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Long recognized as a true auteur in American cinema despite his rather confrontational on set demeanor, director Robert Altman brought an ironic and irreverent perspective to his films that often deconstructed classic film genres like Westerns, crime dramas, musicals and classic whodunits. His films were filled with unexpected quirks, overlapping dialogue - often improvised - and an acutely iconoclastic point of view that was deftly used to skewer long-standing American values. Following a rather inauspicious entry into moviemaking by way of industrial films, Altman cut his teeth in television on shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1965) before making his mark on American cinema with "M*A*S*H" (1970), a loose and irreverent look at a group of hedonistic army surgeons and nurses that tapped into the angst of the antiwar generation growing up under the shadow of the Vietnam War. Altman next turned his attention to revitalizing the Western with "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971), before earning the enmity of critics who blasted the director for his irreverent caricature of Philip Marlowe in "The Long Goodbye" (1973). But he earned back their admiration tenfold with "Nashville" (1975), a...
Long recognized as a true auteur in American cinema despite his rather confrontational on set demeanor, director Robert Altman brought an ironic and irreverent perspective to his films that often deconstructed classic film genres like Westerns, crime dramas, musicals and classic whodunits. His films were filled with unexpected quirks, overlapping dialogue - often improvised - and an acutely iconoclastic point of view that was deftly used to skewer long-standing American values. Following a rather inauspicious entry into moviemaking by way of industrial films, Altman cut his teeth in television on shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1965) before making his mark on American cinema with "M*A*S*H" (1970), a loose and irreverent look at a group of hedonistic army surgeons and nurses that tapped into the angst of the antiwar generation growing up under the shadow of the Vietnam War. Altman next turned his attention to revitalizing the Western with "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971), before earning the enmity of critics who blasted the director for his irreverent caricature of Philip Marlowe in "The Long Goodbye" (1973). But he earned back their admiration tenfold with "Nashville" (1975), a multi-layered satire that followed 24 main characters in numerous intersecting storylines that ably weaved a tapestry depicting the folly of pursuing fame in America. After that critical success, which was later widely considered to be his best film, Altman hit a long, slow slide that ended in the commercial and critical debacle known as "Popeye" (1980). The director spent the ensuing decade making interesting low-budget indies like "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982), "Secret Honor" (1984) and "Vincent and Theo" (1990) before returning to the Hollywood fold with a biting satire, "The Player" (1992), which savaged the very industry that embraced his return. Altman helmed another multi-character piece, "Short Cuts" (1993), a darkly comic look at relationships surviving contemporary Los Angeles that recalled his efforts on "Nashville" two decades prior. Following another brief creative lull that saw "Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)" (1994) and "Kansas City" (1996) added to his canon, the director earned high praise and fawning reverence for the comedy-of-manners wrapped around a country manor whodunit, "Gosford Park" (2001), which underscored arguably one of the most important cinematic careers of the late 20th century.
Born on Feb. 2, 1925 in Kansas City, MO, Altman was raised in an upper class home by his father, B.C., an expert insurance salesman fond of whiskey, women and poker, and his mother, Helen, a socialite who enjoyed the company of her sisters and friends. Despite his father's frequent descents into vice, Altman grew up in a strict Catholic home, while attending St. Peter's Catholic School and Rockhurst High School, a college preparatory school run by Jesuits. But the young lad was something of a hell raiser, which led his parent to ship him off to Wentworth Military Academy during his junior year of high school. Toward the end of World War II, Altman joined the Army Air Force and copiloted a B-24 bomber for missions in Borneo and other Japanese positions in the Pacific. During the war, he started thinking about a career in film, which led him to starting writing scripts for radio and film. Altman moved to Southern California after the war and helped launch a company that tattooed dogs for identification; he even went to the White House and tattooed the dog of President Harry S. Truman.
Once the dog tattooing business went belly up, Altman focused his attention on film once again, briefly trying his hand at acting - he was an extra in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1947) - before writing the script for the detective thriller "Bodyguard" (1948), starring notorious actor Lawrence Tierney. Emboldened by this initial success, Altman moved to New York City after tiring of life on the West Coast in pursuit of further writing glory. But he had little luck and returned to Kansas City, where he found work with the Calvin Company, a leading producer of industrial films. For the next several years, Altman worked as a designer, cinematographer, producer, director, writer and editor on over 60 industrial films, until he was contacted by a local theater owner interested in hiring him to director a juvenile delinquency film, a popular genre in the 1950s. Altman managed to raise $60,000 to make his first feature film, "The Delinquents" (1957), a teen exploitation film about a young man (Tom Laughlin), who becomes involved with a street gang and goes bad in short order. He followed with his first documentary, "The James Dean Story" (1957), which chronicled Dean's rise to fame and his tragic end, complete with clips from his films.
But it was "The Delinquents" that helped propel Altman's directing career. The master of suspense himself saw the film and hired Altman to direct episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1965), which opened the door to directing on other shows like "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973), "Peter Gunn" (NBC, 1958-1961), "Maverick" (ABC, 1957-1962) and "The Whirlybirds" (CBS, 1957-1960), the latter being where he met his third wife, Kathryn Reed, a former showgirl and extra on the show. Though working within the system, Altman displayed early on a resistance to conformity - a trait he continued throughout his career - which delayed his return to feature filmmaking for another decade. He finally did return with "Countdown" (1968), a rather conventional story about a NASA scientist (James Caan) chosen for a moon mission who discovers evidence that the Russians have been to the lunar surface before the Americans, only to have suffered a fatal demise. His next film exhibited a chilling claustrophobia in this story about a younger-than-she-looks spinster (Sandy Dennis) who has ulterior motives for taking in a quiet young stranger (Michael Burns). Too distant and emotionally cold, the film flopped with both critics and audiences.
Altman's career took a dramatic turn with "M*A*S*H" (1970), an anti-war satire in the vein of Catch-22, set during the Korean War where the absurdity of combat is reflected in the comic exploits of a group of hedonistic Army surgeons and the nurses they chase after. Altman's defining characteristics were already emerging: episodic structure, a penchant for black comedy, and adlibbed dialogue. Despite the culmination of these elements in the creation of a wholly unique film, they brought about intense confrontations between Altman and several cast members, including stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, who reportedly tried on several occasions to have Altman removed from the film because of his unorthodox style. Altman had a particularly hostile clash with writer Ring Lardner, Jr., who wound up being the only participant to win an Academy Award for their efforts - something that angered the director to no end. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes trouble, "M*A*S*H" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and became a huge hit that touched a raw nerve in those turbulent times, thanks to its anti-authoritative tone, unabated reveling in decadence, and the underlying message that all war is futile. Meanwhile, Altman's son, Michael, was credited with writing the lyrics for the theme song, "Suicide is Painless," though the words were never used in the opening credits of the long-running and critically hailed television series that was spawned later in the decade.
The success of "M*A*S*H" led Altman to expand his own Lion's Gate production company - complete with state-of-the-art editing and sound recording facilities - where the creative process was once described as "controlled chaos." The director added to his reputation as an outsider working within the system with "Brewster McCloud" (1970), a satirical comedy about a nerdy young boy (Bud Cort) realizing his dream to fly by building a pair of human-sized wings. Considered too odd and weird for its own good, "Brewster" failed to connect with both critics and audiences, though it remained something of a curiosity for Altman fans in later years. Turning toward the Western, Altman directed "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), a deconstruction of the genre while tapping into the time's mistrust of corrupt institutions to tell the story of a hustler (Warren Beatty), who partners with a madam (Julie Christie) to build a successful casino and brothel despite their animosity towards each other. Though audiences ignored it at the time of its release, the film gained importance and relevance throughout the ensuing decades to become a classic revisionist take on the well-worn genre.
After directing the long-forgotten psychological thriller "Images" (1972), Altman turned his attention toward deconstructing another popular genre, the film noir, with "The Long Goodbye" (1973). The film starred Elliott Gould as a contemporary Philip Marlowe, whose old-world moral code and overall passivity fall far out of place in 1970s Los Angeles. When first released, "The Long Goodbye" was blasted by critics, most of whom despised Altman's rather flippant portrayal of an iconic character. But as was the case with his most misunderstood films, it gained reverence as time wore on, though nothing changed the fact that it was a commercial disaster in theaters. He enhanced his reputation as a consummate artist with "Thieves Like Us" (1974), a lushly photographed 1930s gangster picture starring Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine as two doomed criminal lovers on the run from the law. A lyrical, almost poetic look at the Depression-era South, "Thieves" was a remarkable achievement by the director that was once again largely overlooked by audiences. Regardless of the poor box office performance, the film developed a strong reputation as being one of Altman's finest efforts.
But with "Nashville" (1975), Altman managed to win back audiences and critics while being nominated for several Oscars, including one for Best Director. The loosely connected story depicted 24 different characters - aspiring singers, media personalities and desperate hangers-on - who make up the complex and layered city that serves as a microcosm of America's obsession with stardom. Possessing a breezy and layered narrative that effortless weaved in and out of the many characters, "Nashville" - which featured Ned Beatty, David Arkin, Barbara Harris, Jeff Goldblum, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine and Lily Tomlin - boasted numerous exquisite performances on its way to being hailed one of the best films of that year. Technically, the film was perhaps most remarkable for its dense, multi-track sound for its numerous musical performances, which enabled Altman to subtly merge a diverse and often savagely satirical group of stories set in the world of country music and contemporary politics. The accolades quickly stopped, however, with the often dismissed "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson" (1976), Altman's Bicentennial film which explored the marketing of American history.
Altman debuted as a producer with "Welcome to L.A." (1976), directed by protégé Alan Rudolph, and "The Late Show" (1977), written by screenwriter Robert Benton; both films echoed his fondness for quirky characters and situations. Altman's own directorial style continued to evolve and diversify with "3 Women" (1977), a film very much influenced by European art cinema and which won Shelley Duvall the Best Actress prize at Cannes. He moved on to the underrated satire "A Wedding" (1978), starring Carol Burnett, Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Mia Farrow, and "Quintet" (1979), an obscurely poetic film set in a snowbound post-apocalyptic world that befuddled most anyone who watched the plodding film. The two comedies of this period - the offbeat romance "A Perfect Couple" (1979) and "Health" (1980), a send-up of America's health food craze - ran into distribution problems and were never widely seen. But it was his final Lion's Gate effort, "Popeye" (1980), that nearly put the final nail in his career coffin. Starring Robin Williams as the spinach-eating sailor with the oversized forearms and frequent star Shelley Duvall as the perfect Olive Oyl, "Popeye" the musical was a rather curious, but off-the-mark cartoon recreation that - like all Altman films - has its share of detractors and champions. The critical consensus, however, was hostile though the box office performance was acceptable. "Popeye" also marked Altman's last mainstream Hollywood feature for more than a decade.
In 1981, Altman sold Lion's Gate and turned his attention to the theater. He staged and subsequently filmed the drama "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982), a low-budget dramedy set in 1975 about the reunion of a James Dean fan club, where an odd assortment of women (including Sandy Dennis, Cher and Karen Black) divulge revealing secrets of their lost innocence. Following "Streamers" (1983), a film version of David Rabe's play about stateside barracks life in the early days of the Vietnam War, Altman directed "Secret Honor" (1984), which focused on a disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) delivering an 90-minute, rage-filled rant about all that went wrong during his time in the White House. Both films were dramatic departures from the freewheeling, relatively improvisational canvas films of the preceding decade; rigorous experiments that explored character in miniature with surprising fidelity to their theatrical sources. Paradoxically, Altman returned to carving a niche on the small screen, having worked on several made-for-television productions including "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" (CBS, 1988) and the Gary Trudeau-penned political comedy "Tanner '88" (HBO, 1988), for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series.
Treading water as a film director for much of the 1980s, Altman helmed such little-seen misfires like "Beyond Therapy" (1987) and "O.C. and Stiggs" (1987) before regaining critical attention with his handsomely filmed, quietly intense "Vincent and Theo" (1990). The film focused on the obsessive and erratic Vincent van Gogh (Tim Roth), a loner who manages to alienate all around him save for his dedicated and practical minded brother, Theo (Paul Rhys). Altman followed with his most acclaimed film in years and one of his most commercially successful ever, "The Player" (1992), a scathing look at Hollywood opportunism which reunited Altman's restless camera stylistics with his ironic take on popular culture. The film starred Tim Robbins as high-level studio executive, Griffin Mill, who begins receiving death threats from a disgruntled writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) while trying to fend off an up-and-coming executive (Peter Gallagher) looking to take his job. He soon finds himself embroiled in the accidental homicide of the frustrated writer, leading Mills to desperately search for his own happy ending. Featuring some 60-odd celebrity cameos, as well as a seven-minute opening tracking shot that referenced "Touch of Evil" (1958) and "Rope" (1948), "The Player" was a return to form for Altman, who received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Director.
Undoubtedly reinvigorated by success, Altman followed up with "Short Cuts" (1993), a return to the collage of portraits from the "Nashville" era that marked one of his most critically hailed films since his 1975 masterpiece. Twenty-two actors - including Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Andie McDowell and Jack Lemmon - in nine different stories enacted Altman's take on writer Raymond Carver's stories of families and marital problems in a darkly rendered vision of Southern California life. Both sprawling and intimate without ever being overcrowded, "Short Cuts" was the director's second consecutive film to earn critical kudos, marking a resurgence many thought was impossible. But as he usually did following success, Altman faltered with his next project. This time it was the lighter, but similarly panoramic "Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)" (1994), in which another highly varied collection of stars and character players enact roles in a satirical look at the world of haute couture during Paris fashion shows. Unlike his two previous films, however, "Ready to Wear" failed to provide any insight into the subject matter and the characters portrayed on screen, leaving critics and audiences to reject the glitzy but shallow proceedings.
Having survived far worse career reversals, Altman continued to tackle new projects, beginning with "Kansas City" (1996), a period urban gangster film set in the era of his earlier rural "Thieves Like Us." Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Harry Belafonte starred in this tale of a telegraph operator who kidnaps the wife of a leading politician to secure her husband's release from death row. Short on plot, but full of wonderful jazz performances, "Kansas City" failed to fully connect with audiences. Meanwhile, Altman made a short-lived return to the small screen as the creator, executive producer and occasional director of "Gun" (ABC, 1997), an anthology series that followed individuals who came into contact with a high-powered, pearl-handled, semiautomatic weapon. Some critics were impressed, but audiences stayed away and only six episodes were aired. The following year, the director tackled "The Gingerbread Man" (1998), a legal thriller that marked the first original screenplay by author John Grisham. Grisham, however, objected to the changes made by Altman and removed his name from the final screenplay, while the releasing studio was reportedly unhappy with the director's ending and failed to support the movie upon its release. Despite receiving respectful reviews, the film was a box-office failure. Altman's next two films, the Southern Gothic "Cookie's Fortune" (1999), starring Glenn Close and Patricia Neal, and the satirical "Dr. T and the Women" (2000), starring Richard Gere as a wealthy gynecologist, were mildly praised by critics, but failed to spark much of a response with the movie-going public.
Altman had virtually tackled and inverted the conventions of nearly every genre in his long and distinguished career, save for the British whodunit. Longtime friend Bob Balaban proposed an idea for a murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel and together they hammered out a sketchy outline. Then they hired actor Julian Fellowes - whose previous screenwriting credits had been for the small screen - to flesh out their outline of a shooting party at an English country house in 1932. The result, "Gosford Park" (2001), was Altman's most accessible and successful picture in years. The standard touches were all employed: an all-star ensemble representing the cream of British talent, including Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, as well as rising talents like Clive Owen and Kelly Macdonald; a terrifically designed production with sets by the director's son, Stephen Altman; costumes by Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan; sweeping camera movements captured by director of photography Andrew Dunn; and a literate screenplay that was more an upstairs-downstairs class drama with the murder of the estates patriarch (Gambon) an afterthought. With critics hailing his effort and his stars lavishing praise, Altman arguably heard the most reverent accolades of his career on the way to "Gosford Park" earning seven Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director.
Altman's next film, "The Company" (2003), an ensemble drama focusing on a company of dancers at the Joffrey Ballet co-written by the film's lead, actress and former dancer Neve Campbell, was a vividly graceful and beautifully elegant film that unfortunately possessed a rather threadbare and uninspired story. After revisiting the story of the politician Jack Tanner for the sequel miniseries "Tanner on Tanner" (Sundance Channel, 2004), Altman was selected to receive an honorary Oscar at the 78th Academy Awards. In accepting his award, Altman gave a modest, almost humble speech, declaring several times how grateful he was to have the opportunities given him. He went on to quip about the heart transplant he received from a woman in her mid-30s, which by his estimation was destined to add another 40 years to his career. Not letting his advanced age slow him down, Altman released his next film, "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006), to good reviews. Starring an ensemble cast that included Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson and Lindsay Lohan, "A Prairie Home Companion" was a fictional take on Garrison Keillor's popular Saturday evening radio program that showcased various musical acts and featured the host's 20-minute long musings on the made-up town of Lake Wobegon. But the 40 years predicted by Altman unfortunately failed to materialize. On Nov. 20, 2006, mere months after accepting his honorary Oscar, Altman died of complications from leukemia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 81.
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