Robert Altman returns to form with 'Player'

April 24, 1992|By Jim Emerson | Jim Emerson,Orange County Register

Veteran director Robert Altman knows how the game is played.

His new movie, a mordant Hollywood satire called "The Player," has prompted media profiles that paint the movie as the rogue director's "comeback," his bitter and long-delayed revenge against the town that failed to sufficiently respect and appreciate his talent.

And that makes for a neat little story.

But Mr. Altman says it isn't an accurate picture. He feels that he's been miscast by the press, which tends to package interviews and news stories to fit tidy, familiar formulas, just as studio executives (like those in "The Player") mangle movies to better suit conventional generic molds, ad campaigns and demographic research.

"This business of being a maverick and a malcontent -- I think this is something that your profession has thought up," Mr. Altman says with a grin. "I think it originally starts from somebody else's feelings and they just use me as a surrogate.

"You -- the generic you -- will come out and do an interview with me, having already made up your mind what I'm going to say. The fact that you were here and heard me in person means that you can justify the story you've already written in your mind."

But, he admits, that's the way the game is played: The studios use the press to help sell their movies while the press uses images of celebrities in the movies to help sell newspapers and magazines.

"It's all about marketing," Mr. Altman says. "The guys who pay for the films, at the studios, they don't even know what's good and what isn't. It isn't even in their vocabulary. They'd prefer to sell empty boxes if they could. They are selling empty boxes." Those are the people "The Player" is about.

To further the injustice, Mr. Altman observes, the media publish box-office stories every week so that "The pictures that make the most money get the free advertising.

"When I made 'Vincent and Theo,' we got on a lot of 10-best lists, but we couldn't get television reviewers to review it because it didn't have stars in it and it was during the sweeps. They were trying to attract viewers, so they would not review a picture that had these two unknown English actors. And they told us that."

Mr. Altman tells this story with a sense of amused outrage. At 67, he may not be bitter, exactly, but he's not content or complacent, either.

In the '70s, Mr. Altman won critical acclaim and popular success with such films as "M*A*S*H," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville" -- movies teeming with energy, invention and spontaneity. His trademark style was expansive and open, allowing actors' loosely scripted conversations to interweave and overlap as they drifted in and out of his free-roving, wide-screen frame.

But later films in this vein, such as "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," "A Wedding" and "Health," weren't widely released or appreciated. Mr. Altman spent most of the '80s making small, intimate stage adaptations such as "Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Streamers," "Fool for Love" and "Beyond Therapy."

With his HBO political mockumentary miniseries "Tanner '88" and now "The Player," Mr. Altman returns to his hallmark style, which he calls "documentaries about fictional characters."

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