It's hard to believe that not so long ago, Robert Altman was considered one of the biggest sumbitches in Hollywood--"a pompous, pretentious asshole," in the words of the late producer Don Simpson, whom Altman similarly regarded as a "bad guy, a bum." Journalists were once terrified of interviewing him, for fear that his razor-edged mood swings would lop off their heads. They visited his set and approached his trailer with not a small amount of trepidation. His myth loomed large: Robert Altman, director of M*A*S*H and Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Player, was a boozer, gambler, stoner, womanizer, and all-around prick.
"Nobody wanted to make a movie with Bob Altman," his old agent, George Litto, told author Peter Biskind for his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock-'n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Nobody wanted him, not even after he had a hit. Not even after he reinvented the movies in his own image, one that merged documentary with fiction until his films looked made up on the spot (and they so often are). Altman regarded himself as auteur, as maverick, as genius; he was right. Studio executives and the occasional actor (namely, McCabe star Warren Beatty) regarded him as boorish, arrogant, a real fuck-up pain in the ass; they were right.
"Making pictures is always the same--it's embarrassingly the same." He chuckles. "Before, I was on new ground all the time. I was aware that I was in territories I hadn't had experience in. Now, I've had a lot of experience. I've done 35 films, God knows how many television shows--hundreds of 'em. How many hours of film I've actually done, it's uncountable. But it's always the same emotionally. If there's anything different, I'm less arrogant than I have been, mainly because I have been arrogant." He smiles. "I love it."
He chuckles again, and just like that, Altman dashes to pieces 30 years of bad press and bad vibes. Perhaps it's simply easy to forgive an asshole his faults when he is, in fact, a charming genius willing to talk at great length about a career marked more by failure than success. Of the 30-plus movies on Altman's filmography--discounting his decades of jumping in and out of television and his years spent shooting industrial films in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri--only a handful ever made any money. Only a handful is known outside the cult. Only a few were celebrated upon release or will outlive their maker. The rest--such films as H.E.A.L.T.H., Quintet, O.C. & Stiggs, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Perfect Couple, among so many others--will end up forgotten. Altman insists he loves all of his "children" equally; time likely will not be so kind.
It would not be hard to make a case for Altman as a Great Director: His are the most noble of failures--experiments gone awry (one of his best films was once among his most reviled, 1973's laconic adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye starring Elliott Gould as a disheveled, dispassionate Philip Marlowe). He has never once directed a film to pay the rent, despite his claims that if he were to stop working for a year, he would go broke. He talks often of how he turned down "big, big money" to make a sequel to his 1970 film M*A*S*H, which made a small fortune for Fox and, later, CBS-TV. He made only $75,000 for his work on that movie and received no points; when the film took in nearly $40 million, placing it behind only Love Story and Airport, he pocketed only lint. A lesser director--one without vision, without hubris, without balls--might have caved. Altman refused to even discuss M*A*S*H 2 (years later, he did consider making a sequel to his 1993 film Short Cuts, but that was his idea, and he quickly killed it).
That is why he pays for his own films, lining up a distributor only after his completed product is in the can. Indeed, Altman and Richard Gere put up the cash for Dr. T and the Women, opening Friday, and secured a deal with Artisan to distribute the film only a few months ago. It's the only way the director knows he will retain final cut. The moneylenders will not corrupt his sacred temple.
"It wouldn't have been a problem if I had wanted to go out and do M*A*S*H 2," Altman says. "I cannot tell you the amount of money I was offered to do that. They want you to repeat what is the sure success--or what they think is a sure success, and there is no such thing. There isn't anybody who's ever lived in this business--in this art, whatever it is--who's had a better shake than I have. I've never been without a film, I've never been without a film of my own choosing, and I've never had a film edited on me. The last time I had final cut on a studio film was when Alan Ladd was at Fox. I did five films over there, and at that time nobody bothered with me.
"I make these films for a million and a half, and I didn't make any money out of it. If I go a year without working, I'm in trouble. I'm not gonna starve to death, but I am certainly not a wealthy man, and as someone who's done 37 films, I should be better off. But I wouldn't have it any other way, because the minute you start taking their money, they have control. My main thing has always been getting the film made. I staked out this path, because it's just the way I wandered through the landscape and created my own path. I didn't have any great plan. It just occurred. Now, I know what it is. It costs so much money to make these pictures that most people are so thrilled when somebody says, '[Miramax boss] Harvey Weinstein's gonna put up the money, but he's gonna cut your film, and you're gonna have to use Gwyneth Paltrow.' They do that, because it's a means to an end. But I just don't know how to operate that way."
In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind tries to make the case that Altman was "a rebel from the word 'go'": He was born into a prominent family (his old man, B.C. Altman, sold insurance when he wasn't "gambling, whoring, and drinking," writes Biskind); and, at the age of 19, Robert enlisted in the Air Force and served as a copilot flying against Japan at the tail end of World War II. He married young, moved to Los Angeles, got divorced, moved back to Kansas City, made industrials for the Calvin Co., married again in 1954, had two sons, and divorced again in 1957. He made his first films during this period--The Delinquents, a low-budget rebel-without-a-cause picture, and a 1957 documentary about the life and death of James Dean--and moved back to L.A., directing episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
He worked in television for nearly a decade, directing and writing episodes of The Whirlybirds (where he met his third wife, Kathryn), Maverick, Peter Gunn, Combat!, U.S. Marshal, Bonanza, and a single episode of Route 66, among many other shows. Unlike such filmmakers as John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, who worked in live television before making the leap to feature filmmaking, Altman didn't need liberating from the shackles of the small screen. He moved to film only after he managed to piss off his bosses at the networks; Biskind recounts how, in September 1963, he told Variety that the Kraft Suspense Theater--his employer at the time--was "as bland as its cheese." He was only too happy to commit career suicide. The man craved constant rebirth, and film provided him with that chance.
Nevertheless, Altman would return time and again to television; unlike many of his peers, he doesn't find such work beneath him. Indeed, perhaps his best work was for the small screen: Twelve years ago, Altman and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau debuted Tanner '88, a fiction-meets-fact miniseries starring Altman-regular Michael Murphy as a presidential candidate who encountered the likes of Bob Dole and Gary Hart as they begged for votes along the rutted campaign trail. HBO, which initially aired the series, has never chosen to rerun it; and it's not available on video or DVD--despite the fact that Altman continues to sell the series to European television (very little of Altman's work is available on home video; half his career is missing). In 1998, Trudeau and Altman would work together again on a jittery, half-brilliant pilot for a series called Killer App, about an Internet startup desperate for venture capital. The show wasn't picked up and has never aired, because "it was too smart for the room," as Altman says.
"When I moved to film, I was in the A-level of TV directors, and I was working all the time," he says. "I was doing my own thing. I was producing my own things; and I was really intent on changing the way those things were done, so I wasn't just looking to get out. I was smart enough to know that to go out and do a feature that's bad isn't gonna help me at all. I was looking for a piece of property that had some value. Films were just a bigger scale, that's all, and I went back to TV many, many times. Tanner is as creative a work as I've ever done. I don't know of anything that's any better than that. If I hadn't done Tanner, I couldn't have done The Player. The whole idea of mixing fiction and fact was brand-new.
"People say, '[Garry Shandling's Larry Sanders Show] ripped you off.' I tell them, 'Nobody ripped me off. I'm thrilled that that kind of thing was picked up, that people said they could do it after all.' If you're the first to do something, you can't succeed at it. You cannot."
There is no hiding the fact that Robert Altman, not long ago a provocateur and pain in the ass, is an old man; the rebel wrinkles, even if he does not tire. At the end of this month, he will go to London to begin shooting a film set between World War I and II, using an all-English cast. He mentions it often, insisting he's as excited about this project--which is based on his own story, though he did not write the screenplay--as any in his career. Altman knows it will be damned hard to sell it to a mainstream audience. He couldn't care less.
It's only within the last few months that his mythology has given way to the actual work. This summer, loving retrospectives of his 1970s films ("No one thinks I made a movie in the 1980s," he says, shrugging) took place in both Los Angeles and New York. Studios that once despised him offered to strike fresh prints of his deteriorating classics, at considerable expense ($10,000-$20,000 a pop). In August, Paramount also released a 25th anniversary DVD of Nashville, complete with Altman commentary--even though he despises such things, insisting it makes him feel like a real-estate agent guiding a stranger through a piece of property. Do not assume he harbors any bitterness about the way the system treated him in the 1970s; he bears his own share of the blame. Besides, he continues to work, and rather likes attending these retrospectives, staying for every screening. Staying until the very end.
"If I were on a desert island with a great projection system and I could press a button and see any of my films I wanted at any time, I would never look at any of them," he says, grinning. "But if one stray cat walked along who showed interest, I would run it and watch every minute of it. You're looking at it through somebody else's eyes, which is what you made it for in the first place. The cartoonist Abner Dean once had this drawing of a knoll with a dead tree on it, and hanging from the tree was all kind of junk. Coming around the knoll was this endless line of people trudging these big boulders behind them. There was this young, lithe, naked man standing next to the tree, and he's trying to enlist their attention. He's saying, 'Look! I made this!' Man, that's the business I'm in. That's what I'm doing.
"Hollywood will want me when I die. Seriously. They will when I die. In the meantime, somebody has to say, 'Let's go with this,' and the general consensus is that my films don't make any money in a mass audience, and it's true. They don't. I have a cult following, and that's not enough people to make a minority."