Altman, Robert: Iconoclastic Filmmaker Dies at 81

November 22, 2006–Robert Altman, the iconoclastic, independent director of such films as “MASH,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Nashville,” “The Player” and “Gosford Park,” died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications due to cancer. He was 81.

When the filmmaker received an honorary Academy Award earlier this year, he disclosed that he had a heart transplant in the mid-1990s.

Unpredictable, outspoken, and critical of industry practices, Altman personified the maverick 1970s filmmaker, going his own way and enduring career vicissitudes while always making films that bore his stylistic stamp.

Despite his contrarian stance, Altman said while accepting his career Oscar, “No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition.”

A frequent critics’ darling, Altman was Oscar-nominated as director five times, for “MASH,” “Nashville,” “The Player,” “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park.” He was awarded the DGA lifetime achievement award in 1994.

Directors Guild of America president Michael Apted said, “Bob embodied the directors’ ideal, a fiercely independent voice that was always challenging convention. In doing so, he created a body of work of breathtaking diversity.”

While his extensive output was erratic, the unmistakable style of Altman’s better films, which included “The Long Goodbye,” “Thieves Like Us” and “California Split,” helped define what now is regarded as Hollywood’s second golden era in the 1970s.

Altman fell out of favor in the 1980s, but he never stopped working — in the theater, onscreen and in television. Then came a period of renewed appreciation, starting in the late ’80s with HBO’s acclaimed limited series “Tanner ’88,” a satire on the presidential election process. It was followed by such critically praised films as “The Player,” “Short Cuts,” “Gosford Park” and his last effort, this year’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

As a producer, through his Lion’s Gate films, Altman launched the directing career of his close associate Alan Rudolph with “Welcome to L.A.” and later worked with Rudolph on “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” among other films. He also produced Robert Benton’s “The Late Show.”

Altman was a constant thorn in Hollywood’s side, pointing out the town’s innate hypocrisy, feasting on the very hands that fed him. His irreverent attitude left Hollywood with mixed feelings about him. He was constantly reminded he was uncommercial, but even his detractors had to concede he was a real film artist.

Altman loyalists, especially actors, couldn’t praise him highly enough, particularly since he involved them in the creative process. Top-name thesps would clamor for even bit parts in his films. Altman generally worked on tight budgets, yet he continually landed marquee performers who signed on for a fraction of their normal salaries.

Cher credited him with starting her on the road to a career as a serious actress after he guided her through both the stage and film productions of “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

Shelley Duvall, who appeared in seven Altman films, once said, “Working with Bob is a family affair.” She also said, “People love him, and you won’t hear that kind of endearment about other directors.”

“MASH” introduced Altman’s trademark style of overlapping dialogue, seamless ensemble acting and frenetic pacing. The film starred Elliott Gould, who would become a regular Altman ensemble player. Later films would add such actors as Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin, Paul Dooley, Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher, Dina Merrill and Matthew Modine to the mix.

New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who was Altman’s biggest champion early on, called “MASH” “the best American war comedy since sound came in.” It won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, best picture from the National Society of Film Critics and six Oscar nominations, including pic. (Ring Lardner Jr. won for scripting.) It was to be Altman’s most financially successful movie, his only box office smash. But creatively, it was just the beginning.

“It’s no fun for me to go and do the same picture over and over again,” Altman told the National Observer in 1971. “I find I have to do something different every time. I go to a new place or learn about a period of history, and I’m awed. I feel I have to pass on my awe to other people. That’s where the fun is for me.”

“Nashville,” 1975’s 24-character panorama of the country music scene mixed with trenchant political satire, displayed Altman at the apex of his powers. The film scored multiple Oscar noms, including best picture, and is regarded as one of the seminal films of the ’70s. It was, however, the last of Altman’s films to draw general critical acclaim until “The Player” 17 years later.

Altman continued to be prolific, but often at the sake of clarity and dramatic logic, producing intriguing oddities such as “Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson,” “Three Women,” “A Wedding,” “A Perfect Couple,” “Quintet,” “Health” and 1980’s “Popeye,” his most expensive film, starring Robin Williams, produced by Robert Evans and scripted by Jules Feiffer, which ultimately turned a profit.

Altman regrouped and turned to the stage with “Jimmy Dean.” He then directed a string of small-scale, set-bound films based on plays, following “Jimmy Dean” with “Streamers,” “Secret Honor,” “Fool for Love,” “Beyond Therapy” and, in a rare return to TV, 1988’s “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.” He also did “O.C. and Stiggs” and an episode of “Aria” in this stretch.

For part of the ’80s, Altman moved to Paris, and with the help of his third wife, Kathryn, overcame some of his addictions and personal problems.

Cable TV series “Tanner ’88” was his return to form, a trenchant collaboration with satirical cartoonist Garry Trudeau that starred Altman regular Michael Murphy. Then, in 1990, he directed “Vincent and Theo,” a striking biography of the artist Van Gogh’s stormy relationship with his brother and patron.

He was a director for hire on the $8 million “The Player,” a Hollywood-based murder mystery/satire, which he transformed with long, introspective takes, multiple plots and overlapping dialogue.

“The studios are run by greed,” he told the Los Angeles Times shortly after “The Player” was released. “A quarter are owned by Japanese equipment manufacturers who are interested in procuring software for their hardware. They are not concerned about culture.”

“The Player” became his biggest critical and B.O. success since “MASH,” and the emergence of new distributors in conjunction with the rise of American independent cinema created new opportunities for Altman, who was suddenly perceived as the movement’s hero and eminence grise.

He was able to raise the $12 million he needed for another ensemble piece, an adaptation of several Raymond Carver short stories transposed from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles. The three-hour “Short Cuts” (1993) was an acute satire on the Southern California culture with a starry cast.

Over the next several years he had mixed luck with the Paris-lensed “Pret-a-Porter,” “Kansas City,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Cookie’s Fortune” and “Dr. T and the Women” before making another comeback with 2001’s “Gosford Park,” featuring a who’s who of British actors in a period comedy-drama that Altman described as less of a whodunit than a who-cares-whodunit.

Despite variable health, he kept working through his final years, making “The Company,” about the ballet world; “Tanner on Tanner,” which reprised his cable character; and, finally, “A Prairie Home Companion,” starring the show’s creator, Garrison Keillor, Streep, Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Kline, which performed nicely at the B.O.

He also dabbled in staging operas, notably “McTeague” at the Chicago Lyric Opera, later shown on television, and more theater, most recently a London staging of Arthur Miller’s “Resurrection Blues.”

Altman is survived by his wife, Kathryn; daughter Christine; and sons Robert, a camera operator; Matthew, a set dresser; Stephen, a production designer; and Michael, co-writer of the “MASH” theme song “Suicide Is Painless.”