Robert's Rules Of Order

Director Robert Altman keeps his standards high in his new upstairs-downstairs movie, 'Gosford Park.'

January 13, 2002|By Michael Sragow | By Michael Sragow,sun movie critic

"I am an entertainer," proclaimed the matinee idol, playwright and composer Ivor Novello, the real-life historical figure at the center of Robert Altman's new movie Gosford Park. "Empty seats and good opinions mean nothing to me."

Altman at age 76 might well say the same thing. Although his only break-out hits have been M*A*S*H and The Player, he's been following his muse for more than four decades to challenge and amuse himself, and as big an audience as he can find -- not to court critics or to push a social or artistic agenda.

One of Novello's biographers wrote: "Nobody was ever less of a snob. His only standard was quality; he would have nothing which, in achievement or texture, was second rate." You could say that of Altman, too. Some of his greatest accomplishments have come from bringing his own rich textures and unpredictable qualities to familiar and often lowdown genres. He took on the private-eye movie in The Long Goodbye, the gambling movie in California Split, the Western in McCabe and Mrs. Miller; even Nashville, his masterpiece, is an epic variation on the backstage musical.

Now comes Gosford Park, a charming picture that contains elements from TV series like Upstairs, Downstairs and films like The Rules of the Game and The Shooting Party, and places them in the structure of an Agatha Christie whodunit.

It's said to be a change of pace for Altman, but aside from its 1932 time and rural English place, it's a quintessential Altman film. With an amazing cast, it follows two sets of characters -- masters and mistresses, and their servants -- over the course of a shooting party at the estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). The visiting aristocrats include Charles Dance as Sylvia's brother-in-law and Maggie Smith as her aunt. The servants on the staff include Alan Bates as the head manservant, Helen Mirren as the housekeeper, Eileen Atkins as the cook, Derek Jacobi as Sir William's valet, Emily Watson as the head housemaid and Richard E. Grant as the first footman. The visiting staff includes Kelly Macdonald as Smith's maid and Clive Owen as Dance's valet. And then there are a few wild cards. Jeremy Northam plays Sir William's cousin, Novello, whose status as a movie star means nothing to the nobles; Bob Balaban plays a Hollywood producer of Charlie Chan films -- and his standing as a moviemaker means even less to them, especially since he brings along Ryan Philippe as a suspiciously confident and clumsy servant.

A murder occurs, suspects are questioned, and the crime solved -- for the audience, if not for the authorities. Yet the murder mystery is itself one big red herring. The genuine mysteries are those of human behavior: the kinds of blindness and denial that the higher aristocrats live in (the shakier ones are desperate and needy) and the awareness and discipline and sometimes the irony that sustain a life of servitude. And why does the upstairs-downstairs lifestyle continue to enthrall audiences? In Altman's hands, there's no mystery -- it's all heartbreakingly funny and beautiful.

You're known for working on American subjects with American actors and using your intuition and your knowledge of them personally as well as professionally to collaborate with them on performances. Here you are working with English actors who come out of a more formal tradition. How did you experience the change?

It was wonderful. People ask, how can an American go over and get so deep into another culture? I say look at the terrific job John Schlesinger did on Midnight Cowboy with an American culture. You don't have to be one to act one. Lily Tomlin taught me that in Nashville; I just remember her saying that. You don't have to be one to act one.

Of course, all these actors are theater-oriented and trained. They all respect one another and there are no agents on the set. Everyone gets paid the same thing and no one has a special dressing room or a special hairdresser. Basically, I kind of funneled the actors into characters. I put them in a part and they responded to it. You know, they're all theater actors. Derek Jacobi was in the theater every night. So I said, "Derek, I can't use you in this picture other than in this really kind of small part and get you into the theater on time." He said, "I don't care if it's small, I want to be in this film." All of those people are like that. But that couldn't happen here. The agents wouldn't have them do it.

Can any of their strengths be transferred to the American scene?

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