Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

  • Publish Date: 2009-10-20
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • Author: Mitchell Zuckoff
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Robert Altmanvisionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legendcomes roaring to life in this rollicking cinematic biography, told in a chorus of voices that can only be called Altmanesque.

His outsized life and unique career are revealed as never before: here are the words of his family and friends, and a few enemies, as well as the agents, writers, crew members, producers, and stars who worked with him, including Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Paul Newman, Julie Christie, Elliott Gould, Martin Scorsese, Robin Williams, Cher, and many others. There is even Altman himself, in the form of his exclusive last interviews.

After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers through enemy fire in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog-tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with the movie M*A*S*H. He revolutionized American filmmaking, and, in a decade, produced masterpieces at an astonishing pace: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women, and, of course, Nashville. Then, after a period of disillusionment with Hollywoodas well as Hollywoods disillusionment with himhe reinvented himself with a bold new set of masterworks: The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. Finally, just before the release of the last of his nearly forty movies, A Prairie Home Companion, he received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement from the Academy, which had snubbed him for so many years.

Mitchell Zuckoffwho was working with Altman on his memoirs before he diedweaves Altmans final interviews, an incredible cast of voices, and contemporary reviews and news accounts, into a riveting tale of an extraordinary life. Here are page after page of revelations that force us to reevaluate Altman as a man and an artist, and to view his sprawling narratives with large casts, multiple story lines, and overlapping dialogue as unquestionably the work of a modern genius. Amazon Exclusive: Wes Anderson Reviews Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

Wes Anderson is the writer/director of the films Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited. His latest film is an adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Read Anderson's exclusive Amazon guest review of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography:

I just spent a very full Saturday with Robert Altman: An Oral Biography, eavesdropping on a group of the most interesting people sharing in one of my absolute favorite topics of conversation--and I just now put it down feeling heartbroken but happily and deeply inspired by him (the topic) once again. I congratulate Mr. Zuckoff on this book which is destined to become an essential part of the permanent record--and is wonderful. Also, he doesnt mind including some of the real dirt here and there. I liked that choice, and I speculate that Robert Altman would have, too. --Wes Anderson

(Photo 2007 Twentieth Century Fox)

A Q&A with Mitchell Zuckoff

Question: Do you think theres any director who blazed the way for Altman or was he just a maverick, a complete original?

Mitchell Zuckoff: In a technical sense, Bob was always quick to credit to his predecessors. When people talked about his innovative use of overlapping dialogue, for instance, hed tell them to look at the films of Howard Hawks. But the real answer to your question is no, there isnt anyone youd call a model or a trailblazer for Bob. In terms of his approach to filmmaking and his relationship with the business, Bob earned the titles people hung on him--maverick, renegade, iconoclast, you name it. Even during the years when he was pretty much working inside the Hollywood system--the 1970s, mostly--he did things his own way. Think of it like this: Hollywood runs on genres--comedy, romance, war, westerns, etc.--with certain fairly narrow, clearly defined expectations for each, based on successful films that have come before. In one film after another, one genre after another, Bob knew the rules then purposefully inverted and subverted them, as only a true original can.

Question: If you had to choose one film as Altmans "masterpiece," which would it be and why?

Mitchell Zuckoff: Id rather pick three, or five, or seven, but if I had to choose one Id say Nashville. Before I explain why, though, Ive got to tell you why Bob hated the word "masterpiece." He felt--rightly, I think--that it turned away audiences, making them think of a pile of vegetables they should eat because its good for them. So if we use the masterpiece label, lets agree that Nashville is nothing like that. Its an enormously entertaining movie that happens to be an absolutely brilliant portrait of America. Without using any of these terms, or laying it on too thick, it gets underneath and exposes the peculiarly American nature of power, fame, race, sex, violence, and character. Think of a painting youd consider a masterpiece. You appreciate its beauty on the surface the first time you look at it. But why do we keep looking at it, again and again, for hours at a time? Its because the deeper we engage with a masterpiece, whether in oil or marble or on film, the more it touches what Bob called "deep down in the dermis"--the layers of ourselves far beneath the skin. Nashville does just that.

Question: What do you think is Altmans most underestimated film and why?

Mitchell Zuckoff: A few fit the bill, but Id have to go with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson. It was the complete opposite of what people expected, it painted a bleak portrait of an American icon at a time when Americans were celebrating the bicentennial, it played Paul Newman against type, and it took a jaundiced eye to popular history and show business. But if you set aside your expectations and take another look, youll see a movie that never got credit for whats really there on the screen.

Question: What was your reaction when you first saw M*A*S*H?

Mitchell Zuckoff: It was a long time ago, but I remember it perfectly. I had this wonderful, furtive, guilty feeling of, "Are we gonna get caught?" It was so wild, so funny, so subversive--in short, so in tune with my adolescent heart--that I couldnt believe what I was seeing. As great as the actors were, it was the first time I had a sense of a director, someone moving all these amazing pieces around the set. Even still, that first time I loved it purely on the surface. Only later did I figure out what was really going on--the way Bob was commenting on war (Vietnam specifically)--and then I got even more excited because that meant you could make a serious, powerful, important statement in a way that was still hilarious. I felt like I was learning a new language. Not too many people remember this, but there was a series of paperbacks that followed the movie--M*A*S*H Goes to London, M*A*S*H Goes to Las Vegas, and on and on. Bob had nothing to do with them, of course. But as a teenager I read the whole series, hoping to feel the same way I did in the theater the first time I saw the movie. It didnt work.

Question: How do you think a director like Altman would fare in todays Hollywood?

Mitchell Zuckoff: Im not sure theres anyone like him, or ever will be. But the real answer is that I dont think itd be remotely possible for a director like Bob Altman to operate in todays Hollywood. He couldnt stand "the suits" back in the days when directors were enormously powerful in their own right. Nowadays, with power, money, and control so thoroughly concentrated in the studios, theres no way someone like Bob Altman could survive there, at least not for long. And since Bob was never willing to abandon his vision in the interest of making a popcorn-friendly blockbuster, I dont think Hollywood would care terribly about his absence. On the other hand, someone like Bob might have a chance to thrive as a true independent, as long as he or she had the talent, the spine and the willingness to repeatedly take potentially career-ending risks.

Question: What is Altmans ultimate legacy to film-makers, film-making, and film audiences?

Mitchell Zuckoff: Bob was fearless when it came to making movies, and fearlessness is a quality that is in short supply. Plenty of good directors can paint by the numbers and succeed commercially. Bob is an icon because he wouldnt play by the rules. And isnt that where all great art comes from? I like what Martin Scorsese said when I asked him this same question. He said: "His legacy? His spirit. His spirit was to make pictures, to say what the hell he wanted to say on film. It may have angered people, it may have unsettled people, but he did it." He did it. Not a bad epitaph for Bob Altman. Other people might have talked about it or dreamed about it. He did it.

(Photo Suzanne Kreiter)

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