she said, "but with a great generosity of spirit." Barovsky added that Malibu had a special place in the director's heart. "He loved Malibu," she said. "This is where he came to decompress."
He had claimed that he would move to Paris, France, if George W. Bush were elected, but he did not actually do so, saying later that he had actually meant Paris, Texas. He noted that "the state would be better off if he (Bush) is out of it." He was a member of the NORML advisory board.
Altman died on November 20, 2006, at age 81 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles. According to his production company in New York, Sandcastle 5 Productions, he died of complications from leukemia. Altman is survived by his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman; six children, Christine Westphal, Michael Altman, Stephen Altman (his set decorator of choice for many films), Connie Corriere, Robert Reed Altman and Matthew Altman; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.  He was buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles.
MASH, released in 1970, although it is situated in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, was really an anti-war film about the Vietnam War. This was Altman's great breakthrough movie. The film is noted for its black comedy and its spirit of rebellion and anarchism. Its impudent, bold, satirical comedy changed American filmmaking. This is a war movie different from any that had been made before; it manages to satirize the glorification of war, while still believing in and having its leading characters—a set of surgeons (Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce played by Donald Sutherland, Capt. John Francis Xavier "Trapper John" McIntyre played by Elliott Gould, and Capt. Augustus Bedford "Duke" Forrest played by Tom Skerritt)—be utterly competent at their work, work that is absolutely necessary in an absolutely absurd situation, but also be utterly disrespectful of military cant, discipline, and spit and polish. They are desperate because they exist in a desperate situation, doing desperate work (dealing with and attempting to patch up the horrible things that bullets and bombs and shrapnel do to humans in war), pretending that they don't care, trying to remain sane within the madness. They do this with a studied cynicism, primarily by being cruel and playing nasty practical jokes.
Major "Frank" Burns (Robert Duvall) and head nurse Maj. Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman)—the two characters in the MASH camp who attempt to uphold military discipline and spit and polish—are having an affair; so the others slip a microphone under their camp cot and broadcast their talk during sex over the camp loudspeaker. She says, "Oh, Frank, my lips are hot. Kiss my hot lips." From that her nickname, "Hot Lips," arose. Another memorable scene in the film is a staged suicide for the dentist Capt. Walter "Painless Pole" Waldowski (John Schuck) because he thinks he is a latent homosexual. The camp pranksters set up an elaborate tableau for him mimicking the Last Supper, but the suicide pill he takes at the end is actually a harmless placebo, and he is ultimately rescued and assured of his sexuality by the sexy Lt. Maria "Dish" Schneider (Jo Ann Pflug). This suicide scene was also the occasion for the song, "Suicide is painless," which became the theme song for the movie and also the TV series M*A*S*H. The lyrics for it were written by Altman's son, Mike Altman.
The TV series, M*A*S*H was a take-off from the movie, but the movie is considerably darker and more edgy than the TV shows. This was Altman's great breakthrough movie.
Brewster McCloud, 1971, is about a boy (Bud Cort) who wants to be or pretends to be a bird. He lives in the Houston Astrodome, under the guidance of a guardian angel (Sally Kellerman, who had played "Hot Lips" in MASH). Meanwhile there is a running but crazy lecture about birds by a seemingly insane professor, a lot of bird guano, and assorted other madness. This may finally not be a film about anything, exactly. The plot and characters are ridiculous, made up of loose pieces that fly around without much if any logical or narrative connection, but the ultimate result is a piece of inspired movie making.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971, is the best anti-Western of Westerns ever made. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie star in a film set in an unnamed town in what seems to be the Pacific Northwest. McCabe (Beatty) comes to this town that is in the process of being built with the aim of opening a whorehouse, but Mrs. Miller (Christie) points out to him that he knows nothing about women, and she proceeds to become his partner and manage things for him. But more than all that, the film is about the set of multi-dimensional characters who occupy this time and place, and their small lives, desires, and pretensions. Eventually, the people from the big Company come to town to try to buy McCabe out, but he refuses to sell at their offered price. He thinks he has the upper hand and can set his price. So they send their enforcers to kill him. Ultimately, he lies dead in a snowbank, but the film is really more about life than it is about death, even though enough deaths occur in it.
Thieves Like Us, 1974, was a remake of Nicholas Ray's 1949 movie, They Live By Night, an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel. The Altman film is an understated gangster movie that is as much a love story as it is a crime drama. Yes, the central figures in it are thieves, but they are treated as if this is an occupation more-or-less like any other mundane line of work. These are ordinary people who take up a life of crime because it is the only thing they know how to do—as if they were car mechanics or farmers. There is a love story between one of the thieves (Keith Carradine) and a woman (Shelly Duvall) who is the daughter of a man into whose house the band of thieves moves. There is also a Romeo and Juliet radio show in the background, and a wonderful scene in which children of thieves reenact a bank robbery, just as children of a farmer or car mechanic might reenact something from their parents' occupation.
Nashville, 1975, is held by many to be Altman's masterpiece. It is set in Nashville, Tennessee, the center of country music, and depicts a sprawling cast of more than 35 characters—including a ditzy California girl, a sexually predatory rock star, a waitress who can't sing but who nevertheless hopes for a country music career, a country music star who has suffered a breakdown, a mother of several deaf children, a reporter for the BBC who spouts inane nonsense, and others—who have descended on Nashville for various reasons, including an upcoming political rally. The characters interact at the beginning of the film because of a traffic accident and at the end because of a shooting that occurs at the political rally. Throughout the movie Altman's style is improvisational, allowing characters to develop their personal quirks—Keith Carridine wrote his own song, "I'm Easy," for the movie and it won an Academy Award—overlapping, and unorthodox, with his characteristic satirical but nevertheless honest tone. Among other things, this was Lily Tomlin's breakthrough movie appearance; she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, and would go on to have roles in Altman's Short Cuts and A Prairie Home Companion. The soundtrack of Nashville is suffused with country music.
In A Wedding, 1978, Altman presents a wedding and wedding reception—there are more than 40 characters in this film—that careens into farce as the skeletons in the closets of the two families come out. The veneer of gentility and geniality is peeled off and the jealousies, greeds, infidelities, and other human qualities of his characters emerge. This could become merely mean or satirical, but Altman is concerned with social and personal observations as much as he is with the foibles of his people. By the time he is finished, a poignant and chiseled depiction of the downside of one of our most revered social institutions has emerged from the bizarre chaos. This is often considered to be one of Altman's lesser films, but it is nevertheless a stunning achievement.
Short Cuts, 1993, based on a set of Raymond Carver short stories, presents a series of short interactions of a set of people who sometimes connect and sometimes do not. Among others, there is a pool cleaner, a phone sex worker who pleases her client while diapering and feeding her baby with her husband looking on, a birthday cake decorator, a motorcycle cop who seduces women obsessively and spins tall stories to his wife to explain his behavior that she knows are false and finds hilarious, a helicopter pilot, a couple who order a decorated cake for their son's birthday not knowing that he has just died in an accident, a woman who performs nude from the waist down because she is having an argument with her husband while dressing for an event, and assorted other things. These people are disconnected from anything permanent or transcendent; they exist with these strange and small jobs and interests. Moreover they all drink a lot, and they do not control their lives or destinies. This film is another that depicts the messiness, inconclusiveness, and harshness of middle class life. Nevertheless, he seems to say, life goes on (except for when it stops for someone who has died). Maybe sometimes some people find that they don't have to be victims, that they can overcome the chaos and pain they have been dealt and move on. But don't count on it.
In Gosford Park, 2001, Altman explored the English class system and master-servant relations. The film, set in 1932, is a kind of mixture of Upstairs Downstairs and the crime caper, Clue. It can also be thought of as something of a remake of Jean Renoir's greatest movie, The Rules of the Game, with some Agatha Christie thrown in. A group of wealthy people arrive at an English country estate for a weekend shooting party. The masters engage in various sexual, financial, and other intrigues upstairs, while the servants have their own dramas downstairs. But it becomes clear that there is no strict separation between the upstairs and the downstairs people as their dramas are interlaced. Eventually there is a murder and the whodunit problem arises, not helped by the incompetence of the head of the police. The film has Altman's characteristic style of interwoven characters and dialogue, along with black comedy and a great deal of cynicism about humans and their foibles. This is considered by most critics to be one of Altman's best movies.
Robert Altman directed some of the most noteworthy and innovative American movies in the years from 1970 to about 2001. His films are especially remarkable because of their style of interwoven and interlocking characters who speak over each other's lines, and who bob and weave throughout the film. He usually had a large cast of good actors, and he allowed them considerable freedom to innovate and improvise. Most critics have praised his films and found them to be something fresh and different from Hollywood fare. His command of the medium—of what can be accomplished on and through film—was second to none, and was new and fresh.
But Altman also had sharp critics. For one thing, his view of the human condition is bleak. He could be said to be a proponent of what someone has called the "soft nihilism" that prevails in so much of American popular culture. There are no heroes as such in Altman's movies, just people who succeed or fail—and usually fail, or at least fail to succeed in any triumphant or transcendent way—at their efforts.
Critic Rita Kempley of the Washington Post, for the most salient example, wrote of Short Cuts that it is:
A cynical, sexist and shallow work from cinema's premier misanthrope, Robert Altman, who here shows neither compassion for—nor insight into—the human condition. This long, sour and ultimately pointless film allows Altman, the debunker of Hollywood and Nashville, to put the screws to the common folk of Southern California. He ticks off their failings with the relentless inanity of Andy Rooney on one of his petty riffs.
Basically, Altman's here to tell us that life stinks and there's not a damn thing to be done about it. In so doing, he drops in on the lives of 22 whiny, inert and mostly unlikable characters drawn from the writings of Raymond Carver, the blue-collar Chekhov. …Altman, with few exceptions, allows neither growth nor redemption. The characters don't evolve, they just survive….
Kempley and others who have expressed similar views about Altman and his movies are onto something important. There is almost no one in an Altman movie that we really care about; there is no transcendence, and no heros in any usual or reasonable sense of heroism. When McCabe dies we are not shocked or saddened very much—the film's attitude is just some form of "so it goes." The same when we see Mr. Miller ending up getting stoned on opium after his death. When Nashville ends with the shooting of one of the singing stars during the opening of a political rally, we are not much shocked or saddened, and none of the people seem to undergo any life or character change because of it. We have seen nothing throughout the film to make us think that any of these people is of great enough character that they will be enobled through such an incident.
So both views—Altman as innovative and fresh filmmaker and Altman as compassionless cynic and misanthrope whose message is that life sucks and we are impotent to change this—seem to be true. That is no doubt why he never became a fully successful mainstream Hollywood director, despite the great excitement that many of his films generated for most critics.
In the early Calvin years in Kansas City during the 1950s, Altman was as busy as he ever was in Hollywood, shooting hours and hours of footage each day, whether for Calvin or for the many independent film projects he pursued in Kansas City in attempts to break into Hollywood:
Out of approximately 65 industrial films directed by Altman for the Calvin Company, all less than 30 minutes long, eleven are notable for their relationship to the director's later work, or for garnering national or international festival awards:
for The Commitments
|BAFTA Award for Best Direction
for The Player
for Schindler's List
for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
|Golden Globe Award for Best Director - Motion Picture
for Gosford Park
for Gangs of New York
|Academy Honorary Award
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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