At the start of the 1990s, American filmmaker Robert Altman was seen by many as past his prime. So what caused his return to success throughout the decade?
The success of Altman in the 1970s had placed him at the center of the New Hollywood (or American New Wave) period. Films like M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975) were not only successful with audiences but celebrated by critics as uniquely challenging and socially conscious. In the seventies, Altman re-examined what was acceptable in mainstream American cinema, questioning generic conventions and breaking the assumed filmmaking rules within Hollywood.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
That willingness to push cinematic boundaries did not just disappear in the 1980s; his live-action adaptation of Popeye (1980) received negative reactions from critics and audiences, ultimately impacting Altman’s position in the Hollywood filmmaking establishment. Audiences found it too unusual for a film supposedly aimed at children, and critics, for the most part, agreed with them. He would not receive similarly high budgets for his following projects.
Despite this, Altman was still responsible for thought-provoking and innovative films throughout the decade, such as Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), and Secret Honor (1984). These projects display Altman at his expectation-defying best, and, despite a lack of financial success, represent his best work of the 80s. The director was often asked about how he interpreted the ups and downs of his career.
Secret Honor (1984)
Altman explained that he did not see his filmography as a series of big hits, and big misses, but as a complete collection. Each film was worthy of his time even if it went on to be a flop in the eyes of the critics, and Altman often said that he loved every one of his films. “I was always there, it was the audience that left,” is the way Altman summarized his career in a 1994 interview with Charlie Rose.
By the time his audience came back, it was the 1990s. Following the success of Tanner ’88 (1988), a television mockumentary series that he directed, Altman returned to mainstream audiences’ consciousness. Another underrated Altman work would start the filmmaker’s nineties: the Van Gogh-based drama Vincent & Theo (1990), starring Tim Roth. This received a fair amount of critical success, but was, similarly to his '80s films, underappreciated by audiences at the time, perhaps due to its limited theatrical release.
The Player (1992)
His next film, however, received a welcome-back reception that took him all the way to the Academy Awards. Based on Michael Tolkin’s 1988 book of the same name, The Player (1992) stars Tim Robbins as a Hollywood studio executive. The notion of Robert Altman, the famous directorial maverick of American cinema, making a satire of Hollywood studio filmmaking captured the imagination of audiences worldwide.
It is a film that delivers on its promise, with Robbins’ character Griffin Mill killing a writer in order to keep his place in the studio hierarchy. His life then spirals out of control as he evades police questioning and becomes involved with his victim’s girlfriend. Along the way, there are a number of smaller moments that most accurately encapsulate Altman’s mocking tone when evaluating Hollywood.
The screenplay, written by Tolkin himself, is one of the wittiest Altman has ever directed, with memorable lines in every scene. The cameos of an irritated Malcolm McDowell and a two-faced Burt Reynolds bring some of the funniest moments. Richard E. Grant steals every scene as a visionary British screenwriter who sells out following unsuccessful screen tests.
The opening presents Mill in his most natural setting, sitting in his office listening to unoriginal pitch ideas (including a sequel of The Graduate in which Mrs. Robinson has suffered a stroke), all of which seem to have Julia Roberts as their star. The film parodies the lack of artistic originality in modern Hollywood throughout, with bad proposals and a lack of appreciation for cinematic creativity.
In one meeting, Peter Gallagher’s character Larry Levy, who is competing with Griffin for his job, explicitly differentiates an "art movie" (Bicycle Thieves) and a "movie movie," which is the kind of film he intends to make. This concept is in complete contrast to the attitude the film’s director has had throughout his career. For Altman, there was no inherent difference between art and Hollywood. He showed throughout his career that they can be one and the same – that mainstream American cinema can produce works of art.
The Player represents a Hollywood that is becoming less and less in line with Altman’s preferred ways of viewing film. Altman was the maverick of Hollywood who tried to push boundaries and take risks in his filmmaking. This film is a response to the attitudes within modern Hollywood which have shunned individuals like Altman, favoring safer, if more clichéd, projects, such as the one we see at the end of the film.
Short Cuts (1993)
A year after The Player, Altman struck filmmaking gold once again. Arguably his most emotionally-centered work, Short Cuts follows the day-to-day lives of multiple inter-connected characters living in Los Angeles. A spiritual successor to Nashville and A Wedding, Short Cuts represents Altman’s best work since the 1970s and arguably stands alongside any film he made in terms of both originality and sensitivity. With this film, Altman took on the whole range of human existence, presenting love, grief, despair and everything in between.
Based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, Short Cuts investigates the complexity of human decision-making, in a cinematic world that privileges the viewer with an omniscience rarely seen in mainstream film. The audience does not only see the story of a young child being run over by a car during a tragic accident and his parents dealing with the life-changing events that follow, but we also see the impact the tragedy has on the driver, the boy’s neighbor, the baker making a cake for his birthday, and so on.
Short Cuts pushes the boundaries of characterization in filmmaking, refusing to separate leading and supporting characters. Instead, the film gives every cast member the same dignity as developed characters with challenges, and dreams.
On the surface, these characters are all completely different from each other. The only thing that seemingly connects them is geography. This concept is emphasized by the way the film starts and ends. In the beginning, a medfly infestation is being treated by helicopters spraying pesticide. These helicopters are present in the introductory scenes of various characters, therefore making it evident that these individuals all live within the same area. Although it may seem obvious, this fact is crucial to the rest of the film.
Short Cuts explores the ways in which we are both different from and the same as those who inhabit the space around us. The characters may have different levels of economic security, ages, and ideologies, but they all experience similar problems in day-to-day life. They each struggle with grief, infidelity, ambition, or any number of comparable complications that plague human existence.
The geographical connection through the medfly infestation seems to symbolize the connection we all have as human beings living together. If something infests our world, it ends up spreading throughout the lives of those around us. This metaphor is mirrored at the end of the film when an earthquake once again connects all of the characters geographically. The interconnected lives of the individuals in the film have been shaken by what has happened. Secrets revealed, rooms trashed, and dead bodies found, the lives of these characters have all impacted those around them. The earthquake connects them all.
Short Cuts was a creative high for Altman in the 1990s. If the 1980s had been characterized by a lack of appropriate reception, with understated films that deserved a little more acclaim, his kaleidoscopic piece symbolized a return to the very heights of Altman’s career. He had revived his reputation both with audiences and critics, and subsequently received an Academy Award nomination for best director.
Kansas City (1996)
The third film that displays Altman’s artistry in the ‘90s is Kansas City (1996). This movie stands apart from the other two, however, in that it did not receive anywhere near the kind of critical or financial success. Despite that, the 1930s jazz-gangster film showcases many of the best elements of Altman’s cinematic style.
Set in Altman’s place of birth, Kansas City follows Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), as she kidnaps a politician’s wife in order to negotiate her husband’s safe release from gangsters. This film’s release follows the pattern of Altman’s career, with audiences and critics under-appreciating its artistic merit after a several-year high. Kansas City does not reach the same heights as The Player and Short Cuts, but it does display some of the creative qualities that have defined Altman’s filmography.
His focus on a female character saving her husband flips the expectations of the gangster genre. Generic conventions are something that the director played with throughout his career, from his "anti-western" McCabe & Mrs. Miller to his reimagining of Phillip Marlowe and the role of the private detective in The Long Goodbye.
This film follows their legacy in its reassessment of the generic tropes of the gangster film. This was a personal film for Altman, in that it was set in his place of birth. It is therefore unsurprising that the film centers upon the experiences of female characters, given that he was raised mainly by women. This influence can be seen throughout his career, with Images and 3 Women representing Altman’s most direct examinations of the lives of his female characters.
The film ponders issues such as women’s unwanted pregnancies in Great Depression America, their position in loveless marriages and (in Blondie’s case) their undying dedication to their husbands. As we have come to expect from Altman’s work, the film also explores a number of broader themes that define America both at the time of the film’s setting and its release, including political corruption, violence, and racism. Altman, once again, unpicks the fabric of American life.
Beyond the '90s
The popular resurgence of Altman as a director in the 1990s continued into the 20th century, as he made the final four films of his career. Gosford Park (2001) would stand ahead of the others as the most successful, receiving six Oscar nominations, as well as a win for best original screenplay. Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), was well-received by the critics and audiences, ending his relationship with the people who watch his films on a high.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
However, I believe that Altman would have felt exactly the same about his career even if he had been panned. He is one of the few filmmakers who truly loved every single one of his films, and his passion for the filmmaking process can be seen in each and every one. He tried things that other directors would never consider, and sometimes people got it – sometimes they didn’t. If Altman’s return to popularity in the 1990s shows anything, it is that, unlike the director in The Player, he would never compromise his artistic vision; he would just wait for the audience to catch up.