Tuesday 16 January 2018

Film: Maverick who turned 'Mash' into pure gold

Elliott Gould (left) and Donald Sutherland (right) in the film version of MASH.
Elliott Gould (left) and Donald Sutherland (right) in the film version of MASH.
Director Robert Altman
Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs Miller

Paul Whitington

A few weeks back we talked about Stanley Kubrick and Barry Lyndon, and made the point that Kubrick was that most exotic of beasts, a commercial film-maker who was also a bona fide artist. There have, of course, been one or two others, and the incomparable Robert Altman was definitely among them.

He died in 2006, but a new documentary, which opened at Dublin's IFI yesterday, celebrates the life and achievements of this incredibly resilient and inventive film-maker whose career had more ups and downs than your average rollercoaster ride.

His insistence on balking Hollywood conventions and doing things his own way landed Altman in all sorts of trouble, and on at least three or four occasions his film career seemed dead in the water. But every time he managed to reinvent himself, and over the years began quietly amassing a body of work the substance of which can only now be fully appreciated.

Ron Mann's film Altman, which includes brief but powerful tributes from collaborators like Lily Tomlin, Julianne Moore, Elliott Gould, James Caan and Sally Kellerman, opens with a brief résumé of his childhood. He was born in Kansas City on February 20, 1925, and was educated by the Jesuits. During World War II he enlisted in the US Army Air Forces and was a crewman on more than 40 B-24 Liberator bombing missions.

When he returned to America after the war, he drifted to Hollywood on a whim and knocked together a movie script with a friend of his. To Altman's surprise, Bodyguard was picked up by RKO and turned into a gritty film noir starring Lawrence Tierney and Priscilla Lane. But the studio wouldn't let him write the actual screenplay, and when he asked to visit the set he was rebuffed.

Disillusioned, he returned to Kansas City in 1949, and was hired by the Calvin Company to write and direct industrial films. Shooting movies about petrol stations and tractors might not sound like riveting work, but for Altman his seven-odd years at the Calvin Company were a priceless opportunity to learn the business inside out. And by the time his next lucky break came in the mid-1950s, Altman was primed and ready.

In 1956, a Kansas City movie theatre exhibitor called Elmer Rhoden approached Altman about making a film that could capitalise on the rapidly growing teen market. He wanted something racy and realistic, and Altman happily complied. "I wrote the thing in five days," he later recalled, "cast it, picked the locations, drove the generator truck, took no money - we just did it, that's all".

Made for just $60,000 and released in the spring of 1957, The Delinquents was a lurid tale of star-crossed love, teen drinking and switch-blade fights, but it had enough about it to get picked up by United Artists and given a wide release. More importantly for Altman, Alfred Hitchcock happened to see it, and was sufficiently impressed to offer its director a spot on his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

It was the beginning of a 10-year-stint as a highly sought after TV director. Altman worked constantly through the late 1950s and 1960s on serial dramas like Whirlybirds, The Roaring 20s, Bonanza and Maverick.

It was dreary, formulaic work for the most part, and Altman was delighted when Warner Brothers gave him another chance to make a feature film. Made just a year before the first moon landing, Countdown (1968) could hardly have been more topical. James Caan starred as an astronaut who goes missing after landing on the moon. Veteran mogul Jack Warner had strong ideas about how the film should look, but while he was out of town, Altman went ahead and did things his own way.

He'd long been weary of Hollywood's stiff and formal film-making style, where actors hit their marks and said their lines without seeming to listen to each other. And on Countdown he began experimenting with a style that would become distinctively his: actors talked over each other and even improvised, making their conversations seem strikingly real.

Warner was horrified when he saw the rushes, and roared "this fool has actors talking at the same time". Altman was sacked, and the film was recut by the studio, but Jack Warner was hopelessly out of touch, and Altman's time was coming.

In 1969 he was approached by 20th Century Fox about a script for a very unusual war film. MASH was based on a novel by Richard Hooker, who had worked in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.

A script by Ring Lardner told the stories of the surgeons and nurses who worked on combat casualties in dreadful circumstances. And though MASH was ostensibly set in Korea, in Robert Altman's hands it would become a thinly-veiled critique of the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam.

It was not an easy shoot for Altman, whose unconventional techniques soon got up the noses of MASH's stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. Gould said later: "He was so innovative that Donald and I almost got him fired. We couldn't handle him and we were complaining about him." With Fox executives distracted by production on two other, bigger budget war films, Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!, Altman was given free rein to make MASH exactly the way he wanted. By turns hilarious and shocking, his finished film bemused Fox's boss Daryl Zanuck when he returned from a stint in Europe to vet it.

He was particularly horrified by the scenes that blended humour with graphic surgery, and told Altman to "get rid of all that blood!". But the veteran mogul had brought two young European ladies to the screening with him, and they loudly disagreed, and told Zanuck MASH was great.

The studio left it alone, and MASH would become one of the biggest films of 1970, winning the Palme d'Or and riding the anti-war zeitgeist to make the 45-year-old Altman one of the hottest directors in Hollywood.

While the sun shone, he made hay, using his new-found clout to make films the way he wanted, with ad-libbing, overlapping voices and an enthralling messiness which was the stuff of real life. He even developed a new sound recording system that picked up the voices of all the actors onset, leading to fascinatingly muddled scenes that left it up to you which conversation to listen to.

In a way he was de-constructing the traditional Hollywood style of film-making and remaking it for his time. In McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971, see panel), he compellingly reinvigorated the tropes of the western, and in The Long Goodbye (1973), he was reunited with Elliott Gould to make a warts-and-all film noir 1970s-style.

Nashville (1975) had the complexity and richness of a novel, and used a vast array of characters to satirise the saccharine self-importance of country music and, by extension, America. And while critics rushed to sing its praises, Nashville was angrily rejected as un-American by many.

And as the 1970s drew to a close, the atmosphere in Hollywood began to change and auteur film-makers like Altman found it harder and harder to get their movies financed. Even though he now had his own production company, Altman depended on Fox for backing and distribution, and when his long-time champion Alan Ladd Jr, left the studio in 1979, things became more difficult.

A string of flops culminated in a stand-off over Altman's 1980 film Health, a grandly ambitious political satire that was shelved for two years before eventually getting a small release.

Altman seemed an unlikely choice to direct Paramount Studios' big budget musical fantasy Popeye, which starred Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall and would be filmed mainly on location in a specially designed set in Malta. But the shoot was cursed by ill luck and chaos. Altman constantly clashed with producer Robert Evans, Popeye's musical director Harry Nilsson departed in high dudgeon midway through the shoot, and a huge storm all but destroyed the set.

The finished film actually did OK at the box office but was rubbished by the critics, leaving Altman's reputation in tatters.

After Popeye, he was no longer able to raise the money to mount his trademark ensemble dramas. "Nobody," he later lamented "was answering the phone". He retreated to the theatre, working off Broadway, and releasing only occasional films through the 1980s. He moved to Paris for a time, before returning to America in 1988 to work on a ground-breaking TV series for HBO called Tanner '88.

Then, in 1992, he made a most unexpected movie comeback in a film that brilliantly satirised the trashy unoriginality of Hollywood studio producers. The Player starred Tim Robbins as a power-mad studio executive who becomes an accidental murderer. It was wise and witty, playfully wicked, and suddenly Altman was flavour of the month again.

A year later he followed it with one of his very best films, Short Cuts, a sparkling ensemble comic drama based on the short stories of Raymond Carter and starring Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Robert Downey, Frances McDormand, Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin as variously unhappy Los Angelinos.

Through the 1990s, and despite ailing health, Robert Altman continued to make challenging and daringly original films, and once again became the darling of Cannes. But still he found it hard to raise money, and in 2001, was only able to go ahead and make Gosford Park with a grant from the British National Lottery. A darkly comic murder mystery set in an English country house in the 1920s, it is, along with McCabe and Mrs Miller, my favourite Altman film.

The grizzled maverick kept on battling until the end, and was scouting locations for a new movie when he was taken ill with the leukaemia that would quickly kill him. He died in November, 2006, an event he appeared to anticipate in the last scene of his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, when a group of friends in a diner are visited by the angel of death.

Robert Altman was a maverick, pure and simple, a rugged individualist who in later life became philosophical about his treatment at Hollywood's hands. "I make gloves," he once said, "and they make shoes."

Altman's best: McCabe & Mrs Miller

In a sense, Robert Altman was probably at his freest when he made McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971).

Still basking in the unexpected success of MASH, he was given free rein in the making of a startlingly original revisionist western that comprehensively debunked the mythology of a hackneyed and dying genre. Warren Beatty played John McCabe, a boastful stranger who arrives in a small mining town in Washington State claiming to be a dangerous gunfighter.

He sets up a brothel with the help of a Cockney madam called Constance Miller (Julie Christie), but makes the fatal mistake of rebuffing an offer from the local mining magnate to buy him out. With its mournful Leonard Cohen soundtrack and its rainy, wintry setting, Altman's film looked nothing like traditional westerns, and its 'hero' McCabe was a blustering coward who shot people in the back. Gunfights took place in gloom rather than blinding sunlight, and bemused townsfolk just stood around watching.

Hailed as a masterpiece by critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, McCabe & Mrs Miller is a truly great and quintessentially American film.

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