Oscar’s Grouch: Robert Altman Takes His Like A Lamb

Benjamin Strong


“There’s no difference between the Academy and the National Review, and nobody knows who those people are. They’re just a bunch of head waiters.”

—Robert Altman, from Altman on Altman, ed. David Thompson (forthcoming from Faber and Faber)

Last night at the 78th Academy Awards ceremony the Establishment fed a lion and he didn’t bite. Robert Altman graciously accepted his Honorary Oscar, the award slated for aged filmmakers whose industry colleagues have never otherwise recognized their work.

It would not have been precisely out of character for 81-year-old Altman to have lashed out at any hand offering a chintzy little gold statuette with his name on it, much in the manner that an insurance office will give a chunky timepiece to a senior claims adjuster upon his retirement. Altman ranting in a tuxedo would in fact have resembled a scene in The Company (2003) in which ballet director Malcolm McDowell, speaking at a formal banquet given in his honor, slanders the entire room. But Altman hasn’t retired (A Prairie Home Companion premieres next week at the South by Southwest Festival). Since 1970, when M*A*S*H propelled him from TV obscurity (and was in turn adapted into a hit TV show) he hasn’t stopped, and for as long as he has been around he has had a nasty reputation for publicly bad-mouthing the big studios. And the actors and the crews he’s worked with, and the screenwriters too.

Hollywood’s lords, who were ridiculed openly in The Player, have never taken Altman’s punches lying down at poolside. Indeed, the way in which they return fire brings to mind those gunned down birds dropping leadenly onto the shoulders of Gosford Park’s hunting party. This counter attack has been supported by most film reviewers. To them Altman’s over the hill, a grump, churning out despicable, mean-spirited movies showing nothing except the worst in people.

Yet last night Altman joined a list of winners for a supposed consolation prize that every year grows ridiculously more prestigious (Sidney Lumet and Stanley Donen are recent Honorary Oscar recipients). It has to be acknowledged that because he has been maddeningly prolific in both film and television, huge swaths of his material have sucked outright (c.f. 1999’s Cookie’s Fortune). Still, a case can be made for something as minor as, don’t laugh, Dr. T and the Women, or the John Grisham vehicle The Gingerbread Man or the 1980 Christmas blockbuster dud Popeye. Though the director has always struck an artistic compromise between his anti-commercial instincts and his aspiration for a larger audience, he has in any case never been good at disguising his contempt for management: producers, along with elected officials, recur as his villains.

Altman has also not been very good at suppressing his political conscience. Anyone unconvinced that he remains our greatest living populist filmmaker should see Tanner ’88, a landmark half-documentary/half-fictional collaboration with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, which the director himself cites as his most vital work. Nothing less than a guerilla assault on the Fourth Estate and a critical gutting of the consumer taste for “reality,” Tanner ’88 is as necessary to us now as when it originally aired on HBO eighteen-years ago. Altman stalwart Michael Murphy plays an actually intelligent congressman who exudes compassion, candor, flaws, and integrity, and who nevertheless wants to be our president. For his trouble, the journalists covering his campaign whupp him and the Democratic party hands the brass ring to their anointed, Michael Dukakis, who then proceeds to blow it in the general election.

Tanner ‘88 didn’t bode well for the Duke, and it is obvious in retrospect that its more despairing sequel, Tanner on Tanner, was a very unpromising sign for John Kerry when it premiered on Showtime in October 2004. Hampered in the final weeks of his national campaign by a Senate voting record that reeked of convenience, Kerry wouldn’t dare state, as Dean or Kucinich had in the primaries, the plainly obvious, that the invasion of Iraq was a grave, stupid error at inception. Altman possesses a marksman’s eye for uncomfortable truths like these, and in Tanner on Tanner he gives the Democrats no quarter.

Happily both Tanner series are available on DVD, as well as other favorites—McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville, Short Cuts. Hold onto that VCR for awhile longer though if you want see stuff like Countdown, Thieves Like Us, HealtH, or Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. At least deluxe packager Criterion has made rare Altman something of a pet cause, so far offering in addition to Tanner ’88 the dreamy 3 Women and Secret Honor (1984), a blistering one-man teleplay starring Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon that was filmed inside a dorm at the University of Michigan with a student crew while Altman taught there during a period of commercial exile. (Popeye hadn’t just lost money, it was perceived an historic disaster, a career tanker, the kind of failure to send a man packing). Altman himself likens his least successful movies to overlooked children: “’Well, don’t you wish he was taller?’ He isn’t. ‘Don’t you wish she had blonde hair and blue eyes?’ ‘But she doesn’t.’”

Perhaps Altman isn’t quite the misanthrope his detractors say he is. As with all true cynics, Altman’s pessimism ought to be understood as the tip of an iceberg, and beneath the surface a cold, hard store of idealism lurks. No matter the chosen locale—whether it’s a gold rush town, an army field hospital during the Korean War, a cartoon seaport named Sweethaven, his native Kansas City, or a simple gathering such as a wedding or a fan club reunion—his Great American Subject is community. Altman’s men and women fail to connect, but they consistently try.

More than any director of his generation, John Cassavetes and Woody Allen included, Altman has devoted countless, loving screen hours to women. In particular, he has filmed women talking to each other and over each other (as happened last night when Meryl Streep and repertoire veteran Lily Tomlin introduced the director). Beside the languorously probing camera zoom, his visual signature, the most distinctive feature of his movies is this famous overlapping dialogue, much of it improvised. As in democracy, in Altman everyone speaks at cross purposes.

Trinkets are nice when you put someone out to pasture, but in Altman’s case buying more tickets would be a more appropriate award.