Sunday, July 22, 2007

Robert Altman (1925-)

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Robert Bernard Altman (born February 20, 1925) is an American film director known for making films that are highly naturalistic, but with a somewhat skewed perspective. His films M*A*S*H and Nashville have been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Early life and career

Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of wealthy, insurance man/gambler Bernard Clement Altman (who came from an upper-class German-American family) and Helen Mathews, a Mayflower descendant of English and Scottish ancestry. His family was devoutly Catholic. Altman attended Rockhurst High School and Southwest High School in Kansas City, and was then shipped off to Wentworth Military Academy in nearby Lexington, Missouri, where he attended through junior college. In 1945, at the age of 20, Altman enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was a pilot of a B-24, dropping bombs over enemy territory, for the remainder of World War II. It had been while training for the Air Force in California that Altman had first seen the bright lights of Hollywood and became enamored of the movieland. Upon his discharge in 1946, Altman began living in Los Angeles and tried out a number of schemes to position his foot firmly in Hollywood's door.

Altman tried acting briefly, appearing in a nightclub scene as an extra in the Danny Kaye vehicle The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He then wrote a vague storyline (uncredited) for the United Artists picture Christmas Eve, and sold to RKO the script for the 1948 motion picture Bodyguard, which he co-wrote with Richard Fleischer. This sudden success encouraged Altman to move to the New York area and forge a career as a writer. There, Altman found a collaborator in George W. George, with whom he wrote numerous published and unpublished screenplays, musicals, novels, and magazine articles. Altman was not as successful this trip, but back in Hollywood, he tried out one more big money-making scheme. He invented a strange dog-tattooing system for canine identification and invested a lot of his and his friends' money into a company called "Identi-Code." As one of their publicity stunts, Altman and his associates even tattooed President Harry Truman's dog, while Truman was still in the White House. However, the company soon went bankrupt, and in 1950 Altman returned to his friends and family in Kansas City, Missouri, broke and hungry for action, and itching for a second chance to get into movies.

Industrial film experience

In 1950 there were no film schools, but at the age of 25, Altman hit upon the next best thing. He joined the Calvin Company, the world's largest industrial film production company and 16mm film laboratory, headquartered in Kansas City. Altman, fascinated by the company and their equipment, started as a film writer (even though the writing he had done was with collaborators who did most of the real work), and within a few months began to direct films. This led to his employment at the Calvin Company as a film director for almost six years. Until 1955, Altman directed 60 to 65 industrial short films, usually made to promote a business, a service, or a government function, earning $250 a week while simultaneously getting the necessary training and experience that he would need for a successful career in filmmaking. The ability to shoot rapidly, on-schedule, and work within the confines of both big and low budgets would serve him quite well later in his career. On the technical side, he learned all about "the tools of filmmaking": the camera, the boom mike, the lights, etc. Although the Calvin Company never intended themselves to be a substitute film school, evidently they were, not only for Altman, but for a great number of other young filmmakers in the area.

However, Altman soon tired of the industrial film format, and kept grasping for more challenging projects. He would occasionally leave for Hollywood and try to write scripts, but then return months later, broke, to the Calvin Company. According to Altman, each time the Calvin people would drop him another notch in salary. The third time, the Calvin people declared at a staff meeting that if he left and came back one more time, they were going to keep him.

First feature film

In 1955, Altman left the Calvin Company, not ever intending to return. He was soon hired by Elmer Rhoden Jr., a local Kansas City movie theater exhibitor, to write and direct a low-budget exploitation film on juvenile crime, titled The Delinquents, which would become the first feature film ever to be directed by Robert Altman. Altman wrote the script in one week and filmed it with a budget of $63,000 on location in Kansas City in two weeks. Rhoden Jr. wanted the film to kick-start his career as a film producer. Altman wanted the film to be his ticket into the elusive Hollywood circles. The cast was made up of the local actors and actresses from community theater who also appeared in Calvin Company films, Altman family members, and three imported actors from Hollywood, including the future Billy Jack, Tom Laughlin. The crew was made up of Altman's former Calvin cohorts and the local friends with whom Altman planned to make his grand "Kansas City escape." In 1956, Altman and his assistant director Reza Badiyi left Kansas City for good to edit The Delinquents in Hollywood. The film was picked up for distribution for $150,000 by United Artists, who released it in 1957, grossing nearly $1,000,000 with it.

Television work

The Delinquents was no runaway success, but it did catch the eye of Alfred Hitchcock, who was impressed and called up Altman to direct a few episodes of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series. From 1958 to 1964, Altman directed numerous episodes of numerous TV series including Combat, Bonanza, and Route 66.

Film career continues

Altman then mucked his way through several years of struggle after quarreling with Jack Warner and it was during this time that he first formed his "anti-Hollywood" opinions and entered that stage of his filmmaking. He did a few more feature films without any success, until 1969 when he was offered the script for M*A*S*H, which had been previously rejected by about 15 other directors. Altman went ahead and directed the film, and it was a huge success, both with critics and at the box office. Altman's career took firm hold with the success of M*A*S*H, and he followed it with many other similar, experimental films which made the distinctive "Altman style" well-known to almost every adult moviegoer in the country.

As a director, Altman favors stories showing the interrelationships between several characters; he states that he is more interested in character motivation than in intricate plots. As such, he tends to sketch out only a basic plot for the film, referring to the screenplay as a "blueprint" for action, and allows his actors to improvise dialogue. This is one of the reasons Altman is known as an "actor's director," a reputation that helps him work with large casts of well-known actors.

He frequently allows the characters to talk over each other in such a way that it's impossible to make out what each of them are saying. He notes on the DVD commentary of McCabe & Mrs. Miller that he lets the dialogue overlap, as well as leaving some things in the plot for the audience to infer, because he wants the audience to pay attention. Similarly, he tries to have his films rated R (by the MPAA rating system) so as to keep children out of his audience--he does not believe children have the patience his films require. Such a tendency sometimes spawns conflict with movie studios, who do want children in the audience because of the size of the demographic.

Altman is a man who makes films when no other filmmaker and/or studio would. He was reluctant to make the original 1970 Korean War comedy M*A*S*H because of the pressures involved in filming it, but it still became a critical success. It would later inspire the long-running TV series of the same name.

In 1975, Altman made Paramount's Nashville, a semi-musical with a political theme set against the world of country music. Nearly all of his co-stars wrote the songs for the film (one of which won an Academy Award).

The way Altman made his films initially didn't sit well with audiences. In 1976, he attempted to find some of his artistic freedom by founding the original Lions Gate Films. The few films he made for the company, including A Wedding, 3 Women, and Quintet, were critically acclaimed but seen by very few people.

In 1980, he attempted a movie musical for Disney and Paramount, a live-action version of the comic strip/cartoon Popeye (which starred Robin Williams in his big-screen debut). The film did make money, but it was seen as a failure by some critics. During the 1980's, Altman did a series of films, some well-received (the Richard Nixon drama Secret Honor) and some critically panned (the highly underrated O.C. & Stiggs). He also garnered a good deal of acclaim for his presidential campaign "mockumentary" Tanner '88, for which he earned an Emmy Award.

Altman's career began to reach his peak when he directed 1992's The Player for New Line subsidiary Fine Line Features. A satire on Hollywood and its troubles, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Altman). Although it did not win any awards, Altman at last got the acclaim his body of work seemingly deserved.

After the success of The Player, Altman directed 1993's Short Cuts, an ambitious adaptation of several short stories by Raymond Carver, which portrayed the lives of various citizens of the city of Los Angeles over the course of several days. The film's large ensemble cast and intertwining of many different storylines harkened back to his 1970s heyday, and earned Altman another Oscar nomination for Best Director. It was acclaimed as Altman's best film in decades (Altman himself considers this, along with Tanner '88, his most creative work) and, along with The Player, cemented his reputation as one of America's best filmmakers.

Working with independent studios such as Fine Line, Artisan (now Lions Gate, ironically the studio Altman helped to found), and USA Films (now Focus Features), gave Altman the edge in making the kinds of films he has always wanted to make without outside studio interference. Altman is still developing new projects today, including a movie version of the public radio series A Prairie Home Companion.

FilmographyEarly Independent Projects

In the early Calvin years in Kansas City during the 1950s, Altman was as busy as he ever was in Hollywood, shooting hours and hours of footage each day, whether for Calvin or for the many independent film projects he pursued in Kansas City in attempts to break into Hollywood:
  • Corn's-A-Poppin' (1951) (Altman wrote the screenplay for this poor Kansas City-produced feature film)
  • Fashion Faire (1952) (A half-hour fashion parade written and directed by Altman for a fashion show agency)
  • The Model's Handbook (1952) (A half-hour pilot for an unrealized television series sponsored by Eileen Ford and her agency and directed by Altman)
  • The Pulse of the City (1953-54) (A low-budget television series about crime and ambulance chasing produced and filmed in Kansas City by Altman and co-creator Robert Woodburn using local talent. Ran for one season on the independent Dumont network)
Selected Calvin Industrial Films

Out of 65 or so industrial films directed by Altman for Calvin Company, all less than 30 minutes long, we have selected eleven which are notable for their relationship to the director's later work or for garnering national or international festival awards:
  • The Sound of Bells (195O) (A Christmas-themed "sales" film produced for B.F. Goodrich about Santa Claus visiting a service station on Christmas Eve)
  • Modern Football (1951) (A documentary-style training film on the rules and regulations of football, shot on location in the Southwest)
  • The Dirty Look (1952) (A sales film for Gulf Oil starring "special guest" William Frawley as a prattling barber for comic relief. Calvin often used Hollywood stars in cameo or starring roles in their films to sell the film's message to viewers more easily)
  • King Basketball (1952) (Another rules-of-sports films shot on location in the Southwest)
  • The Last Mile (1953) (A bleak highway safety film also serving as an ad for Caterpillar Tractor's road-building equipment. Won awards from the Association of Industrial Filmmakers and the National Safety Council in 1953)
  • Modern Baseball (1953) (Rules-of-sports film)
  • The Builders (1954) (Promotional film for Southern Pine Association)
  • Better Football (1954) (Rules-of-sports film, once again starring William Frawley as a pigskin coach who cannot resist the one-liner, for comic relief)
  • The Perfect Crime (1955) (Another award-winning highway safety film, once again with a promotional message from Caterpillar)
  • Honeymoon for Harriet (1955) (A promotional film for International Harvester, starring Altman's then-wife, Lotus Corelli, who also appears in The Delinquents as a mother)
  • The Magic Bond (1956) (A documentary film sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of Calvin's and Altman's highest budgets to date, and one of Altman's last Calvin films. Also includes a startling opening sequence not only using the later Altman trademarks of an ensemble cast and overlapping dialogue, but also a sort of anti-war message which is also featured in Altman's 1960s episodes of the TV series Combat)
[This article in part is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Robert Altman.]

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