Film: `I Never Saved for Rainy Days. I Got Wet a Lot' ; `M*A*S*H' Put Director Robert Altman on the Map in 1970. since Then He Has Squandered Most Things - except His Maverick Talent. by Adam Higginbotham
Higginbotham, Adam, The Independent (London, England)
Robert Altman was already 42 years old when, one Friday afternoon in 1967, he completed shooting on his first major feature film. That day, studio boss Jack Warner dropped by the soundstage, where Altman was directing Countdown - a science-fiction potboiler starring James Caan as an inexperienced astronaut trying to beat the Russians to the moon. But Altman had been in the toilet, and by the time he got back to the set, Warner had gone. On Sunday, Altman's producer called him at home with some bad news: Jack Warner had looked at his footage, and didn't like what he saw. Altman's more realistic way of shooting dialogue had enraged the 75-year-old tycoon: "That fool has got actors talking at the same time." Altman was told not to bother coming into work on Monday. The guards on the gate had been instructed not to let him on the lot.
"It was not," says Altman, sitting in the chintzy splendour of the rented Knightsbridge apartments from which he is organising his latest project, "the way he thought films should be made."
Did they take out the parts they didn't like?
"No. They rewrote the ending we shot. I left it in a very ambiguous way. The ending was that this guy was going to die on the moon. Probably. When he landed there he was supposed to find a shelter. It had a beacon on it. He only had so much life support. And his emotions took over and he landed prematurely, and he hadn't seen the beacon. And he was saying, `I... I... think I see it. I'm going towards it'. And he turns and he goes off. And the camera pans back, and the beacon" - Altman gesticulates to the opposite side of the room - "is over here. And that was the way I ended the film."
And they had him finding it?
"No. They had him taking a toy mouse out of his pocket, spinning it and going in the direction the mouse pointed. And finding it."
Altman didn't fight Warners. He just went off to Spain to try to make another film. It didn't work out. But in the ensuing 33 years, Robert Altman has completed another 31 feature films. Almost all of them have the actors talking at the same time. Almost none of them have happy endings. Several - including an astonishing run during the first half of the 1970s which included M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs Miller, and Nashville - are among the greatest films ever made.
Of the directors who emerged in the 1970s to destroy the old Hollywood system with a mixture of iconoclastic zeal and technical innovation, Robert Altman is one whose work has never been fixed in the public consciousness. He came through on the same countercultural wave of pot-smoking ragged- trousered auteurs who revol- utionised American cinema in the wake of Easy Rider, although he continues to be seen as an arthouse director. He is a film- maker's film-maker, whose movies are more frequently cited as influences than they are seen. Contemporaries like Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg established themselves with flashy, totemic works of pop culture, which now dominate lists of the world's best films. But Altman's pictures were both more difficult and more numerous: dark and complex, with ensemble casting, overlapping dialogue and meandering, multi-layered plotlines. Often, they were also crashingly unsuccessful.
After establishing himself with the 1970 surprise hit M*A*S*H - on which his principals, Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, were so unnerved by Altman's concentration on incidental characters that they tried to have him fired during shooting - he made another six films in five years. All opened disastrously, received at best a mixed critical response, and wiped out what little credit his first hit had given him with the studios. So much so that by 1974, he had to begin production on his next venture, Nashville, without any backing in place. But that turned out to be a critical and popular triumph, neatly skewering the …
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Publication information: Article title: Film: `I Never Saved for Rainy Days. I Got Wet a Lot' ; `M*A*S*H' Put Director Robert Altman on the Map in 1970. since Then He Has Squandered Most Things - except His Maverick Talent. by Adam Higginbotham. Contributors: Higginbotham, Adam - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: December 31, 2000. Page number: 3. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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