To inaugurate “Mixed Reviews”—MM’s recently revived book review feature—we’ve chosen Mitchell Zuckoff’s eye-opening and revealing “oral biography” of maverick director Robert Altman. Published late in 2009, Zuckoff’s book makes for great reading around Oscar season; Altman won an honorary Academy Award in 2006 “in recognition of a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike.”
“Oral biographies” always strike me as a bit suspect. It seems as if the author has done all the spade work—assembled the bricks and mortar and building material—and then left it for someone else to fit the pieces together and build the darn thing. Why not just weave the various voices into a coherent narrative structure like a normal biography? Why make the reader do all the work?
Well, Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (Knopf, 576 pages, $35) makes about the strongest case for an “oral biography” that I’ve yet seen. Why? Because its subject is one of the most maddeningly—and refreshingly—complicated figures to have ever worked in the moviemaking profession.
Altman, who died in 2006 at age 81, was equal parts visionary director, eccentric artist, hard-driving party guy, flawed family man, inveterate maverick and shameless snake oil salesman. His work includes some of the most celebrated and uniquely imagined films in movie history: MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park. But he also made some real clunkers: Prêt-à-Porter, Dr. T and the Women, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson and the strangely off-kilter Popeye.
In Altman’s case, the oral biography represents an almost perfect blend of subject and form: Zuckoff’s book presents a wonderfully nuanced mosaic of voices and opinions from a dizzying variety of angles—worshipful actors, long-time collaborators, conflicted family members, still-seething studio executives and admiring fellow moviemakers.
The list of contributors and interviewees is impressive, from Altman’s wives and children, to actors such as Meryl Streep and Warren Beatty, to fellow directors such as Martin Scorsese and Alan Rudolph, to studio executives such as Richard D. Zanuck and Robert Evans, to dozens of people who worked with Altman over the years. The book was originally intended to be a memoir, but Altman died before it could be completed. Zuckoff deftly took the hours of interviews he had conducted with Altman and used these as the core of his book.
The resulting oral biography is the literary equivalent of a Robert Altman movie in its intention, which is to create a multilayered experience where the viewer/reader is given insider access to a rich trove of raw material and left to figure out for themselves what it all means. As Altman says in the book, “The greatest films are the ones that you are not able to explain, but you know that you have experienced something special… the perfect response to a film or piece of work of mine would be if someone got up and said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but it’s right.’”
Zuckoff’s method mirrors Altman’s in many ways. Think of the tangled narrative threads in Nashville or Short Cuts—or Altman’s signature use of overlapping dialogue—and you get the picture.
And what a picture it is. For one thing, Altman was one of the most successful late-bloomers ever. By the time he burst on the movie scene with the explosively original MASH in 1970 (after several decades of making industrial films and directing such television series as “Combat!” and “Bonanza”), Altman was already 45 years old. At a point when many artists would be preparing for their last act, Altman was just beginning.
The book captures the mass of contradictions that was Robert Altman. Incredibly respectful and protective of his actors, Altman could be abusive, even boorish when dealing with the “suits” at the studios. It was almost as if he felt that being a true artist meant catering to the “artists” in his orbit, but it also meant having to bite the hand that fed him when it came to money men and executives. Actor Matthew Modine, who worked with Altman on Streamers and Short Cuts, says of Altman’s sometimes-prickly personality, “On the outside he had this confidence and strength and wry sense of humor, but all of that stuff was like the shell of a crab. Inside it’s really soft, sweet meat. To protect that he had to create this strong, ‘I-don’t-give-a-shit’ attitude. For an artist to succeed as long as he did, he needed a strong shell.”
For actors, however, working with Altman was a liberating and nurturing experience. Says Anne Archer, who worked with Altman on Short Cuts, “Bob was nonjudgmental. Actors are always being judged. They’re being watched, they’re being looked at; everybody has an opinion, everybody judges the width and breadth of their talents, or lack thereof… Bob doesn’t do that. Bob loves actors, and all artists, whether it’s the set designer or the lead or the cinematographer.”
Yet, despite his supportive approach with actors, Altman also had his dark moments. He was a heavy drinker and, due to his workaholic personality, a barely-there presence during the lives of his children. Stephen Altman, his son, remembers a difficult moment from the 1970s: “We weren’t his priority . . . [he] told us all that if it ever came down to it and he had to choose between all of us and his work, he’d dump us in a second.” Yet, as Altman grew older, he began to realize the negative effects his absence had on his children. “Looking back,” he says, “I have great guilt about my lack of attention to my own children. I don’t think I did well by my own children…”
Despite difficult personal moments, Altman never stopped making movies. Between the late-1960s to the 2000s, Altman directed more than 30 features, building an eclectic, prolific career in the process. He’s also perhaps had more “comebacks” than any other moviemaker. After an extended drought in the ’80s, Altman came back swinging with 1992’s exuberant Hollywood satire The Player—his biggest critically and commercially successful film for more than a decade.
The same happened nearly 10 years later with his playful British murder-mystery Gosford Park in 2001. Bob Balaban, who hatched the idea for the movie with Altman and plays a key supporting role in the film, says of the legendary moviemaker, “In a way Bob’s movies were all one long movie. And it was in some ways like his life. They didn’t come to a lot of conclusions at the end. Sometimes it was very hard tell the good guys from the bad guys—there’s not a lot of black and white clashing around. It’s all pretty complicated.” Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, was released in June 2006. He died five months later.
Zuckoff’s stellar book works as a wonderfully textured testament to Altman, one of the towering directors of our time. For the final words on Altman, why not turn to Martin Scorsese, who, like Altman, has churned out inventive, effortlessly brilliant work during the course of a long career. “His spirit was to make pictures, to say what the hell he wanted to say on film,” says Scorsese. “It may have angered people, it may have unsettled people, but he did it. He made independent pictures in Hollywood, with Hollywood money, ultimately. And he had an individual point of view and a personal statement with every picture. Every one.”