Robert Altman's other nominations — for “M*A*S*H,'’ “Nashville,'’ “Short Cuts'’ and “The Player,'’ in which he mercilessly mocked Hollywood — are representative of the filmmaker’s free-flowing improvisational style and use of overlapping dialogue. He became known for integrating music into such films as the haunting “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,'’ set in a boomtown in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century, and “Nashville,'’ following 24 characters involved in a political rally.
Altman practically invented the concept of the ensemble piece, using an all-star cast to enact multiple stories, proving that audiences were willing and able to follow many plotlines at once. His influence is seen in the 2006 Oscar-winner “Crash'’ and in this year’s “Babel,'’ among other contemporary films.
Spending most of his career working outside the Hollywood system, he became a role model for independent filmmakers, showing that you get an offbeat subject onto the screen if you work the angles. Altman played distributors like a virtuoso.
“He was an inspiration in that he made me feel I’m going to maintain my vision and let the world think of it what they may,'’ said Bay Area indie director Finn Taylor.
Although Altman was diagnosed with cancer a year-and-a-half ago, he continued to work, directing Arthur Miller’s final play, “Resurrection Blues,'’ in London; completing “A Prairie Home Companion,'’ loosely based on Garrison Keillor’s popular radio show; and providing commentary for a just-released DVD of that movie. He and Keillor, who wrote the screenplay, left out any mention of Lake Wobegon because they had planned to make a sequel set in the mythical town.
Altman also had screenwriter Julie Talen busy on a script about the notorious spy Mata Hari. Looking over Talen’s work, he gave her a note that said, “Just make all the people be awful to each other.'’ Shortly before his hospitalization, he was in preproduction on a movie with a February shooting date.
Not all his films were successful. “Popeye,” a live-action musical about the spinach-fueled cartoon sailor starring Robin Williams, was universally panned by critics and audiences.
Meryl Streep, who starred in “A Prairie Home Companion,'’ said in a statement that she had spoken with the filmmaker just last week. “He seemed impatient for the future. He still had the generous, optimistic appetite for the next thing, and we planned the next film laughing in anticipation of the laughs we’d have.'’
Actor Elliot Gould said in an interview Tuesday that the director’s free-form style took some getting used to. He would make up lines on the spot and expect the cast to act as if they were written in stone.
“There was a scene in ‘M*A*S*H’ where I was playing poker, and a guy came up behind me wearing sunglasses that had mirrors,'’ Gould recalled. “Bob told me to tell him, ‘There are two ways to be killed in this war. One is go out and fight, and the other is to stand behind me wearing those glasses.’ That was all Bob — it wasn’t in the script.'’
At first, Gould and co-star Donald Sutherland “really didn’t get this different way to work. We were sort of upset and even complained about it to our agents. Bob thought we wanted to get him fired, but fortunately things got cleared up,'’ said Gould, who went on to do some of his finest acting for Altman in “The Long Goodbye,'’ “California Split'’ and “The Player.'’
“Bob once said to me that he had learned how to put it — he meant a movie — together in chaos, and therefore he would create chaos in which to put it together,'’ Gould said.
Most actors came to adore Altman. “The best work I have ever done on film was for Bob, and the most comfortable and the most fun,'’ Carol Burnett told The Chronicle Tuesday. “He just kind of encouraged you and made you happy. If you had an idea he’d say, ‘Don’t dare not come to me with it.’ ‘’
Burnett, who made “The Wedding,'’ “Health'’ and the HBO drama “Laundromat'’ with Altman, said, “I couldn’t wait to work for him. I miss him already.'’
Lily Tomlin recalled recently that she was fearful of her singing scenes in “A Prairie Home Companion.'’ “I said to Bob, ‘What if I get there and I can’t sing?’ He said, ‘So you won’t sing.’ It was like when we made ‘Nashville,’ and I told him I didn’t think my character could go to bed with Keith Carradine’s, and Bob said, ‘Well, then, she just can’t do it.’ ”
Maggie Smith once described herself and her “Gosford Park'’ co-star Helen Mirren as “his fan club. We are Bob’s Babes.'’
In an interview with The Chronicle in 2000, Altman said that “actors want to work with me, even though their agents don’t want them to. My reputation is known: that I’ll never lie to them and that they finally get to do what they became actors to do, and that is create. They create their roles. I don’t. Once I have a film cast, 85 percent of my creative work is done. I’m just there to keep it in the boundaries. If somebody tries to go across the street, I say, ‘That’s too far. Come back.’ ‘’
Robert Altman was born on Feb. 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Mo., and spent his teenage years sneaking into jazz clubs. The kind of artist on whom nothing is lost, he turned his memories of these clubs and the gangsters who frequented them into the film “Kansas City.'’ His experiences as a bomber pilot during World War II became grist for “M*A*S*H.'’
He was always eager to learn about new things, which prompted him to dip into the world of high fashion in “Ready to Wear'’ and into classical dance in “The Company,'’ which was shot using dancers from the Joffrey Ballet.
“He was like a big papa bear to them. He walked around with his arms around all of them,'’ said Harriet Ross, the company’s artistic manager at the time. Going into the production, Altman didn’t know much about ballet. “That is what interested him about it. He only liked to do films about something he had never done before.'’
Altman was a sociable sort and a big drinker in his day. Patricia Neal, who came out of retirement to do “Cookie’s Fortune'’ for him, once described their first meeting in 1965:
“Bob came to see my ex-husband about a film script he wanted to write. He was there for about four days and dead drunk from the minute he arrived to the minute he left.'’
Although Altman took better care of himself after a 1995 heart transplant, surgery that he kept secret for years out of fear that he couldn’t get insurance to keep directing, he remained a night owl. In San Francisco in 2003 to receive the Film Society Directing Award, he spent late nights at Tosca Café and let it be known to the festival staff that he didn’t like to get up early.
He was accompanied here by his third wife, Kathryn Reed Altman. She survives him, along with four sons, Robert, Matthew, Michael and Stephen, and a daughter, Christine.
Films of Robert Altman as director, producer or writer include:
“Christmas Eve” — 1947
“Bodyguard” — 1948
“The Delinquents” — 1957
“The James Dean Story” — 1957
“Nightmare in Chicago” — 1964
“Countdown” — 1968
“That Cold Day in the Park” — 1969
“M*A*S*H” — 1970
“Brewster McCloud” — 1970
“Events” — 1970
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” — 1971
“Images” — 1972
“The Long Goodbye” — 1973
“Thieves Like Us” — 1974
“California Split” — 1974
“Nashville” — 1975
“Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” — 1976
“Welcome to L.A.” — 1977
“The Late Show” — 1977
“Three Women” — 1977
“A Wedding” — 1978
“Remember My Name” — 1978
“Quintet” — 1979
“A Perfect Couple” — 1979
“Rich Kids” — 1979
“Health” — 1980
“Popeye” — 1980
“Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” — 1982
“Streamers” — 1983
“Secret Honor” — 1984
“Fool for Love” — 1985
“Beyond Therapy” — 1987
“O.C. and Stiggs” — 1987
“Aria” (one segment, “Les Boreades”) — 1987
“Vincent & Theo” — 1990
“The Player” — 1992
“Short Cuts” — 1993
“Pret-a-Porter” (”Ready to Wear”) — 1994
“Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” — 1994
“Jazz ‘34″ — 1996
“Kansas City” — 1996
“The Gingerbread Man” — 1998
“Cookie’s Fortune” — 1999
“Dr. T and the Women” — 2000
“Gosford Park” — 2001
“The Company” — 2003
“Tanner on Tanner” — 2004
“A Prairie Home Companion” — 2006
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