Robert Altman’s name may well be familiar to many and yet he often remains something of a cipher to all but the most ardent film fans. Subversive, difficult, independent, prolific, genius; these are just a few words that one might associate with the films of Altman, a filmmaker who has rarely held the spotlight despite generating one of the most enduring and acclaimed legacies in film history. Altman is often associated with New Hollywood and yet he was something of a grandfather to the movement; a generation older and quirky enough in style to separate himself from his more commercially successful peers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. Much like Stanley Kubrick, Altman was in many senses an outsider looking in on the Hollywood scene; nevertheless, Altman, like Kubrick, left an indelible mark on cinema over the course of his illustrious career.
Altman was already in his mid-forties by the time he found fame with his Palme D’Or winning breakout hit M*A*S*H in 1969. In the twenty or so years before he found success in Hollywood, Altman had been living one hell of a life. He was born in 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri, and in 1943, at the young age of 18, he graduated from military academy and went on fly in the Armed Forces during the final years of WWII, there completing more than 50 bombing missions overseas. Upon his return to the United States Altman enjoyed a modest success as a scriptwriter, a director for industrial films, and, most famously, a television director in the two decades prior to his mainstream success.
Altman, like Scorsese, another offspring of the New Hollywood generation, was more of a critical darling than a commercial success, and M*A*S*H, his first and largest major hit, wonderfully epitomises the subversive style that he is famous for. M*A*S*H is a black comedy satirising military life during the Korean War, and it was indicative of the themes that permeated the New Hollywood movement. Signalled by a new trend of counter culture filmmaking that was stylistically innovative, politically conscious, and thematically transgressive – ushered in by seminal, watershed films such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde towards the end of the 1960s – the New Hollywood filmmakers, Altman included, sought to upheave and invigorate American cinematic tradition by challenging the very essence of what the industry could and should represent.
M*A*S*H was born from the same lacerating humour that typified Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Both films are fiercely political, and scathing in their indictment of war, both historically speaking and in relation to the military occupation of Vietnam. M*A*S*H was an immediate critical and commercial success and went on to garner five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. While M*A*S*H was ultimately defeated at the Oscars by another war film, the similarly excellent but altogether more serious Patton, it still succeeded in announcing Altman as a major talent and began what was arguably the most creative and productive part of his career.
M*A*S*H was quickly followed by three more masterpieces: McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971, The Long Goodbye in 1973, and the wonderful Nashville in 1975. Just as M*A*S*H applied liberal politics to the war genre, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an inverse take on the Western genre that reveals its New Hollywood origins. Altman utilises the Western, a genre often associated with outdated conservative politics, as a platform for exploring wider social and economic issues as Warren Beatty’s gambling gunfighter sets up a brothel in a North-Western provincial town. Terrence Malick’s thematically enigmatic style owes much to the film’s bleakly beautiful production design; the film is without question one of the early masterpieces of the New Hollywood era of American filmmaking.
The Long Goodbye marks the next major milestone in the director’s career, a nihilistic neo-noir based upon Raymond Chandler’s classic novel. Elliot Gould stars in the role of the novel’s famous anti-hero detective Philip Marlowe, once made famous by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. The film was largely overlooked upon its initial release, but is now hailed as a landmark film in Altman’s career and is often spoken of in the same breath as Hawks’ undisputed classic. With the exception of 1993’s Short Cuts, Altman’s 1975 critical hit Nashville is arguably the most Altmanesque of his oeuvre. Always a master of narrative, Nashville represents Altman at his most lucratively audacious as he strings together twenty-four primary characters, various storylines, and a series of musical numbers for what might be called the definitive country music film. Flawless in its narrative design, and a discernible influence on Paul Thomas Anderson, the film is truly peerless.
With the exception of 3 Women, an enigmatic but captivating drama about a developing relationship between three women in a small town in the Californian desert, Altman failed to generate much critical attention until a career renaissance in the early 1990s – a particularly notable failure came with his live-action adaptation of Popeye with Robin Williams in 1980, a career low point for both director and star. In 1992 Robert Altman returned from exile with The Player, an outstanding ensemble crime thriller set in the heart of Hollywood itself. Similar in design to Nashville, the film proved his biggest critical hit since the 1970s and reaffirmed Altman’s perennial credentials as one of the all-time great filmmakers. The following year Altman released Short Cuts, a sprawling crime epic based upon nine short stories and a poem by Raymond Carver.
After receiving a nomination for The Player, Short Cuts gained Altman his second successive Oscar nod for directing although he was ultimately beaten by Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven and then Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List. Altman scored a final big hit with Gosford Park in 2001, an ensemble murder mystery that takes place on the eponymous estate. Robert Altman passed away in 2006 due to complications with leukemia at the age of 81, leaving behind one of the most durable legacies in the history of film.
Always an outsider filmmaker and yet a master of his craft; Robert Altman has fashioned an enduring legacy as one of the greatest American filmmakers of the twentieth century.
Top 5 Robert Altman Films:
M*A*S*H (1970): The film that started it all: Altman’s darkly comic satire is as relevant now as it was upon release.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971): An exquisite work of filmic art; this film requires a patient viewer but rewards its audience with a perfect example of the New Hollywood method.
Nashville (1975): One of the greatest American movies of the 1970s. Beaten at the Oscars by the similarly brilliant One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Altman’s masterwork is a film for the ages.
Often overshadowed by The Player the previous year, Short Cuts is nevertheless the work of a craftsman with a singular vision; an epic wonder.
A wonderful Altmanesque murder mystery that boasts an impeccable ensemble cast. It incidentally led to the creation of Downton Abbey, which began life as a spin-off by the film’s writer Julian Fellowes.