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Robert Altman: Iconoclastic 'The Player' & 'Nashville' Director Dead at 81

Robert Altman: 'The Player,' 'Nashville,' 'MASH' director dead at 81

Robert Altman, whose movie career alternated between little-seen and at times poorly received offbeat efforts and award-winning film classics such as MASH, Nashville, and The Player, has died. Altman, who had undergone heart transplant surgery in the mid-1990s, died of complications from leukemia on Monday evening, November 20, 2006, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The Kansas City-born filmmaker (on Feb. 20, 1925) was 81. (Image: Robert Altman ca. 1975.)

Robert Altman movies

Robert Altman's film career spanned more than five decades, reaching its apex in the early '70s following the release of the mega hit MASH (1970), a Vietnam War spoof set during the Korean War – with the setting explicitly stated in the film reportedly at the insistence of distributor 20th Century Fox.

A Best Picture Academy Award nominee and the winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, MASH starred Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, neither of whom got on well with Altman at the time. Gould and Altman apparently patched things up, as they would collaborate on other projects (The Long Goodbye and California Split, in addition to Gould cameos in Nashville and The Player), but the director and Sutherland would never work together again.

Among Robert Altman's other generally well-regarded films of early '70s are:

  • The demythologizing Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), starring Warren Beatty as an anti-Western hero and Best Actress Academy Award nominee Julie Christie as a brothel madam;
  • the demythologizing film noir The Long Goodbye (1973), with Elliott Gould as a modern-day anti-Humphrey Bogart-ish gumshoe;
  • and, perhaps Altman's most acclaimed work, the Best Picture Academy Award nominee Nashville (1975), a demythologizing political comedy-drama intersecting several stories during a presidential primary in the country-music capital of the United States. The film's superb all-star cast included Ned Beatty, Shelley Duvall, Gwen Welles, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Karen Black, Michael Murphy, Barbara Harris (as a sort of country music Ruby Keeler), and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley. Nashville earned Robert Altman Best Director awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, and the Cartagena Film Festival.

Robert Altman: Movie career decline and resurgence

Following Nashville, Robert Altman's star began fading rather rapidly. True, in the second half of the '70s there would still be several well-received efforts – at least in some quarters:

  • Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear winner Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), an “anti-Western” comedy starring Paul Newman in the title role;
  • the dreamlike psychological drama Three Women (1977), featuring Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, and Janice Rule;
  • and the all-star comedy A Wedding (1978), a biting and frequently hilarious mockery of “traditional family values” and wedding ceremonies, featuring a typically eclectic Robert Altman Movie Cast: Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin, Peggy Ann Garner, Vittorio Gassman, Desi Arnaz Jr., Mia Farrow, Lillian Gish, Dennis Christopher, and countless others.

Tellingly, none of the above titles received a single Academy Award nomination. Compounding matters, Altman's reputation suffered as a result of critical and box office disappointments such as the cryptic Quintet (1979), once again with Paul Newman and co-starring Ingmar Bergman actress Bibi Andersson, and the mild romantic comedy A Perfect Couple (1979), with Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin.

As the '70s came to a close, Robert Altman's film career took an outright nose dive after the release of the expensive critical and box office disaster Popeye (1980), an all but unwatchable “anti-musical” musical starring Robin Williams in the title role and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl.

More than a decade later, two well-received efforts helped to lift Robert Altman's career as a film director: the Hollywood satire The Player (1992), starring Tim Robbins as a ruthless film executive and featuring dozens of star cameos (Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Anjelica Huston, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, etc.), and Short Cuts (1993), an all-star episodic comedy-drama about a whole array of Los Angeles denizens and their issues.

Robert Altman's second comeback

After another critical and commercial lull in the mid- and late '90s, Robert Altman returned in full force with the British-made Gosford Park (2001), a character and social study disguised as a murder mystery. Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith were the two members of the extensive and prestigious cast (Alan Bates, Eileen Atkins, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, etc.) who were shortlisted for Academy Awards, both in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Robert Altman's last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), about a folksy radio station that is about to be sold to a conglomerate, garnered decidedly mixed reviews. The eclectic cast included the likes of Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Maya Rudolph, and Virginia Madsen. Due to Altman's ill health, Paul Thomas Anderson was reportedly on standby to complete the film if needed.

Academy Award nominations and Honorary Oscar

In all, Robert Altman was nominated for five Best Director Academy Awards (MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park), in addition to nods as one of the producers of Best Picture nominees Nashville and Gosford Park. Still, Altman always went home empty-handed – losing the Best Director Oscar to Patton's Franklin J. Schaffner (1970), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Milos Forman (1975), Unforgiven's Clint Eastwood (1992), Schindler's List's Steven Spielberg (1993), and A Beautiful Mind's Ron Howard (2001).

That was to change earlier this year, when Robert Altman was handed an Honorary Oscar for his career achievements. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin made the seemingly ad-libbed (though most likely carefully rehearsed) presentation.

In his acceptance speech, Altman thanked the Academy for the recognition, adding that he believed his career as a director “was not over” – he had just directed an Arthur Miller play in London, and A Prairie Home Companion was to open in the summer – and that he saw the Honorary Oscar as a nod “to all of my films – as to me I only made one – long – film.” (See also: “Robert Altman to receive Honorary Oscar.”)


         
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