The life of Robert Altman, the iconic underdog of Hollywood
“Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes.”
During the New Hollywood Era, as the importance of directors preceded that of the studios, there emerged a pioneer who went on to become one of the most underrated filmmakers in the industry due to his unabashed and opinionated self. A recipient of numerous other awards and accolades, Robert Altman, with not a single competitive Oscar to his name, yet managed to bag the Academy Honorary Award due to his distinguished contribution to the world of cinema. Considered a maverick for his unique and unorthodox take on subjects by employing satirical and subversive devices, Altman remains one of the most influential underdogs of Hollywood. He was often considered to be “anti-Hollywood” but was an actor’s favourite due to the creative liberty he provided, along with encouragement to bring out the best in them.
Born on February 20, 1925, to a well-off family, Altman’s father hailed from an upper-class family. Although he was raised Catholic and often referred to as a Catholic director, he never practised his religion. Having graduated in 1943, he joined the US Army Air Forces and flew as a crewmate in over 50 bombing missions during the Second World War. While he had never planned on making films, Altman had sold his script for the 1948 film Bodyguard to RKO, and this immediate success prompted him to relocate to New York City, where he tried his hand at writing. He was, however, fairly unsuccessful at it and returned to Kansas, where he was hired by Calvin Company to write and direct industrial films. It was here that Altman, while directing such films, tried employing experimental techniques, thus honing his directorial eye.
By the 1950s, Altman had established his name in the TV industry, having written and directed various episodes. It was during this time that Altman was slowly developing his much-celebrated skill of using simple and natural dialogue among characters. His unique ability to work quickly and within a limited budget helped him earn a name for himself. Altman was more often than not fired from various projects due to his rebellious ideas and denial to conform to immediate authorities, but he still landed jobs reasonably quickly. It was during this time that Altman was trying to dabble in filmmaking but ended up creating box office failures. The political intonation of his work, especially his ideas and sentiments regarding the Vietnam War, were quickly recorded and he was soon associated directly with the anti-war movement, which started affecting the exponential rise of his career.
Altman was always up for a good challenge. His indomitable and dauntless spirit aided him to accept the script for MASH, a film adapted from a modest Korean War-era novel that was a direct satire of life in the armed forces. Altman agreed to direct the script, which had previously been rejected by the majority of the big names in contemporary Hollywood. Although the filmmaking process was pretty cumbersome with Altman almost getting fired due to his radical, non-conformist views, the film ended up being an immediate classic, winning numerous accolades and five Academy Award nominations. Very soon, he went on a filmmaking rampage, directing films like McCabe & Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, They Live by Night, Nashville, California Split and more. Altman was the biggest forbearer of indie films and hated how the studios would appropriate a director’s creative genius. This prompted him to form his own production company named Lion’s Gate Films to encourage independent production. The films that were produced by the company were, however, extremely unsuccessful, including Brewster McCloud, A Wedding, 3 Women, Quintet and others.
Altman’s career has never been smooth-sailing. From being continuously doubted to being shunned for being too vocal, he has gone through the ugliest upheavals with a tumultuous rollercoaster of reputation. After his film got shelved by 20th Century Fox, Altman vowed to “direct literate dramatic properties on shoestring budgets for the stage, home video, television, and limited theatrical release”. After a mixed bag of releases, including few successful ones like Vincent & Theo, The Player and more, Altman finally directed Short Cuts which was an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories, talking about the everyday people of LA living their lives over a fixed period of time.
Altman missed out on the Best Director Award at the Academy for Gosford Park, which was adored by critics and fans alike. Rumours are that his anti-war stance, as well as vocal opposition to George W. Bush, cost him an award. However, that never deterred Altan from speaking his mind. He was very vocal about all his problems with the industry as well as the world. Altman was a one-of-a-kind director with a passionate love for everyday life and people. Altman’s inspiration lay in the buzzing of everyday life as he found the chaos and calm that resides within people, along with their beauty and flaws, extremely fascinating. A master of satire, his aesthetics reeked of satirical commentary, whether it was on the industry or armed forces, that never mattered.
An auteur in its truest sense, Altman was quick to recognise the limitations that would be imposed on him and thus went against the flow to transcend genre. Identified as the harbinger of “anti-genre”, he cannot be put into a particular set like westerns, musicals, thrillers etc. he was the god of satire whose bizarre and idiosyncratic outlook often cost him box office success as people often failed to recognise and fish out the main message being conveyed. He was very stubborn and very much in control of his creative genius, refusing to conform or sacrifice on his own ideas and beliefs to aid to the success of a film. This is often seen as one of the reasons why the big sharks of Hollywood were opposed to Altman’s success and continually obstructing him.
He was known for his mercurial temper with studio executives, one of whom he punched and knocked out into a pool due to some unwelcome suggestions. However, among the actors, he was extremely popular due to the creative and artistic freedom he bestowed on them to explore a character according to their whims and fancies. The love and respect he harboured for actors were returned tenfold as the actors, no matter how famous they were, would give up everything and nearly work for nothing had it been an Altman film. Screenwriters often refused to work with him due to his habit of deviating from the script and roping in random improv. Known for the brilliant use of music as well as unconventional plot in his films with layered characters, Altman was also well recognised for his incredible camerawork. The smooth techniques he used even prompted Stanley Kubrick to wonder in admiration.
In 2006, while receiving the honour at the Academy, Altman revealed that he was extremely grateful for never having to go against his wishes while directing. His opinionated self always helped him bag the projects he loved and cherished. He ended his speech by revealing how he had a heart transplant a decade back and that the Academy had miscalculated his stay by awarding him an Award nearly four decades before he was due: “Oh, one more thing. I’m here, I think, under kind of false pretences, and I think I have to become straight with you,” he said. “Ten years ago, eleven years ago, I had a heart transplant. A total heart transplant. I got the heart of, I think, a young woman who was about in her late thirties, and so by that kind of calculation, you may be giving me this award too early. Because I think I’ve got about forty years left on it. And I intend to use it. Thank you very much. Thank you.”
Ironically, it was in the same year that Altman passed away due to complications arising from leukaemia. He has, since then, been highly regarded for his passion and never-give-up attitude. Known for his love for ensemble casts and all things revolutionary, his oeuvre was recognised as the ‘Altmanesque’. His wonderfully realistic satires rejuvenated the oversaturated world of Hollywood and were like a breath of fresh air in an industry where directors were busy pleasing studio moguls. Altman never cared for money as long as what he produced was aligned to his immense love for the art; the implosion of characters, as well as the psyche that happened within the Altmanesque, is what made the filmmaker an icon, a legendary auteur.
Today, on what would have been his 96th birthday, we pay homage to this legendary auteur who forged the path towards new thinking in Hollywood and challenged and subverted the quintessential dominant culture by refusing to give up on his creative freedom.
“All of my films deal with the same thing: striving, socially and culturally, to stay alive.”