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The Lens: The Player

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2009 - Robert Altman was notoriously averse - no, make that outright hostile - to the idea of submitting himself to a biographer, so when he agreed to work with journalist Mitchell Zuckoff on a book, it was on the condition that it deal solely with his work, not his family or his personal life.

Altman may have been thinking of his legacy, assuming that his film career was winding down. He was 81, had made more than 30 features (and hours of TV work) and worried that aging and health issues would make him a hiring risk ever since he received a heart transplant in 1995. (He waited 11 years before revealing it publicly, when he accepted an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.) When he told Zuckoff in October of 2006, that he had "at very best probably five years left," he was way off; he died one month later.

With Altman's death, Zuckoff's book became something entirely different. "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography" (Alfred A. Knopf, $35) is a book that he would have hated, a revealing, honest, but not always flattering attempt to pin down in 562 pages the intimate details in the life of Hollywood's most chameleon-like director. To Altman's distinctive voice, Zuckoff has added nearly 150 others - family, friends and collaborators - who describe the often difficult man and give rich accounts of what it was like to be on the set of an Altman film, but still largely leaving the reader a bit removed from the work itself and from the methods the director used to create them.

How did Bob Altman, a young man from a well-positioned Kansas City family, become the larger-than-life director of films like "Nashville" and "The Player ?

He was already 45 years old when he had an overnight success with "M*A*S*H" (friends say he resented having had to wait so long - more than half his life - for the film industry to finally recognize his talent), having already been a decorated World War II pilot, a dog tattooist and a struggling screenwriter before putting in a solid dozen or so years directing industrial films and TV episodes.

The personality traits and artistic ambitions that would mark his later career - a dislike of convention and a habitual distrust of producers and studio executives, as well as a playful approach to directing actors and a constant look for new and innovative ways to keep keep his sets open and inventive - were well in place even when he was scrambling for work in the 1950s and early '60s. He remained true to himself, but had to wait for the movie industry to catch up.

And so it did with the 1970 release of "M*A*S*H,"  a film that snuck through the Hollywood system and set into place many of the themes and techniques that would come to define his later work: using wide-screen cinematography and a floating zoom lens to create an open, organic canvas, filling scenes with dozens of characters all talking at once, taking Hollywood conventions - in this case, the combat film - and deflating both established genres and the assumptions they carry about American social life. Though not Altman's best film, it was - and still is - sharp, lively and fun. And it was an enormous success.

Altman didn't reap the financial rewards of "M*A*S*H" (he was paid a flat fee but no percentage of the profits; ironically, his teenage son wrote the lyrics to the film's theme and earned more royalties - from the TV series as well as the film - than he did) but flew straight to the front of what was being heralded on magazine covers  as "the New Hollywood."

It was at that point that the lines between an Altman movie - take a dozen or so characters, throw them into a situation and see what happens - and an Altman set - take a dozen or so actors, throw them into a location and see what happens - began to blur. Altman liked his sets to have a party-like atmosphere and he liked his films to work the same way. As he described it, his process largely consisted of finding the right actors, making them feel comfortable and waiting for them to surprise him.

And they did, for film after film. Zuckoff's book devotes a large number of pages to a few landmark films ("M*A*S*H," "Nashville" and "The Player"), but is considerably less thorough about covering the rest, especially the films and TV work of the 1980s. The films poured out, 37 theatrical features, including more than an average number of masterpieces like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller,"  "Three Women"  and "The Long Goodbye,"  as well as glorious eccentricities like "Brewster McCloud"  and "Popeye,"  but Zuckoff makes most of them take a back seat to the Altmanesque goings-on off-screen, as the number of friends and witnesses increases.

Zuckoff's book is a little unbalanced (the years up to "M*A*S*H" take up 40 percent of the text) and contains no real revelations, especially if you've read the only previous Altman biography, Patrick McGilligan's 1989 "Jumping Off the Cliff," but despite flaws, it performs the valuable task of reminding the reader of the life and energy that went into producing so many unconventional, unforgettable films.

Best of all, it provides Altman's unmistakable voice, as when he offers this reflection, recalled by actor Michael Murphy: "Isn't this weird, the way we spend our lives? You get dressed up in funny clothes and I tell you where to stand."

The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.

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