Robert Altman 1925–2006
With the release of M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, Altman won critical praise for his innovation and his artistry. However, the very techniques which brought him this acclaim, such as obscure themes and meandering plot lines, have also kept his films from wide audience appeal.
For ten years Altman directed, produced, and wrote for television, working on episodes for such popular series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza. In 1967 he directed a film called Countdown, starring a relatively unknown actor named James Caan. Even though he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film (and for this reason has subsequently disavowed it), it is generally considered far better than most of the other science fiction films of that era. After he directed That Cold Day in the Park, which also drew lukewarm notices from the critics, producer Otto Preminger asked him to direct M∗A∗S∗H. According to some reports, however, Altman was chosen after fifteen other directors declined the offer. The popularity of M∗A∗S∗H, an anti-war film brimming with satirical one-liners and dedicated but zany army doctors, was Altman's means to artistic and financial freedom. His later films have been praised for the qualities that are typically Altman: overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light humor, an iconoclastic view of traditions, and a camera which, moving constantly and recording from a distance, keeps the viewer somewhat emotionally remote from the characters.
Altman's popularity with actors is largely because of the artistic freedom he allows them. Much of the dialogue is improvised, either in rehearsals or during final shooting. In Nashville his actors and actresses wrote the songs they were to perform. It may be this personal attitude towards the actors, or his multitextured sound tracks, or his off-balance characters, or his iconoclastic attitude which has made Altman famous. For whatever reason, he has the admiration of film critics. As Andrew Sarris has written: "[Altman is] considered by many critics to be the quintessential director of the '70s." Yet although he speaks eloquently of the decade to the critics, the meagerness of his public following has always cast a shadow on that distinction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)