Robert Altman 1925–2006
The following entry presents an overview of Altman's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Robert Altman enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success with his film M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, but he is known more for his cult following than for his box office smashes. His signature techniques, including multiple voices, meandering plots, and obscure themes, have garnered him critical acclaim for his innovation, but have prevented him from gaining overwhelming popular success.
Altman was born February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, to German immigrant parents. He attended several schools in the Kansas City area, including Wentworth Military Academy, before entering the Air Force to become a co-pilot of B-24 bombers. In the 1940s and 1950s Altman wrote several B-movie screenplays in Los Angeles and then returned to Kansas City to direct documentaries. In the late 1950s Altman tried his luck in Hollywood once again, this time in television. For the rest of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Altman wrote, produced, or directed episodes of popular shows such as Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and U. S. Marshall. His first feature film was Countdown (1968), but he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film. Although many consider Countdown a fine science fiction film, Altman disavows the movie and has insisted on complete artistic control of his subsequent projects. Altman was chosen to direct his breakthrough feature, M∗A∗S∗H (1970) after several (according to some reports, as many as fifteen) directors turned the project down. After M∗A∗S∗H, Altman made a series of offbeat films that received mixed critical reception and were by no means commercial successes. Altman's Nashville (1975) brought the auteur back into Hollywood's good graces for a time, garnering Altman the New York Film Critics Circle awards for best film and best director, as well as multiple Academy Award nominations. Altman experienced a third resurgence in 1992 with The Player, another commerical and critical success for which Altman was again nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
M∗A∗S∗H is an anti-war film centered on a group of zany army doctors who, though compassionate and skilled surgeons, survive the war through alcohol and humor. Set during the Korean War but released during the Vietnam War, the black comedy contains many of the elements typical of Altman's other films, including improvised lines and scenes, overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light and irreverent humor, no standard plot, and a moving camera which records from a distance. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is a western and love story that subverts many of the conventions of each. In The Long Goodbye (1973), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, Altman tackles the detective genre and one of its mythical heroes, the detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is out of place in his 1970s surroundings, enabling Altman to make a social commentary on the times. Nashville (1975) analyzes the nature of power and opportunism. The story revolves around a cast of 24 characters, mostly singers, aspiring stars, and politicians in the capital of country music. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) criticizes commercialism, opportunism, and the making of a celebrity. The title itself sets up a dialectic between two versions of history, and the film makes it difficult to discern historical fiction and historical reality. Vincent and Theo (1990) is Altman's only biographical film. Altman takes the unusual approach of making Vincent Van Gogh's art peripheral to the main plot. Instead, the film traces Van Gogh's relationship with his brother Theo and the pain he suffered in his life. The Player (1992) is a satiric look at the Hollywood studio system and the role writers play in the system. Short Cuts (1993) is another sweeping film with multiple plot lines and a large cast of characters. The film is based on slice-of-life stories by Raymond Carver. Ready to Wear (1994) follows another multitude of characters, this time through the fashion world. The film analyzes many topics, including the nature of womanhood, relationships in American society, and the human condition.
Much disagreement surrounds the critical discussions of many of Altman's films. M∗A∗S∗H was Altman's breakout film, becoming both a critical and popular success. Many of the techniques which made M∗A∗S∗H popular, however, left critics and audiences uneasy in his subsequent films. Many reviewers criticize Altman's use of sound and overlapping dialogue; others assert that the technique lends a sense of reality to his films. Altman's The Long Goodbye created a storm of criticism, but several reviewers attribute this to Altman's alteration of the end of the Raymond Chandler novel, which made Marlowe devotees uncomfortable. Nashville was another critical and popular success for Altman, but his style still drew complaints. Some critics felt that despite Altman's finesse in juggling multiple story lines, Nashville's separate plots lacked substance individually. Most reviewers agree that plot is not the central element in Altman's work. Jonathan Baumbach asserted that "Altman generates tension in his film not through plot, which seems to exist as an afterthought …, but through movement and image." Despite individual criticisms of some of his techniques, many reviewers appreciate Altman's unique and innovative style. While he has failed to achieve consistent box office success, many critics and fans describe him as one of the best directors of his generation. Todd Boyd asserts that, "Altman remains one of the few independent voices in a sea of repetitive Hollywood mediocrity."