Robert Alt­man: The Oral Bi­og­ra­phy by Mitchell Zuck­off, Al­fred A. Knopf, 560 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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.

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