Robert Altman is a gambling-mad war hero with an eye for the girls. He’s also one of the best – and most independent – American flim-makers around. So why’s he making an English country-house drama? He talks to Nigel Farndale
RUMOURS, and rumours of rumours, float around Robert Altman like winter mist. Fingers of truth poke out occasionally, then shrink away again, the fog closing silently around them.
Can it be true, for example, that as a 19-year-old co-pilot of a B-24 bomber he was shot down over the South Pacific, escaped to the life-raft, then, remembering he’d left his cigarettes behind, jumped over the side, swam back and retrieved them from the plane before it went down? And what about his first wedding day (the 76-year-old film director has been married three times)? He and his fiancée, LaVonne Elmer, were in a car crash; he was unscathed but she had her jaw mangled so badly it had to be wired up and, during the ceremony, she had to mutter her wedding vows through clenched teeth.
There are dozens of similar examples, but the latest rumour to blur Altman’s edges is that when he began directing his 38th film, Gosford Park, in England last year he kept forgetting the names of the actors – and an assistant had to be on permanent standby to whisper reminders in his ear. To be fair, he had never worked in England before, and his all-British cast was only slightly smaller than that for Ben-Hur, but it did include the biggest stars of the British stage – among them, Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren and Alan Bates. If it were not for Altman’s famously casual approach to film-making, this hearsay could be easily dismissed. But the truth, or at least the rumour, is that he rarely even bothers to read a script – halfway through filming The Long Goodbye (1973), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, he still had no idea how it ended.
Robert Altman is tall, hunched and lugubrious looking – domed forehead, hooded eyes, Kentucky colonel beard – and his manner, if not quite tetchy, is distinctly laconic. When I meet him in the Bloomsbury office of a film PR company, there is no time for small talk; he sits down, props his head up on one hand and lazily raises his eyebrows.
Well, to start with, how did Altman cope with all those giant egos on the set of Gosford Park? ‘Y’know,’ he drawls, smoothing out his moustache with long, thin fingers, ‘I didn’t find it a problem. They were all skilled actors, and they all had lead roles. When a film is fully cast I step aside and the actors take over and do the art. It’s like living pigment. I put them on the wall and they crawl around and make the painting. I didn’t have much to do. Storylines don’t interest me unduly. They are just something to hold an audience’s attention. What I am interested in is the detailing around that, the behaviour of the characters. Storylines mean doodly squat to me.’
Still, Gosford Park has a story. It is set in 1932 – a country house, a pheasant shoot, a murder committed after dinner – and the tale is told from the point of view of the servants below stairs. On one level it is about the English class system, an odd choice of subject for one of the most American of American directors. Altman was, after all, the man who made M*A*S*H (1970), the anarchic black comedy which was one of the films that came to define the Vietnam generation in America. Nashville (1975), the film widely acknowledged as Altman’s masterpiece, was about 26 characters searching for the American Dream as they struggled to become Country and Western stars. And after he saw Short Cuts (1993) – based on a series of Raymond Carver stories – Gore Vidal remarked: ‘It looks like the great American novel turned out to be a movie.’
Altman’s Gosford Park is, as the adjective goes, Altmanesque. There is overlapping dialogue, improvisation, an all-star cast working as an ensemble, and a loose enough plotline to enable character’s lives to criss-cross. He worked with two cameras shooting simultaneously, tracking around different sections of the action, and he listened in, seemingly at random, to the miniature microphones he had taped to the actors.
‘My films fail mostly because, if you look at them superficially, you’ll get bored with them or lose interest,’ Altman says, stretching out his fingers and waggling them limply, as if playing an invisible piano. ‘Maybe it was arrogant of me to try and make a film about the English class system, but I’d never been to Nashville before I made that film, and in this one I was the only foreign element. I didn’t take anything for granted. The research was thorough.’ Pause. He absent-mindedly makes a frame with his hands and narrows his cold blue eyes. ‘Besides, we have a class system in America, so the concept wasn’t that remote to me. I think class is like a language. In America we try and disguise it more, but snobbery comes down to the same things: stupidity and parochialism.’
Altman and his two younger sisters were born and raised in Kansas City. Their grandfather had a jewellery business and their father sold insurance. Where does that background place him socially in America? ‘My family was probably upper middle-class. Both sets of grandparents were well-to-do, but that had all gone by the time my parents came along. My father’s business was all about belonging to a country club, playing golf and gin rummy. Meeting people that way.’
His father was also a gambler, womaniser and hard drinker. ‘My parents had a stable marriage in that they married young and stayed together till they died. Yes, my father was a gambler, and I kind of admired him for that. Thought it cool. You win or lose, you take risks. The money doesn’t make any difference.’
Altman was a disruptive pupil at St Peter’s Catholic School, Kansas, and was sent off to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington. After graduating he joined the USAF and saw action against the Japanese just before the War ended. (And yes, the plane story is true.) Upon his return to America he married and moved to LA where he tried his hand as an entrepreneur, inventing a dog-tattooing machine. Around this time he saw two films – David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves – which had such an impact on him that he gave up his job and began writing screenplays. He sold his first, Bodyguard, at the age of 23, but when this success turned out to be a one-off, he became disillusioned, separated from LaVonne (the wedding story is true, too) and moved back to Kansas City to make public information films about road safety. According to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s recent account of Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, Altman contrived to bring what he imagined was a Hollywood way of life to Kansas City. He gambled, drank heavily and ‘during lunch he would repair to the home of hooker for a quick $2 blow-job. Altman had this idea that it was a very Hollywood thing to do.’
In 1954 he met and married his second wife, Lotus Corelli, a newscaster. They had two boys, and the marriage lasted three years before Altman returned to Hollywood alone to make a B-movie, The Delinquents (1957). Alfred Hitchcock happened to see it, liked it and offered Altman the job of directing Alfred Hitchcock Presents for television. He went on to direct other television shows including Bonanza and Whirlybirds – on the set of which, in 1959, he met the actress Kathryn Reed.
‘How are your morals?’ he asked her. ‘A little shaky,’ she replied. They married, had four children and have stayed married for 42 years. What went right? ‘The secret was I met a girl who was smarter than me,’ he says. ‘And she’s always attracted me more than anyone else has.’
Up to a point. In 1975 in an interview with the Washington Post, Altman admitted to having several mistresses (one of them was rumoured to be Faye Dunaway). For her part, Kathryn has said: ‘I think it makes Bob feel exciting to feel unfaithful.’ Not all women share her understanding: after starring in The Player (1992), Greta Scacchi complained that Altman was ‘a manipulative, weak, lecherous old bastard’. Altman himself seems to put his reputation down to his being very comfortable with women. ‘I was first drawn into the film business because of girls,’ he tells me with a shrug. ‘That’s where all the pretty girls were, after the War. Then I found that the movies were an art form as well, one I could really relate to. It was all about me at that stage of my life. I was very self-centred and arrogant.’
By the late 1960s Altman had grown his hair long, taken to wearing beads and kaftans and become an active protester against the Vietnam war. But his interests in peace and love seem to have been more theoretical than practical. He became known for being antagonistic, moving from studio to studio as he fell out with one executive after another. He also got a name for excessive drinking – passing out in restaurants and having to be carried home. One of his assistants had the job of making sure Altman turned up on the set on time and, once there, that he stayed awake. According to George Litto, his agent at the time: ‘The truth of the matter is he [Altman] was a lousy business investment. He took up an awful lot of my time and I didn’t make that much money out of him. But I enjoyed it because he was this bombastic rebel, bomb-thrower, crazy son of a bitch. He was confrontational. He would get in your face and tell you to f- off. He didn’t suck up.’
Altman was 44 when he had his first box-office hit, M*A*S*H, a film he was asked to make only after 15 other directors had turned it down. True to form, he managed to cause friction on the set. His leading actors, Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, were so unnerved by the way Altman ignored them and concentrated on the extras instead that they went to the producer and tried to have him fired during shooting. Carl Gottlieb, who had a small role in the film, noted at the time:
‘I love his work but he can be pretty mean and cruel and manipulative and, contrary to popular belief, he hates actors. He doesn’t allow them a complete performance, he always breaks off.’
After M*A*S*H came the equally brilliant McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. With these and Nashville four years later, Altman’s status as a ‘New Hollywood’ director was confirmed (this loosely defined group included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Sam Peckinpah). But none of the others, not even Coppola, went on to compile such an erratic body of work. Altman’s darkest hour came in 1980 when he made Popeye, his last Hollywood studio-backed film, with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. Don Simpson, president of Paramount, which made the picture, along with Disney, later dismissed Altman with the words: ‘He was a true fraud, such an alcoholic. He was full of gibberish and full of himself, a pompous, pretentious asshole.’
A decade later, Altman made a triumphant comeback with The Player (1992), a satire on Hollywood in which Tim Robbins plays a movie producer on the make. He followed this with Short Cuts (1993), a critical and commercial success, then another flop, Prêt-à-Porter in 1994.
‘I’m not part of the Hollywood establishment,’ Altman says with another shrug. ‘I couldn’t tell you the name, right now, of a person who runs a major studio in Hollywood. I couldn’t tell you their name! Let alone say I knew him. We’re in a different business. They sell shoes and I make gloves. I don’t feel contempt for them, any more than I would, say, for my banker. But they are mean to other people and it seems to be part of the culture in Hollywood – and that I don’t approve of.’
So, is he the opposite of mean? ‘I don’t know. I think so, yes. I hope I have integrity. We all have a point where we sell out, I guess.’ He folds his arms. ‘Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining here. No film-maker, ever, has been better treated than I have. I’ve made, what, 38 films, and miles and miles of television and I’ve never once had a film taken away from me. Never had a film cut on me.’
That’s not quite true, is it? Didn’t Jack Warner once sack him from a film? He gives a wintry smile. ‘He did, he did. That is true. That was on the film Countdown in 1968. He saw it the day after I’d finished shooting. He’d been out of the country and when he came back he called for the dailies [rushes] and said, “This fool has actors talking at the same time!” They wouldn’t let me on the lot the next day. Wouldn’t let me edit the film.’
Doesn’t he ever wish he had played the game more with Hollywood, been less experimental and obstinate, and as a consequence made himself rich beyond the dreams of avarice? He sighs. ‘But I didn’t want to, in any circumstance, compromise. I would rather do something else, paint a wall.’
Certainly, compromise does not come easily to Robert Altman. He once found himself sitting next to a studio executive in the first-class cabin of a transatlantic flight. The executive greeted him cheerfully and held out his hand, but Altman, believing that the man had once cheated him, said, ‘I don’t speak to scumbags.’ And he didn’t – for the whole 11-hour journey. He has never exactly shied away from confrontation – indeed he has gone through his career clocking up enemies and ignoring advice – but his intransigence has won him admirers. It must be grand for him to have the respect of his fellow directors, and grand, too, to have an adjective made from his name?
‘It is a tribute, yes, it is. But I don’t? This stuff doesn’t last long. These little triumphs, where you think somebody got it, it fades as quickly as pain.’
He hasn’t craved approval?
‘Oh I’d love approval but it never happens and I don’t think it makes any difference. My films are very personal. They are like my children. One tends to love one’s least successful the most.’ So what has driven him? ‘Fear of failure, of not being able to work. I’m happy when I’m working. I get bored and frustrated easily when I’m not working. I feel like little Eliza [in Uncle Tom’s Cabin] crossing the ice-floes with dogs snapping at my ass.’
But isn’t it tantamount to failure, still needing to make films, so long past retirement age? ‘I don’t want to get it out of my system because it’s all I know. It would be like saying, “You’ve got six children now, stop fornicating.”‘
Is it, for all his apparent nonchalance, his Parnassian detachment and disdain, that he cares about posterity? ‘I’ll never know what people say about me when I’ve gone, so why fantasise about it? I don’t have a religious dimension. Look at the world today. That is where religion gets you. People crashing planes into tall buildings.’
Is he materialistic? ‘No. I don’t gather fortunes. If I stopped working now, by next year I’d be in big trouble.’ I say I don’t believe him. ‘Sorry, but it’s the truth. I didn’t make a penny on this film [Gosford Park]. The backing was about to collapse and they said, “OK, go ahead, but you can’t have a cut,” and I agreed to it and it’s the best bargain I made in my life. I had the best time. I love this film. It makes me anxious to get on with the next one. What do I need with someone saying, “You’re going to get $800 million a year”? I wouldn’t have any idea what to do with it. Buy a yacht? Corner my personal drug market? I don’t know why all that is desirable. It fucks your children up. In every case.’
Altman once lost $60,000 on an America football bet. Is he addicted to risk? ‘The fun is in walking on the tightrope. Gambling is about losing not winning. It’s about risking security. It’s, like, if I spend all my life making my home comfortable, then I get in a poker game with you, and I think I’ve got you beat, and I bet my home, then you are really up there on the tightrope. Gambling is like jazz. If you’ve got to ask what jazz is, you’re never going to know. It is the opposite of boredom. It’s about anxiety. When do you feel the most alive? When you are in jeopardy of losing your life.’
Is that why he went back to the B-24 for the cigarettes? He laughs. ‘Well, these are important things. I guess I wasn’t assessing the situation very well and, having escaped from something dire, I thought nothing could be worse. Also I’m sure I was playing up to my comrades a bit, too.’
So his lifelong addiction to gambling is a consequence of near-death as a young man? ‘Maybe. I was so young then. I don’t remember how I felt. I don’t think I was reckless particularly. I was frightened a lot. In action, I didn’t have a choice. Your adrenaline shoots up and at the end of the day you feel great because you have survived and you have been in life, in battle. Fear helps you focus. How else can you be happy that you didn’t die unless you were sure you were going to? When the plane went down I reconciled myself to dying and I remember – actually, I don’t know how accurate this really is – you cross a point where you are scared to death. You think, “I’m actually going to lose my life here,” and then a great peace comes over you. I’m quite sure it’s a defence mechanism in the brain, otherwise you would go mad with fear.’
Perhaps this experience also left him with a craving for stimulation, for acknowledgement that he is, as it were, living every moment. This might explain his self-destructiveness, his need always to swim back to the wreckage. Why else does he like, as he claims, to spin himself around to make himself dizzy?
Equally, though, it could be a form of escapism. Is that why he smokes grass? ‘No, I think it’s just that I like changing my temperature. Grass is not addictive. No one has ever died from it. It will be decriminalised everywhere soon.’ He smokes grass, he adds, the same way he used to drink. ‘I’ve never drunk in the morning, apart from the odd brunch on vacation when I started pushing Bloody Marys down. I never drank when I was working, it never affected my work, and the same with grass. I was never an alcoholic because I never lost a day’s work to it, but I just did too much. I stopped drinking because of my heart [it became enlarged]. At the end of the day you want to have a laugh and sit down and smoke a joint, which I do every day of my life.’
Every day of his life? Of such stuff are rumours made. But perhaps it’s true. And it puts me in mind of a recent comment made by Richard E Grant, who has starred in several Altman films, including Gosford Park: ‘I always feel that Altman understands life – watching everyone all the time and being slightly amused.’