IN MAY 1996, Chaz and I had lunch with Robert and Kathryn Altman at the Grand Hotel in Cannes. I was shocked by how frail he looked. Here was a man who had seemed indestructible, and now he was thin and walked with a cane and his voice was weak. He was at the festival for the premiere of Kansas City, his film about the early jazz scene in his hometown.
The film opened that June and received some harsh reviews, especially by Richard Schickel in TIME magazine, who wrote (I’m quoting from memory) that if you seek a definition for unethical, look no farther than Robert Altman.
My phone rang, and it was Harvey Weinstein, who was releasing the film at Miramax.
“Did you see what that fucker Schickel wrote about Bob Altman?” he asked. I said I had. I said Altman had been called many things, but never unethical.
“Roger, you saw him at Cannes. Robert Altman is a dying man. That review may kill him. If he doesn’t get some support for his movie, I’m telling you he will die.”
This was the first (and remains the only) call I received from a distributor asking for a favorable review. I admired Harvey’s spirit in fighting for the film. I didn’t believe for one second he made the call because of financial considerations. He cared more about Bob than box office. I didn’t consider Kansas City one of Altman’s best films, but I found it ambitious and honorable and gave it three stars in the paper, and a degree of praise.
The next time I saw Altman, he had gained weight and wasn’t using a cane; it would turn out he had ten years of films ahead of him. But how poignantly I remembered the night in 2006 when he was given an honorary Oscar and revealed to the Academy that he had received a heart transplant ten years earlier. Now it all made sense. In an industry where rumors of bad health can end careers, it was a statement of unusual courage, typical of Altman. Perhaps he suspected his death was near; he died on November 20, 2006, five months after the release of A Prairie Home Companion, which is, I believe, a knowingly autobiographical film. Along with his previous film, The Company, it is about the way he worked.
The night before the Oscars, there was a little gathering in a room off a restaurant of the Beverly Hills Hotel. This wasn’t a promotional event, and no publicists were attached. It was just Bob and Kathryn and some of their friends and family. I remember Lauren Hutton, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson, Virginia Madsen. I talked for a while with Lily Tomlin, who had just finished making A Prairie Home Companion. She looked across the room and said, “I love that man.” Madsen had played a guardian angel in the film and said Altman had wanted her on the set even when she wasn’t needed; perhaps as an angel, perhaps because she floated in the background of many shots, or perhaps simply because with Altman you never knew when an actor might be needed.
Altman was a collaborator. Many directors are private and dictatorial. He involved everyone. He and Kathryn moved in a crowd, and actors became like family. He directed in a conspiratorial style, as if he and the actors were putting something over on absent enemies. I spent an unusual amount of time with him over the years. A lot of people did. His sets were open, and he even invited outsiders to his screenings of daily rushes.
I sat once in his screening room at Lionsgate in Westwood and watched the dailies of a film with maybe twenty others; the sweetness of marijuana floated forward from his chair. He made no attempt to conceal his use of pot. When he was shooting The Companyin Chicago, Chaz and I had dinner twice with the Altmans and Mayor Daley and his wife, Maggie. Daley and I arrived at the restaurant early one night and sat at the bar awaiting the others. Bob came in from the winter cold, bringing with him a cloud of marijuana smoke. Daley raised his eyebrows at me and smiled. In 1999, when Altman premiered Cookie’s Fortune, he sat in the middle of the opening night reception and made no attempt to conceal what he was smoking. It occurs to me now that it may have been medical marijuana, obtained by prescription.
There may not have been a director who liked actors more. He had a temper, and I saw him angry with cinematographers, Teamsters, prop men, lighting guys, critics, and people making noise during a shot, but actors were his darlings and they could do no wrong. When he asked for another take, there was the implication that he enjoyed the last one so much he wanted to see the actors do it again simply for his personal pleasure.
I met him properly for the first time in 1974, in Iowa City, where we had both agreed to attend a film festival because we were promised Pauline Kael would be there. There we were, sitting cross-legged on a table in front of a room jammed with students, before a screening of his movie Thieves Like Us. After high praise from Kael and others, the movie had failed at the box office. “I blame United Artists,” he said. “All the ad campaign said is that the movie’s a masterpiece. Would you go to a movie that was hailed as a masterpiece? Already it sounds like hard work.”
He spoke in a cheerful voice, youthful, as if savoring the fun of being a director. I met him again at Cannes in 1977, where he was premiering his masterpiece 3 Women, which won the Best Actress award for Shelley Duvall—a waitress he saw in a Houston diner and made into a star. That day he was sitting on a rented yacht in the Cannes harbor, talking about how in a month he would begin shooting A Wedding in Chicago with forty-eight actors, every one of whom would have their dialogue separately recorded with his pet project, Lionsgate Sound. So much of a democrat was he that he didn’t believe in isolated foreground sound, and starting with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) key lines were sometimes delivered by supporting actors only vaguely present in the background.
In those days he seemed to engender new films from inspired whims. “I’ll tell you how 3 Women got started,” he said. “I dreamed it. I dreamed of the desert, and these three women, and I remember every once in a while I’d dream that I was waking up and sending out people to scout locations and cast the thing. And when I woke up in the morning, it was like I’d done the picture. What’s more, I liked it. So, what the hell, I decided to do it.”
I asked him about a story I’d heard about how he got the idea for A Wedding.
“Yeah, it’s close. We were shooting 3 Women out in the desert, and it was a really hot day and we were in a hotel room that was like a furnace, and I wasn’t feeling too well on account of having felt too well the night before, and this girl was down from L.A. to do some in-depth gossip and asked me what my next movie was going to be. At that moment, I didn’t even feel like doing this movie, so I told her I was gonna shoot a wedding next. A wedding? Yeah, a wedding.
“So a few moments later my production assistant comes up and she says, ‘Bob, did you hear yourself just then?’ Yeah, I say, I did. ‘That’s not a bad idea, is it?’ she says. Not a bad idea at all, I said, and that night we started on the outline.”
He regarded a crowd of photographers two yachts over. “This place is a zoo,” he said. “The purpose of a yacht is to pull up the gangplank. I had this lady interviewer following me around. She was convinced that life with Altman was a never-ending round of orgies and excess. She was even snooping around in my bathroom, for Christ’s sake, and she found this jar of funny white powder in the medicine cabinet. Aha! she thinks. Cocaine! So she snorts some. Unfortunately, what she didn’t know was that I’m allergic to commercial toothpaste because it makes me break out in a rash. So my wife mixes up baking soda and salt for me, and—Poor girl.”
Two years later, in 1979, I found myself in the Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida, where he was filming his little-seen HealtH. He said he wanted me to meet someone. We walked outside to a line of cars and he introduced me to the Teamsters captain on the shoot. “This man,” he said, “is being paid more than anyone else on the film, except for the stars, the cameraman, and me.” The man smiled at him.
At the box office, HealtH and A Wedding were not successes. Popeye, made next, turned a nice profit but was perceived as a flop. The next year, I visited him during rehearsals for a Broadway play, Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which he was staging with his own money. It starred Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, and Kathy Bates, among others. He then used the stage set to film it as a feature.
Some directors lie fallow when they can’t find a studio project. Altman was essentially unable to find funding for a studio film for a decade after Popeye but worked unceasingly on ten marginal independent projects, including the TV miniseries Tanner ’88 he made during the 1988 presidential elections. “You fiddle on the corner where the quarters are,” he explained. For him, the actual production of a film or play seemed to be necessary to life, and he was incapable of not working.