Player, The (1992): Alrman’s Satire in the Context of his Career

For the second–but not last–time in his career, after the success of M.A.S.H., Robert Altman came back from the Hollywood dead with Nashville (1975), an inventive mosaic of the American experience composed of intricate interweaving of 24 characters.

The film and Altman were nominated for Oscars, after being named best picture and director by the New York Film Critics.

Altman’s most ambitious film, Nashville, had a multi-layered narrative, a large ensemble, breezy speed, witty music, and overlapping dialogue.  The feel of time and space, stretching to contain the actions of two dozens characters, all sharing equal time, all moving in random turmoil and coincidence, was original, innovative, and the ideal material for Altman.

Having regained Hollywood’s trust, Altman quickly squandered on the bizarre Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), Three Women (1977), and A Wedding (1978), which were varied, but again failed at the box-office. Quintet (1979) a tale of a future ice age, and Popeye (1980), a big-budget comic strip adaptation, failed to please either critics or audiences. (Katz).

In the 1980s, Altman ran into hard times with his reliance on theatrical material that seemed pedestrian after his 1970s work. Still, small-scale films, such as Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Streamers, Fool for Love, set the tone for an indie movement that targeted a more discerning audience. Come Back is well acted, though Altman couldn’t transcend the mediocrity of a sentimental play. Streamers was misconceived and didn’t live up to the original play, and Fool for Love failed to capture the drama’s intensity.

He suffers from a reputation of being arrogant, unpredictable and difficult.  The Hollywood establishment had written off Altman by the 1980s.  Living in Paris, he worked on some theatrical adaptations: Secret Honor (1984), a monologue about Richard Nixon.  His cable miniseries Tanner ’88 (1988), a political satire gained favorable notice, as did Vincent & Theo (1990), an evocative film about the noted artist and his brother, which was a return to form but didn’t find its audience.

The Player

Then in 1992, the maverick surprised Hollywood yet again with The Player, a black comedy about a movie executive who kills a screenwriter, his first major commercial and critical success since Nashville in 1975.

The film was enriched by cameo appearances from 66 celebrities (most memorably Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts), who all agreed to work for scale.  Heralded as Altman’s comeback, The Player made Hollywood the butt of the joke.  Hailed for his droll, sinuously explorative camera style, it had a showy 8 minute-opening that described vividly the ambience on a studio lot.  Thematically, it was a return to Altman’s America as a place of frauds and dreamers, but the satire was not offensive and the target too easy. With a typical irony, this scathing satire of Hollywood earned Oscar nominations, including Best Director, and brought Altman back from the cold.

Altman has always struggled to get his movies made his own way. The disenchantment with the studios and their concern with marketing led to a break from the majors.  Following what he calls his “third comeback,” Altman still refuses to march in step with the conventions of traditional American cinema.  “Hollywood doesn’t want to make the same pictures I do, and I’m too old to change.”  But he has shown that he can sometimes get Hollywood to see things his way.