During the 1970s, an era widely recognized as a renaissance period of American moviemaking, few directors enjoyed greater prominence than Robert Altman. An iconoclast whose work acutely attacked the conventions of genre filmmaking, Altman both satirized and revitalized such warhorses as the Western, the musical, and the crime drama, waging war on the sterile artifice of mainstream storytelling by creating a singularly sprawling and deliberately messy cinematic world bursting at the seams with sounds, images, characters, and plot lines. Famed for his inventive brand of overlapping (and often improvisational) dialogue and an acknowledged master of modern camera technique, Altman's quixotic career has been uneven at best, yet he remains a pivotal figure of contemporary cinema, a true maverick responsible for many of the defining motion pictures of his times.
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Born February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, MO, Altman was educated in Jesuit schools prior to joining the Army at the age of 18; over the course of WWII, he flew over 50 bombing missions in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. Upon his discharge in 1947, Altman studied engineering at the University of Missouri, later inventing a tattooing machine designed for the identification of dogs. He entered filmmaking only as a whim, selling to RKO the script for the 1948 picture The Bodyguard, which he co-wrote with Richard Fleischer. Altman's immediate success encouraged him to move to New York City, where he attempted to forge a career as a writer; he enjoyed little luck, however, and after a similarly fruitless trip to the West Coast, he returned to Kansas City, accepting a job as a director, writer, cameraman, and editor of industrial films for the Calvin Company.
After helming some 65 industrial films and documentaries, by 1955 Altman had secured over $60,000 dollars in financing from local backers to make his own feature; two years later, the finished product, titled The Delinquents, was purchased by United Artists for 150,000, dollars. Alfred Hitchcock soon tapped him as a director for his CBS television anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After just two episodes, he went on to direct episodes of Bonanza, Combat!, and The Kraft Television Theater.
Altman wouldn't direct another movie until 1969's That Cold Day in the Park. For his next project, he agreed to adapt a little-known Korean War-era novel satirizing life in the armed services; the film had already been passed over by over a dozen other filmmakers. Upon its 1970 release, however, M*A*S*H was widely hailed as an immediate classic, winning the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and netting six Academy Award nominations. Now recognized as a major talent, Altman fielded countless offers to direct big-budget studio films, but instead opted to develop the surreal and experimental Brewster McCloud under his own Lions Gate imprint.
With the 1971 revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, however, Altman returned to form in stunning fashion. In a class of directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen, Altman helped lead a fantastic artistic movement in '70s film, from the atmospheric Raymond Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye to the Depression-era romantic caper Thieves Like Us to the gambling study California Split.
It was with his 1975 masterpiece Nashville, however, that Altman truly reentered the American cultural consciousness. The movie was hailed from many corners as one of the decade's greatest works, earning five Oscar nominations. A sprawling, intricate meditation on show business and politics featuring some two dozen major characters, Nashville brought Altman's newly-developed Lion's Gate eight-track sound system to its full realization, allowing him to record sound live on the set with microphones instead of more cumbersome equipment, eliminating post-dubbing and making possible later mixing and unmixing to achieve a dense, multi-layered soundtrack. Altman next unveiled Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, starring Paul Newman - which sadly, met with much disappointment.
Altman next turned to 1977's 3 Women, followed a year later by A Wedding. Yet again, audiences failed to relate to the material, and after 1979's futuristic Quintet opened and closed after just one week, both the romantic comedy A Perfect Couple and the satiric Health ran into insurmountable distribution problems and barely even surfaced in theaters.
Altman next mounted Popeye, a musical based on the classic E.C. Segar comic strip with comedian Robin Williams in the title role. When the highly-anticipated production failed to live up to commercial or critical expectations, he responded by selling off Lions Gate, effectively bringing to an end his career as a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker for over a decade.
Altman then turned to the stage, forming Sandcastle 5 Productions and agreeing to direct Ed Graczyck's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean on Broadway. David Rabe's Vietnam War drama Streamers followed a year later, followed by 1984's Richard Nixon docudrama Secret Honor, filmed in a campus dormitory with the aid of student assistants while Altman was serving as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan.
Returning to TV, Altman had success with the HBO miniseries Tanner '88 and the 1990 Van Gogh portrait Vincent and Theo. They both earned strong notices, prompting many to wonder if Altman was about to make a comeback; 1992's The Player, a brutal attack on Hollywood morality brimming with major stars, answered their questions. Altman was indeed back, with strong box-office receipts and three Oscar nominations to prove it. Suddenly finding himself again on the A-list, he mounted 1993's Short Cuts, adapted from short stories by Raymond Carver -- -- a brilliantly provocative look at contemporary Los Angeles society similar in execution and tone to Nashville and the recipient of almost as much acclaim. However, 1994's Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter), 1996's Kansas City, and 1998's John Grisham adaptation The Gingerbread Man were dismally received. However, Altman enjoyed greater success a year later with Cookie's Fortune, an ensemble piece about the denizens of a small Mississippi town.
Altman's next project, Dr. T & the Women, received mixed reviews, but the following film, the comedic period murder-mystery, Gosford Park (2002), marked a late-career high point. The film enlisted a five-star cast including Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas and Emily Watson; adored by critics and the public alike, it subsequently culled a myriad of Oscar nominations including nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
A longtime fan of 30-year-plus radio humorist Garrison Keillor, Altman next devised with Keillor the idea for a filmization of his venerable Minnesota-based radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. Thrilled with Keillor's draft of the script, the director stepped behind the camera once again in 2005, and made full use of a once-in-a-lifetime cast that included Altman standby Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, and Keillor himself. It opened in early summer, 2006, to wide praise for its warm geniality and folksy charm.
With more than a trace of bittersweet, poetic irony, this film, with its ruminations on the end of life, indeed proved to be Altman's last, marking a fitting cap to a masterful career. The 81-year-old director passed away, of complications from cancer, not five months after Prairie debuted, and eight months after receiving his Lifetime Achievement Oscar. He died in a Los Angeles hospital on November 20, 2006.
~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi