Hollywood maverick succeeded on his own terms

Maverick director Altman dies

Robert Altman 1925-2006

November 22, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Robert Altman, whose inventiveness and independence revolutionized American moviemaking, has died at 81 of complications from cancer.

In March, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the maverick director an honorary Oscar for his iconoclastic career. He never stopped directing at peak form. In the spring, he released his last movie, A Prairie Home Companion, a lyric valentine to performers of lost radio arts.

Although Mr. Altman's films could express cynicism and rage, he was "a major humanist and just a great, great American guy in his candor and his warmth," said director and friend Jonathan Demme.

Mr. Altman died Monday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his Sandcastle 5 Productions company said in a statement yesterday.

He barged into the nation's consciousness during the Vietnam War era with the anti-war comedy M*A*S*H (1970), guiding a huge ensemble with fresh stars such as Elliott Gould through freewheeling improvisations. He captured each ad-lib or pratfall with multilayered sound and a roving camera. And he obliterated taboos against waxing irreverent over military service while depicting war in all its bloody mess.

"If any one person invented the modern independent cinema, it was Bob," director Walter Hill said yesterday.

Mr. Altman's influence can be seen in recent independent hits such as Little Miss Sunshine with their visual zest and their crack corps of performers. George Clooney said he picked Mr. Altman's brain about conjuring knockabout American group life before directing Good Night, and Good Luck.

"He told me once that his career had been a scorpion ride," Mr. Hill said. "But he proved what could be accomplished if you had enough talent, cunning, and stamina."

Although M*A*S*H became a counterculture smash, Mr. Altman, a five-time Oscar nominee for best director, never parlayed his triumphs into conventional Hollywood success. No director in Hollywood history covered as much territory as he did on his own terms. He crafted revisionist looks at classic genres and turned them into classics, too, such as the romantic western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), the L.A. private eye melodrama The Long Goodbye (1973) and the outlaw-on-the-run film Thieves Like Us (1974).

When he made a gambling movie, California Split (1974), it became an indelible study of strung-out buddies. When he took the heartland's pulse during the Watergate era, in Nashville (1975), he created a kinetic, tragicomic tapestry that spilled over the borders of the frame.

Ron Shelton, the writer-director of Bull Durham, said yesterday: "His contribution was to put life all over the screen. His methods and styles and approach felt spontaneous and uncalculated even when his work was not spontaneous and was calculated."

Mr. Altman spent much of his 44 years before M*A*S*H soaking up the details that Hollywood usually airbrushes away. By the time he hit his stride, he could turn anything into art, including Shelley Duvall reading tuna recipes in 3 Women (1977) or real-life politicos testing their aplomb with the fictional candidate Tanner (Michael Murphy) in his groundbreaking reality-TV series Tanner '88.

"No one has broken the line between art and life as much as Altman because of the way he invited actors to contribute to scripts, even to write songs and create scenes," says Steve Vineberg, professor of Theater and Film at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

He was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 20, 1925, and attended military school before joining the Army Air Forces in 1945 and piloting B-24 bombers in the fading months of World War II. After his discharge, he attempted to break into the Hollywood dream factory.

When his plans to become a screenwriter didn't pan out in Hollywood or New York, he returned to Kansas City in 1950 and spent the next five years crafting industrial films. It wasn't until a Kansas City movie exhibitor hired him to concoct an exploitation film about juvenile delinquency that he made his first feature, The Delinquents (1957). He took his footage to Hollywood, edited it there and found a distributor in United Artists.

"His films were just seething with creativity," said writer-director Philip Kaufman. "But what you valued most was his playfulness, his bubbling sense of humor."

The Delinquents was strictly amateur hour, but the subject and title connect him to the 1950s outlaw strain. Mr. Kaufman says that's where "Sam Peckinpah and Altman stand by Jack Kerouac and James Dean and Steve McQueen. ... Altman understood the wise guys and the hustlers, the ironic side of the American hero. He worked with Paul Newman on that years later in Buffalo Bill and the Indians [1976]."

Between 1958 and 1964, he toiled on TV, directing Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Combat! and Bonanza, among others. From M*A*S*H on, Mr. Altman used his TV skills to bring a new immediacy and vibrancy to filmmaking.

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