Heart in a Cooler


KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: The deterioration was kind of off and on for many years. The doctors said, “Well, you got a little problem there, an enlarged heart—cardiomyopathy—so you shouldn’t do this or that, and you shouldn’t drink.”

So he would not drink for a while and somebody would say something else and then he’d start drinking again. He stopped smoking when he was about thirty-six years old because they detected something. So it was always kind of there. And in ‘68, I guess it was, he had to give himself Heparin shots, blood thinner, way back then. It would be off and on and come and go, but it never stopped him from doing anything. He never had a heart attack. But the booze is the worst thing for an enlarged heart, and finally the heart just gave up.

Anyway, sometimes he would have to go on these extreme diets because you’ve got to lose this weight because of your heart. And in ‘92, before we’d gone to Paris for Prêt-à-Porter, he had kind of a semi-stroke here. I wasn’t here, Konni was.

KONNI CORRIERE: Mother was in L.A. She couldn’t fly. She had just had a medical procedure or whatever. He took me to one party to meet a bunch of bigwigs. Lauren Bacall was there and he just shuffled me around and introduced me. The next morning I heard him yelling. He’s like, “I think we have a little problem here.”

So I came downstairs and what had happened, we found out later, is that he had a stroke. He couldn’t remember my name. He was trying to call me and he couldn’t remember my name. I got the phone book and called the doctor and helped him get dressed. I was over him, trying to get him to sit up, so I could do a button or something. And he looks at me and says, “If this is it, it’s been great.”

Oh, God. It was so sweet and so cute and it was so serious. And it was really terrible.

I got him into a car with a driver and we went to this first doctor for an echocardiogram. They said, “You have to go immediately to the hospital.”

I just wanted to keep him engaged and busy. I knew he was scared. I knew I had to seal myself right next to him. I said, “Let’s get you an alias.” So we ended up with my mother’s maiden name as his last name, Reed, and his middle name, Bernard. And he was Bernard Reed for all his medical stuff until he came out at the Oscars.

I knew he couldn’t stand to be alone. I knew that all the screaming and yelling and partying and socializing—he hates to be, he was afraid to be, alone. That’s what it comes down to, and I knew that, especially at this health moment. So I asked the nurse, “Hey, listen, is there any chance I could sleep here tonight?”

She said, “Sure.”

I slept next to him. Later, I went to Paris with him as his assistant. I really was his secret health assistant more than anything else because he couldn’t let anybody know he was sick or had a stroke. In Paris, he told me, “Konni, when I woke up in that hospital that morning I didn’t know where I was. And I was so scared. I rolled over and I saw you sleeping in that little cot next to me. I want you to know I will never forget that. I will never forget it and I will always be there for you.”

He did lose the vision in the right side of his right eye, and after that whenever you walked in the room, you had to be careful because he wouldn’t see you if you entered on his right side. You’d startle him. He’d get startled a lot. He couldn’t drive after that, either. That was big. But he never complained.

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: He was weak, he was thin. He was great, though. He was still fun and funny. He started to lose some weight in August of ‘93 and he looked just great. Then he just did it by design. Then it just started falling off of him and he kept losing. All through Prêt-à-Porter, he was very thin. He wore those beautiful suits, Brioni, Cerruti, all these French and Italian designers were making these gorgeous suits for him. He looked like a million bucks. But he got too thin.

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Prêt-à-Porter (aka Ready to Wear; 1994)

Alexander Walker, review headlined “Ready to Wear? Ready to Walk Out,” The Evening Standard (London), December 14, 1994: As a film, it’s a huge disappointment—an artistic debacle that spoils its chances by wasting a multitude of stars on itsy-bitsy roles and induces the same sense of confusion that ruled when it was shot in the middle of the Paris spring fashion shows earlier this year. But as an expression of what Altman thinks of the couturiers and models … the movie is a gesture of the utmost disdain for everything the rag trade holds dear and profitable. Repeated no fewer than five times … is a moment where someone puts his or her foot firmly—and in close-up—into a pile of dog dirt.

*   *   *

STEPHEN ALTMAN: At the film festivals, when you’ve got something good there, there’s a feeding frenzy. We’d get a signature on a napkin from somebody for the next picture. For making the movie. For all of it. That’s what happened at Cannes. We were there with Short Cuts. That was a big Cannes hit and they were basically beating down the doors. I think that’s how Prêt-à-Porter was made. He hated that script. It was like, “Bob. You don’t have a movie.”

And he’d say, “Yeah, but this guy is ready to roll. Let’s just do it. We’ll make it up as we go along.”

JOHNNIE PLANCO (agent): Prêt-à-Porter was very difficult. He hired a journalist who’d never written a screenplay as the screenwriter. No one came up with a shooting script. Lots of people he hadn’t worked with—Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Julia Roberts. Nothing jelled.

LAUREN BACALL: I was the first person cast in that. We went down to the Tribeca Grill and we had lunch and he said I was going to be this Diana Vreeland character. Of course he convinced me of everything. Like most actors who ever worked with him once. It was a little like actors who worked with John Huston—”Tell me what you want and I’ll be there.” That’s the way Bogie was with John, and Bob had that gift with actors, too.

With Marcello Mastroianni, as the mysterious tailor Sergei/Sergio, and Sophia Loren, as the fashionable widow Isabella de la Fontaine, in Prêt- à- Porter

I think the main thing that didn’t work was he was ill. I knew he couldn’t wait to get out of France because he didn’t speak the language and it drove him crazy. There was no room for foreign sound to permeate that Kansas City accent.

I think that in fairness he didn’t have enough time or didn’t have entrée into what happened in the back rooms of a fashion house. And then what was that with the dog shit? That’s a onetime joke. You can’t base a movie on a guy stepping on dog shit every five minutes.

Bob had a concept, as he always did, and there was always room for ideas. My part ended up not being what he intended it to be. He got caught up in the little vignettes.

I don’t think he was well enough to really cope with it.

Bob and I really got along well except on Prêt-à-Porter. We were not so palsy. There wasn’t any argument, nothing specific. I felt somewhat at a loss because I thought the character was not what he told me it would be. I wasn’t quite sure I was playing the scenes properly. He said, “If you do something wrong I’ll let you know.”

I was kind of thrown off by it and I don’t think he was so thrilled with it, either. When you’re physically not right, especially with a man like Bob Altman, anything that would hold him back would be really hard for him.

I walked into his office one day and he was lying on a sofa with a blanket. I said, “How are you?”

He said, “I’ll be a hell of a lot better when I get out of here.”

SALLY KELLERMAN: On Prêt-à-Porter he was so ill. Oh my God. I flew to Paris, went to the production office, walked in, said, “Where is Bob, where is Bob?” I was so excited to be there. I walked down the hall to find him. He had his back to me. And I almost … I mean, this is a dramatic way of putting it, but I just thought, “Oh my God, he’s dying.” He just looked so different. And he managed to make that movie with that crew. I don’t know how he did it.

ANOUK AIMéE: It was thirty years after I met him about Lake Lugano. We got on well right away. There were a lot of women in Prêt-à-Porter, but I couldn’t have had a better friendship and understanding and rapport.

Robert Altman’s handwritten acceptance speech when he received the Legion of Honor in 1996. “Gilles” is Gilles Jacob, the director of the Cannes Film Festival, who presented the award.

To work with a man like Bob, that desire was stronger than the desire to portray the part. The part was okay, but the real joy was to be directed by him. If you work with a great director, often something great comes out. If you have a wonderful part with a bad director, you might disappear.

Sick? We never saw it. He was always very strong. I never saw him complain. I sometimes saw him very tired but we never stopped because of him. He was very dignified. It was a very difficult film for him.

HARRY BELAFONTE: When we were in Paris, I had a bedroom that was right down the hall from the main bedroom where he and Kathryn stayed. When his door was open, what you saw was the TV set. He would use the remote from the bed and you could see what program he was watching. One night it was the Winter Olympics, and they showed it in a way where you never saw one full thing. They cut to several events. Bob was into sports. He didn’t care what it was. He was really into it.

So he was sitting there. I could see the TV set, and it dawned on me. I got the remote in my room, and I aimed it down the hall, and sure as shit I clicked it and the channel changed. And Bob got up and was clicking back to get back to the station. I’d leave it in place a while and I’d click it again. And click it again. And Bob would click it back.

You have to understand something. Bob was so fucking sharp, there is no con he did not know. He was always so skeptical and cynical in his own great, genuine way, good way. So now, just as the skier took off the ramp, just as he’s about to land, I clicked it. And he said, “Aw shit! Kathryn, this fucking set, what the hell’s wrong with these French?!”

And I waited. The end of the race, click. And another time when he clicked, I clicked, he clicked it back on, and I clicked it back off again. This went on for half an hour, forty minutes. He was in a rage [laughs].

It was Kathryn who walked by just when I was doing it. She saw me, and she said, “Is that you, Belafonte?”

I said, “Me? What?”

She said, “Bob…”

Bob looked around and said, “You fucker!” [Laughs]

He really got to a state of such agitation. He denounced all the French and the French Revolution. Napoleon was a shit. I mean, you name it.

BUCK HENRY: Prêt-à-Porter was really a mess, but there isn’t an actor in the world I believe who wouldn’t have preferred to be in it.

PETER GALLAGHER: After Prêt-à-Porter, we were having dinner at Café Luxembourg. And they were pretty cruel; the reviews were tough. I remember asking him, “Does it get any easier?”

He said, “No. It just gets harder. Just hurts more.”

And he’s fucking right, you know?

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Robert Altman’s Jazz ‘34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing (Documentary for PBS, Great Performances; 1996)

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Kansas City (1996)

Jay Carr, review of Kansas City, The Boston Globe, August 16, 1996: Although Robert Altman’s “Kansas City” is a labor of love, it’s anything but nostalgic. Rich in texture, it alternates druggy reveries and a harsh clarity about some brutal realities of life in the American heartland in 1934 as it unfolds during a single calamitous day. Although Altman was only 9 the year the action of the film takes place, its world of black jazz and white power politics obviously informed his youth. Here he celebrates the former and pitilessly indicts the latter…. Its framing device is a kidnapping—tinny-voiced Jennifer Jason Leigh, a Jean Harlow wannabe, kidnaps a Democratic Party bigwig’s wife (Miranda Richardson), a sad woman given to swallowing laudanum to forget she’s unloved excess baggage. … Dermot Mulroney’s none-too-bright thug has robbed a visiting gambler, and the local black mob boss—played by Harry Belafonte with an invigorating hardness he seldom has been allowed to display throughout his long career—acts fast to put things right.

*   *   *

DAVID LEVY: Kansas City was a case of him going home. In a funny way, it’s sort of like a bit of drama meets a kind of memoir. It’s almost like he’s operating out of sense memory of his youth there, you know? And so it’s not the stuff of biography, but it is like the kind of melodrama that might have played in his head during his formative years.

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: I can’t tell you how many times during Kansas City he’d come home and say, “A guy came to the set today who I went to kindergarten with.”

FRANK BARHYDT (screenwriter): Kansas City was unique in that first of all, it didn’t abide by prohibition. Also, it wasn’t affected as much by the Depression. A lot of that is due to the fact they had a political boss here who had connections. Because it wasn’t suffering so much from the Depression, this is where musicians came. There were clubs open and you could drink constantly. Bob remembers going into these clubs—a whole lot of clubs just up and down Twelfth Street—and he wanted to show that in this movie.

HARRY BELAFONTE: One night we came home from something and we were sitting there and he broke out a joint. He said essential to this film is this character, a black character, and he’s a gangster. And he painted the environment for me and he said, “He’s a lethal son of a bitch.” He said, “I just don’t have the cards in my deck. I can’t get to him. And I wondered if you would work with me on it.”

Harry Belafonte, as the gangster Seldom Seen, in Kansas City

Coming from a background where my relatives are deeply immersed in the numbers world, small-time racketeers, I enjoyed this because a lot of my childhood was spent around it. And this picture was taking place in 1934, so I could go back into it. We were talking and I said, “Most movies you see, you always find gangsters are dim. They might have some instinct that’s sharp, but it’s always equated on the side of evil and therefore they’re seen in a rather one-dimensional way.” I knew guys who were learned men who could quote Socrates and philosophers and play chess, were bright men, and could offer political and social analyses, and they could shoot you in a minute. I said, “If you approach him from the elements in his persona that run against his practice and his culture, you have an interesting character.”

So the picture is now called Kansas City and the character’s name was Seldom Seen. He’s called Seldom Seen because he spent most of his life in prison. Other people hardly ever saw him, and yet he ran everything. And in the middle of this movie he becomes pivotal to the plot. And he says, “Belafonte, I want you to play it.”

I said, “No. I don’t need to go through all that. This character is so against type. My persona in the world at large is all this peace stuff.” I told him I would hurt the movie to ask the audience to overcome the popular persona to get into this part that was so pivotal to this movie. And he took a draw on his spliff and he looked at me and he said, “Tell me something, Belafonte, when did you decide you were an actor? You can’t play it? And you’re an actor? That’s interesting.”

Well, man, that laid me out. And I said, “Look, Bob, okay. I’ll give you my best shot, but stand on notice that I told you I thought it was the wrong way to go.” And I got into it. I didn’t want to use a lot of makeup. I went in, I got the costume. I had my shirt made a size and a half, two sizes small. And when I pulled the collar together, it started to cut off the circulation to the face. I pulled the tie up a little tighter, and hooked it so it kept in place. The blood began to fill my face. And I always looked like I was on the verge of an explosion. And that’s exactly how my uncle looked. He always looked like he was going to detonate. And he was a big, big numbers man up in Harlem.

So I came out for Bob to see, and I said, “Does this get it?”

And he said, “Let’s shoot.”

I said, “What? I’ve just gotten in this fucking costume, and I’ve done no prep. I did this for you to see.”

He said, “Belafonte, I’m ready.”

It turned out to be—certainly at that time in my life—the best thing I ever did. It was the best relationship I ever had with a director who led me through a development towards the approach of a part that I’d never experienced before. He gave me the chance to do just what I saw. And by and large, most of the critics on that picture were very, very laudatory, and I wound up getting the New York City Drama Critics Award for the best supporting actor.

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: It’s very rare you get to actually work with someone who worked with your parents as artists. He worked with my mom [Barbara Turner] on a bunch of things, and my dad [Vic Morrow] on Combat!. After one take on Kansas City he says, “Oh, just like your dad.”

It felt great because he knew my dad. And I look so much like my dad, and to have someone say it who has the right to say it was interesting and exciting. Someone else might say it and I would be like, “Who are you to talk about my father?”

We had a great time making Kansas City. Watching Bob watching jazz was very emotional. It was the music of his youth, which is why he wanted to make the movie. I was so happy to see him move to the music. I really didn’t know how sick Bob was. He kind of keeps that from you. I found out later. When we were making the movie, he’s just a giant.

JANE ADAMS (actress): He gave my character his grandmother’s name, Nettie Bolt. [A reviewer called her “a snooty Junior-Leaguer trying to stuff charity down the throat of a pregnant black girl, whom she views as a trophy.”]

Bob told me, “You’re going to be playing my grandmother. She was involved in the Junior League, and they smile even when they don’t feel like smiling. It’s that particular kind of society lady.” We just sort of had fun with that.

He was very good at instilling confidence, a confidence I don’t always have.

DONA GRANATA (costume designer): McCabe & Mrs. Miller was the picture that made me decide to become a costume designer. The visuals were so amazing. Then, right before Kansas City, I was ready to throw in the towel with designing. I was very disillusioned. I told myself, “If this is meant to be, some incredible thing will happen and tell me I’m on the right path.” Two weeks later, I got a call from Bob to come interview for Kansas City. It was a life-changing event.

Bob was such a class act. He had beautiful vision about things, and he inspired you to do your best work. You didn’t even know why. You just had to do really great stuff in Bob’s presence. He never put the pressure of failure on you. He wasn’t tyrannical. Quite the opposite. He wanted you to express yourself and come up with ideas. Every day I just wanted to get in there and keep his vision going.

Bob had this way of using his hands in the most beautiful fashion. When he directed, it was as if he was conducting an orchestra in front of the monitor. You’d just watch his hands go. He was almost coaxing the actors on somehow. On Kansas City, the two women were instruments in his mind—one was a saxophone and one was a clarinet. It was all integrated—the sounds, the sights, the color. It was a universe he was creating and you got swept up into that.

Bob had many sides, but he was always Bob. He would be happy with a piece of peach pie and vanilla ice cream, and Kathryn’s fabulous macaroni and cheese. Then he’d get dressed up in his white dinner jacket to receive an honor and he’d look like this total movie star. You’d go to France with him and the whole country was ready to kneel at his feet at Cannes. I watched these young people follow him around in the middle of the night like he was the Pied Piper. Yet at the same time, he was just Bob.

MICHAEL MURPHY: One night he was waxing a little philosophical. We were driving along and he says, “Isn’t this weird, the way we spend our lives? You get dressed up in these funny clothes and I tell you where to stand” [laughs]. Even when he wasn’t feeling well, he was always fun on the set.

FRANK W. BARHYDT (screenwriter): He was having trouble breathing. I remember being in his trailer one time and he said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do after this. Can’t get insurance.” He was kind of emotional. Made me feel awful. It was a tough time for him. A very tough time for him. However it is you feel when you’re sick. Angry. Like your body is letting you down, I think.

MATTHEW SEIG (producer): During Kansas City, he got sick, and a group of us were called to his house in the early morning. I don’t think it was light out yet. And we got the call that Bob was sick and the doctor had been there and we should come by. And it was clear that by that time he already knew that he had to take at least a few days off. And you know the whole thing was real shaky. And so Bob says, “Well, we’re not going to work. We got to take three days off. And don’t file an insurance claim because I’ll never be able to work again.”

Robert Altman surrounded by jazz musicians on the set of Kansas City

Well, how are you going to not work and not file an insurance claim? We ran out of money. I mean, the budget was like totally shot. We spent the contingencies; there was no money. You can’t just take three days off. The completion-bond people get the daily production reports every day. They watch what’s going on. If you’re not shooting and you haven’t filed an insurance claim, you’re in deep shit.

He was really sick and he probably wasn’t thinking clearly, but that is the first thing that would come to Robert Altman’s mind—”We’ve got to protect my ability to work; that’s the most important thing.”

He obviously had had heart problems, we knew that. He had to change his diet and he had to stop drinking, which he did by cutting down to white wine for a while. It didn’t stop things. But it all fell apart in Kansas City. It was so incredible—between Scotty getting sick and then Bob, it was a really cursed production.

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Lynn Elber, story headlined “Movie Snub Spotlights Politics of Oscar Campaigns; Robert Altman’s Kansas City Left Out of Race By Distributor,” The Associated Press, January 31, 1997: If Robert Altman’s Kansas City receives any Academy Award nominations, the director won’t have Fine Line Features to thank. The distributor of Altman’s jazz-soaked movie set in the Missouri city of the 1930s declined to mount an Oscar campaign for the film or its actors, including the critically praised Harry Belafonte. While industry trade papers are thick with ads touting such unlikely Oscar contenders as the Sylvester Stallone flop Daylight, academy voters won’t have their memories jogged by Kansas City hype. Nor will they find Fine Line video cassettes of the movie in mailboxes crowded with tapes from other Oscar hopefuls: Altman footed the $18,000 bill to send the movie to some in the Academy, including the performing branch. “I just think it’s such disrespect to Harry Belafonte I can hardly stand it,” said Altman. … Although Fine Line declined to comment officially, a company executive called its action sensible for a small firm saddled with a money loser like Kansas City.

WREN ARTHUR (producer): He was so hurt by Kansas City. He felt let down by the people who were releasing it, and he felt let down by the critics. They just really went after it. It was my first experience in any of this and I was shocked because I thought Kansas City was a beautiful movie. It was like a really lovely jewel and I thought the performances were great. But everybody went after it with such a passion. And some of them did the same on every film after that, too. Bob got that. His work was always going to be compared to something it wasn’t. Why wasn’t it Nashville? Why wasn’t it Short Cuts? Why wasn’t it The Player? He was really hurt. Not that it stopped him.

*   *   *

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: He was frighteningly thin. They were trying all kinds of stuff. They barely got him through Kansas City. That was a big one. It was the heart. It was giving up.

KONNI CORRIERE: At some point we went to a doctor at Cedars-Sinai and he said, “Have you ever thought of a transplant?” We were elated. Absolutely, positively, one hundred percent yes.

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: The doctors said one of the main sources of hearts for transplants are motorcycle accidents.

KONNI CORRIERE: On the way home, it was raining. And Bob said, “I hope we see a motorcyclist.”

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: It wasn’t very long. We signed up for the program in September 1995. The wait can go on forever—you have no idea how long it can go on. Then December fourth they called and said, “Come right down.” Konni, Bob, and I went. He’d taken a sleeping pill, Ambien, but it had no effect on him whatsoever. He drove us to Cedars-Sinai and they put him in a room. We had to wait until the team went up to San Jose to get the heart. I saw the heart come in—in a bucket, one of those coolers.

He was really lucky, never had any rejection. He was home by Christmas, walking around Malibu buying presents. It was phenomenal because I don’t know how much longer he could have lasted.

We kept it a secret. There was a big stigma on heart-transplant surgery, more than on bypass or double bypass. He wanted to work more. He wasn’t through working. So he didn’t want people to know. Until he had four or five pictures under his belt. Then he began slipping it into conversation, and people didn’t seem to get it. Once in a while somebody would say, “Transplant?! Did you just say transplant?!” [Laughs] He’d tell people it was a young woman’s heart, but they never tell you. He made up that story. The original story I gleaned from them was that it was a young man, but we don’t really know.

LOIS SMITH (press agent): I remember getting a call from a member of the press—it might have been Army Archerd—and he’d heard. I said, “That’s ridiculous. He was just in and out for a checkup.” I don’t think he bought it.

Army Archerd, column in Variety, December 7, 1995: Good wishes are out to director Robert Altman, who underwent heart transplant surgery Sunday. Altman had known the surgery was necessary since last March, friends say.

DAVID LEVY: Bob called Army up and said, “Oh, that’s a complete lie. That’s bullshit.” And he demanded some kind of retraction or correction, which happened. He just didn’t want the world to know or think that at that time.

The return of the king, three weeks after his heart transplant

“Celebrity Briefs,” USA Today, December 8, 1995: If you heard Robert Altman had a heart transplant, we happily report it’s untrue. Though he has heart problems, he’s fine: He’ll be fishing next week.

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JERRY WALSH (friend/lawyer/executor): When he first went to work on The Player he hadn’t done anything that produced any money for some time. I guess Vincent & Theo was probably the last thing, and there wasn’t a lot of money in that. He got some substantial money in 1989 or 1990 from a project that fell through—about the Italian opera composer Rossini, called Rossini! Rossini! Then through ‘91 or so there had to be two or three years there that were very fallow. Because of the success of The Player, Bob got to make Short Cuts and then he also got to make Prêt-à-Porter and Kansas City. All those things brought substantial money. But after that he kept saying, “I can’t understand why I don’t have more money.”

I said, “You’d been building up that debt that we never paid off.”

He sold the big Malibu house and he got out of debt, that was in the eighties. And then he started borrowing against the Malibu condominium, and he borrowed against his apartment here in New York, and he had a line of credit with a bank that finally cut that off at some point. And so when we finally did get the money, of course there were substantial taxes to pay on it, and then there was substantial debt to pay off. And he really got pretty comfortable by the middle nineties, but I don’t think he ever had more than maybe two million in the bank that he hadn’t committed to something. But then, making the next picture was always more important than his bank account.

MATTHEW SEIG: Bob was never a New York independent filmmaker. A lot of people thought of him that way. That’s totally ridiculous. He was completely Hollywood. He had big appetites, he liked to spend a lot of money. He liked to gamble. New York filmmakers don’t gamble. New York filmmakers don’t spend money. Bob would be broke and he’d say, “We’re going to Cannes and we’re going to rent a yacht.”

And he would have no money and yet we would have to come up with some way to rent a twenty-five-thousand-dollar yacht for a weekend, so he could go there and be Robert Altman. That’s the way Robert Altman was. You didn’t go and sleep on somebody’s couch. You went there and put on a party, because you were Robert Altman. And that was part of how he was going to get the next picture, by never admitting that he didn’t have any money.

JERRY WALSH: I said to him once, “You know, Bob, I think your ambition is to spend the last nickel you’ve got on the day before you die.”

He said, “Jerry, I’m much more ambitious than that. I want to find somebody to lend me a lot of money and spend that before I die” [laughs].

*   *   *

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: After the surgery, he was recuperating, January, February of ‘96, and that whole year was learning how to live with this and handle possible rejections and medications and a whole regime.

By the end of ‘96 he had formed a little half-assed company and signed up to produce this TV anthology called Gun. He directed the first one between Christmas and New Year’s of ‘96 and we came here to New York for ‘96 New Year’s Eve. It was really exciting, he looked like a million bucks, he was really back with it, in perfect health, and then ‘97 his first picture started in January, The Gingerbread Man.

The Gingerbread Man (1998)

Christopher Tookey, review headlined “Branagh’s Pursuit of a Hit Is Gone With the Wind,” Daily Mail (London), July 24, 1998: Director Robert Altman and star Kenneth Branagh have had up-and-down careers, and The Gingerbread Man, based on a short story by John Grisham, is a low point. It’s a would-be thriller about (surprise, surprise) a thrusting young Southern attorney (played by Branagh). … He becomes carnally, legally and foolishly involved with a mysterious woman (Embeth Davidtz) who wants him to ensure that her deranged husband and seemingly dangerous father (Robert Duvall) is commited to the loony bin. Does she have an ulterior motive? … Why is Branagh’s character being set up? Is he going to end, like other Grisham heroes, taking the law into his own hands and turning vigilante? The answers are stupefyingly obvious from the first half-hour. Altman’s direction is half-hearted hackwork, terribly lacking in suspense and excitement. It’s clear that he is using the picture to finance some movie he really wants to make.

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KENNETH BRANAGH: He assumed a certain kind of cynicism about the business and yet he sort of was an embodiment of the phrase “This terrible business has been very good to me.” One of the ways in which Bob protected himself from the excesses of his own enthusiasm and vulnerable-making passion was to be robustly practical about it. He might have told himself he was, but he wasn’t really capable of being a mercenary gun for hire. What attracted him was the sort of creative partnership of what he naughtily hoped might be the creative collision between him and John Grisham.

It was a script that had been around for a little while that had some notoriety and sort of acclaim because it was by Grisham. And yet I think it was an early screenplay of Grisham’s, so some people felt maybe it needed some work. I said, “Come back when you’ve found someone—a director.” They said to my great surprise that Robert Altman was interested in it. It seemed to me to be a very interesting combination. When I spoke to Robert for the first time by telephone, he seemed to believe—in Altman terms—the Grisham structure was terrifically helpful. It was much more structured than Bob might normally allow and he was excited by that.

When I came to work on it, I found that with Bob there were very appealing contradictions. In the work, a man who clearly prepared and worried a great deal about what any particular day or scene would bring. But at the same time, he would leave a massive gap between his preparation and the mood and feeling and atmosphere in the scene. He would leave an enormous amount unplanned, so there was a spirit of creative anarchy. So you were never really sure how much Bob had set up and how much was happening before your very eyes.

He had the paint ready, the palette ready, the colors and the canvas ready, but he wouldn’t plan the picture until we were all there.

An example is one short scene in a pet shop with two children. When I arrived on the unit base, they said Bob was down by the river, where a couple of hundred yards of festival was planned, a carnival. Bob says, “I want you to start here, Branagh. I want you to move toward the camera and on the way I want you to make stuff up.”

I am in the cliché—I am working with animals and children. And I’m in a foreign accent. And it’s not what I’ve planned for. He said, “That’s good for you British actors to experience.”

I asked, “Anything set up?”

“Yeah. The phone might ring.”

And it did. When he said that, I knew he loved me and I knew it would be fine.

DAVID LEVY: With Gingerbread Man, just before it came out, he kind of went to war with Polygram, the financier/distributor of that picture. And it was so unnecessary. … After the fourth screening, they took the picture away from him, and they had some hack—I’m sorry, experienced, but a hack—recut the thing. And it was dreadful. And they tested that. And that screening’s numbers were worse than the first one we ever did before we started making changes. So, faced with that reality, they gave the picture back to him, but they buried it. I want to say there were never more than seventeen prints in circulation, I think.

KENNETH BRANAGH: I think he was trying to create happenings in the film, to try and capture life in an unexpected way that at the same time worked inside familiar genres. He wanted to work in and subvert those genres. He was not a man who talked much about the first act or third act or the story-arc stuff. He didn’t want knowable, tangible coherence. His sensibility was a poetic one that tried to embrace within a passion for cinema the American tradition of moviemaking and to infuse that with the poetic, sometimes anarchic deconstruction of the traditional architecture of genre films.

To have acted with Robert Altman, under his direction, was to have tasted a certain kind of freedom, sometimes a certain kind of fear, knowing that an invisible hand is holding yours through that process.

DAVID LEVY: That was just a horrible, horrible exercise, and he really got upset over it. He got sick over it and he went to the hospital. He was depleted. I don’t know what the medical aspects of it were, but he was so depressed and bummed about that whole situation, which was still ongoing when he was in the hospital. He was saying things to me—I don’t think I’ve ever told Kathryn this—that he was so utterly fatalistic. It was really worrisome. He’s sitting there. “I’ve had a good ride, it’s her I’m worried about.” All this kind of stuff.

That is when Steve Altman and I got on a plane, took ourselves to Mississippi, scouted the state up and down, seventeen cities and towns, to find the place to shoot Cookie’s Fortune. We came back to that hospital room, we put a map up, we put the video in, and we had all kinds of pictures, and we put on a dog and pony show for him in the hospital, and he got juiced. He got really excited about making a movie again. I looked at that as a turning point, where he was able to put Gingerbread behind him and look forward to the next project. It’s a cliché, but the work seemed literally like lifeblood in that instance.

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