Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff, Alfred A. Knopf, 560 pages
Director Robert Altman (1925-2006) didn’t embrace the notion of linear storytelling. In his films— which include such beauties as M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and A Prairie Home Companion and such offbeat misfires as Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, and Popeye — Altman spotlighted dreamers and schemers in individual moments that relied quite a bit on overlapping dialogue and improvised bits. As a writer, producer, and director, Altman didn’t like to wrap up his films with a bow. His works are primarily driven by his films’ characters — “large, noisy groups of people,” as director/ producer/actor Bob Balaban describes them. These people ran in and out of Altman’s pictures like passengers at a train station looking for the next ticket, never knowing if they were headed to paradise or purgatory.
Journalist and biographer Mitchell Zuckoff paints a linear portrait of Altman in his affectionate, well-researched oral history. Zuckoff interviewed Altman many times and also recorded comments from about 150 of Altman’s friends, colleagues, and family members. The resulting tome presents a man who was capable of deeply loving too many women (if you asked any of his wives) and belittling friends in public; a film artist who encouraged his actors to take risks—“He told us if we walked on a tightrope he would be the net to catch us,” Henry Gibson explains; and a director who drove his screenwriters nuts by ignoring their scripts. Altman was a dreamer and schemer himself in work and play. And work, this book makes clear, was more important than family, lovers, or friends— he’d drop any of them to make a movie. Despite a yen for gambling (badly) and a habit of being broke most of the time, Altman wouldn’t take on a film just for the paycheck. He had to love the idea, but that doesn’t mean all his films came off well. For every gem, there’s a stinker.
The insider memories are delightful to read. Those who worked on Altman’s 1971Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller recall how it was one of those rare projects in which director and actor (Warren Beatty) did not get along. Sally Kellerman talks about her difficulties doing the nude shower scene in M*A*S*H; Julianne Moore has a different nude story to tell about her participation in Short Cuts. Lauren Bacall compares Altman’s methods of working with actors to those of John Huston, and Popeye cast and crew members recall a way-toolaid-back atmosphere of weed and alcohol and sex on the set. As you read about all the events surrounding the making of his films, including challenges and incidents that make you wonder how the damn things ever got made, Altman comes off as the head of a three-ring cinematic circus, replete with clowns and acrobats— with the monkeys being represented by the “guys in the suits” who ran the studios.
Altman was a man of conflict—“always at his best when he had his back against the wall with a knife at his throat,” actress Geraldine Chaplin recalls. You may not always like his actions off the set, particularly when he turns mean while drinking, but it’s hard not to respect his vision and talent. When he received an honorary Oscar for his body of work in 2006, he took the stage and said, “I look at it as a nod to all of my films. Because to me I’ve just made one long film. ... I’ve always said that making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach. You invite your friends and you get them down there and you say— you build this beautiful structure, several of you, and then you sit back and watch the tide come in, have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away. And that sand castle remains in your mind.”
He hoped, he said in that speech, to go another 40 years. He didn’t even make it another 40 weeks. His friends talk about wishing they could still call him up to talk; his cousin, actress Susan Davis, recalls a dream she had in which she ran into Altman sitting in her hotel room in Italy. She asked him what he was doing there. “I’m getting ready to do a film and I can’t get the money,” he told her. “Will you get it out of their heads that I’m dead? I’m just trying to get the money to make this film.”
So you see, he’s still at it.