As a filmmaker, Robert Altman (born 1925) was known as a risk taker and a nonconformist, who was committed at all cost to his own vision. While this led to what many critics consider a highly uneven output, successes like M*A*S*H (1971), Nashville (1975) and The Player (1991) were instrumental in cementing his strong international reputation.
Altman was born on February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri. He was the oldest of three children, and only son of Bernard Clement "B.C." Altman, (an insurance salesman), and his wife Helen (nee Mathews). Altman's family was socially prominent in the Kansas City area, though B.C. Altman had problems with both gambling and alcohol, as would his son later in life. Of German descent, the Altmans were a Roman Catholic family, and Altman received much of his education in Jesuit schools. By the time he reached high school, Altman experienced some difficulties. He was transferred first to public schools, and then to the Wentworth Military Academy, in Lexington, Missouri.
Joined Air Force
In 1943, when Altman was 18 years old, he joined the United States Air Force. He was trained as a bomber pilot at March Field, near Riverside, California. While stationed there, Altman got a first look at Hollywood, the city that would play a significant role in his future. After his training was complete, Altman was stationed in Morotai, The Philippines, where he flew bombing missions in B-24s. He reached the rank of lieutenant before his discharge in 1947. After leaving the service, Altman returned home to his wife, La Vonne Elmer, a telephone operator in Kansas City, and their daughter, Christine.
Altman pursued a number of career avenues in Kansas City. He sold insurance for a short while, then studied engineering at the University of Missouri, Columbia, for three years. Altman started a dog tattooing business intended to provide an indelible identification of the animal's owner, but the enterprise eventually failed.
Altman visited his parents, who were then living in California, and met a screenwriter named George W. George. Together they wrote a story which was sold to RKO for a movie called The Bodyguard (1948). Altman also lived in New York City for a while, trying to find work as a writer of screenplays and stories, but was unsuccessful. Instead, his film career began in his hometown of Kansas City.
Altman talked his way into a directing job at the Calvin Company, which made industrial films in Kansas City. Five years at Calvin, taught Altman every aspect of the film-making process. In addition to directing, he also produced and wrote films, and acted as cinematographer, designer, and editor. His experience at Calvin led to work directing local commercials. Altman also wrote a country-and-western musical, Corn's-a-poppin', which was produced locally. At this time, Altman divorced his first wife, and married Lotus Corelli. Together they had two sons, Stephen and Michael. The marriage only lasted a few years, and the couple divorced in 1957. Within a short time, Altman married Kathryn Reed, a former showgirl and film extra, with whom he had two more sons, Robert and Matthew.
Made First Feature Film
In the mid-1950s, Altman was approached by the backer of Corn's-a-poppin', Elmer Rhoden, Jr., about making a feature film. The result was The Delinquent, a movie about juvenile delinquency which Altman wrote, produced, and directed. The Delinquent gave Altman his ticket to Hollywood. It was picked up by United Artists for $150,000, and released in 1955. The first piece that Altman wrote in Hollywood was a 1957 documentary about the recently deceased actor, James Dean. Altman co-produced and co-directed The James Dean Story with his old friend, George W. George. However, the film was a disaster, both artistically and at the box office.
The James Dean Story did catch the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who offered Altman a job directing episodes of his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Altman would spend the next eight years directing television, as well as some writing and producing. However, his time with Hitchcock was short: Altman was fired after only two episodes. It would not be the last time he was fired from television work because of his penchant for experimentation, including improvisation and, what would later become his trademark, overlapping dialogue. Altman continued to be hired because he was competent and completed his work on or under budget. In addition to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he directed episodes of The Whirly-birds, The Roaring Twenties, Combat, Maverick, and Bonanza.
Altman's work on television led to his return to film. "Nightmare in Chicago," a two-part episode of Kraft Mystery Theater, was made into a feature film. In 1963, Altman founded a film production company, Lion's Gate, with Ray Wagner. Two years later, he left television, not to return for two decades. While his company found its footing, Altman paid the bills by making commercials and short films. By 1968, he was directing features, making about a movie a year. The first was Countdown, which was released by Warner Bros. The documentary-like movie explored the politics of the American space program via two astronauts played by James Caan and Robert Duvall. Altman was angered that the film was re-edited before its release, but Countdown did garner some critical acclaim. His second film, Cold Day in the Park (1969), got a similar reaction.
M*A*S*H Cemented Reputation
In 1970, Altman produced his first critical and creative triumph, M*A*S*H. The black comedy-drama commented on the absurdities of the Vietnam War, though it was set during the Korean war. The film used many techniques that became hallmarks of Altman's style. They included overlapping dialogue, an episodic structure, and use of improvisation. M*A*S*H was nominated for six Academy Awards, and won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Though it was a box office success, Altman was only paid $75,000 and saw no money from the hit television series based on the film.
Altman's subsequent films were not as popular with audiences, but were critically and artistically important. He reworked several genres, making them realistic and character driven. The 1970 film Brewster McCloud was a fantasy focusing on a man who lives inside Houston's Astrodome and longs to fly inside it. In 1971, he made McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a so-called "anti-western." The unromantic movie made the previously heroic westerner type into an opportunistic capitalist. It also featured some of Altman's trademarks, including overlapping dialogue on the soundtrack. He took on the film noir genre with The Long Goodbye (1973), using the Raymond Chandler detective character, Phillip Marlowe. Altman's Marlowe was far from the hard-boiled detective. He was effete and unethical. In 1974's Thieves Like Us, a gangster movie set in the Depression era, Altman de-romanticized the outlaw heroes, like Bonnie and Clyde. As Altman grew as a director, he tended to use many of the same actors, actresses, and crew.
Directed Ambitious Nashville
In 1975, Altman produced what many deemed to be the best movie of the 1970s, Nashville. An ensemble piece with more than 20 major characters, Nashville focused on their actions during a weekend in that city. Altman used the business of country music, as well as politics, to satirically comment on contemporary American life via an intersecting set of stories. One element of Nashville that was consistently praised was Altman's use of music, which often underscored the action. An artistic triumph, Nashville was also a box office success.
Altman continued to churn out movies in the late 1970s, but none matched the success of M*A*S*H or Nashville. His follow-up was 1976's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, about Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Though the film starred Paul Newman, it was a flop and closed within two weeks of its release. Subsequent films also failed at the box office. A Wedding (1978), which featured 40 characters, was not successful. Altman continued to push the boundaries of genres with movies like Quintet (1979), a science fiction murder mystery, but it also did not catch on. With H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980), Altman used a format similar to Nashville,—all the action takes place at a health food convention, which he used to comment on modern day society. It too failed to attract much of an audience. Altman did not limit himself to directing. He also began producing at this time, beginning with Welcome to L.A., a film by protege, Alan Randolph.
Altman's career as a film director declined in 1980, after the release of Popeye. Though the film was a box office success, his reputation in Hollywood was ruined . Altman's live-action Popeye was dark, although it was a big budget film ($20 million) for Disney. While he never regarded Popeye as an artistic failure, many critics did. In 1981, Altman sold his production company, Lion's Gate, for $2.3 million. In the same year, he made his debut as a stage director with a production at Los Angeles' Actors Theatre. At the time he told Leticia Kent of The New York Times, "I haven't quit films, I'm merely taking a sabbatical and I'm doing something that I've wanted to do for years and years. I also believed that after two or three theater pieces, when I go to do a film I'll be better."
Throughout the 1980s, Altman used the stage as an artistic home base, directing many plays, then movies based on stage plays. For example, he directed the Broadway production of Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, then made a film of it. The film, which was critically lauded, was produced for only $800,000. Altman gave stage plays such as Sam Shepard's Fool for Love and Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy similar film treatments. He experimented with other genres as well. Altman directed his first opera at the University of Michigan. In the mid-1980s, he returned to television. While living in Paris, he directed The Laundromat (1985) for Canadian television. In 1988, he made the limited series, Tanner '88, an acclaimed pseudo-documentary on the presidential election, for Home Box Office (HBO).
Revitalized Directing Career
In the 1990s, Altman returned to form as a film director. While his 1990 offering, Vincent and Theo, was not considered typical Altman, he received much acclaim for his sensitive portrayal of the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. His next film, The Player reestablished his reputation in Hollywood. The movie, which focused on the dealings of Hollywood from an insider's point of view, was arguably Altman's most successful film. His next successful venture was 1994's Short Cuts, a film based on short stories by Raymond Carver. As with Nashville, Short Cuts featured a large cast and intertwined stories. Altman tried to do for the fashion world what he had done with Hollywood and Nashville in 1994's Ready to Wear, but the film was only a modest success.
Altman continued to look to his past for inspiration. In 1996, he made a gangster-jazz movie entitled Kansas City, set in the time of his youth. He also flirted with more mainstream fair. In the summer of 1997, Altman was the creative force behind Gun, a short-lived television anthology series whose main character was a firearm that was passed from story to story. He ended the decade with two non-traditional Altman films. The Gingerbread Man (1998) was based on a John Grisham script, while Cookie's Fortune io (1999) was a gently comic Southern drama. None of these films were big budget affairs, but they allowed Altman artistic freedom. As he told Sharon Waxman of The Washington Post, "There's not a filmmaker who's had a better shake than I have. In 30 years, every film I've made has been of my own choosing. I don't get rich, but I have a lot of fun."
Further Reading on Robert Altman
Barson, Michael, The Illustrated Who's Who of Hollywood Directors: Volume 1: The Sound Era, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Cassell Companion to Cinema, Cassell, 1997.
Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Volume 1, edited by Richard Roud, The Viking Press, 1980.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-2: Directors, 3rd ed., edited by Laurie Collier Hillstrom, 1997.
Newsmakers: The People Behind Today's Headlines: 1993 Cumulation, edited by Louise Mooney, Gale Group, 1993.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
World Film Directors Volume 11: 1945-1985, edited by John Wakeman, H.W. Wilson, 1988.
Down Beat, March 1996, p. 22.
Film Comment, March-April 1994, p. 21; March-April 1994, p. 24.
The Guardian, August 17, 1999, p. 12.
The Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1990, p. 22.
The Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 26, 1992, p. 30.
Mediaweek, September 16, 1996, p. 13.
The New York Times, October 11, 1981, sec. 2, p. 3; July 20, 1993, p. C11.
People Weekly, March 28, 1994, p. 46.
Time, April 20, 1992, p. 78; April 14, 1997, p. 88.
USA Today, May 14, 1999, p. 8E.
The Washington Post, April 8, 1999, p. C1.