Altman, Robert

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Altman, Robert

Robert Altman, 1925–2006, American film director, b. Kansas City, Mo. One of the most original talents in late-20th-century American filmmaking, he created complex, often loosely plotted movies marked by brilliant and often huge ensemble casting, sharply delineated characters, overlapping dialogue, and an edgy spontaneity. Altman began his career writing for radio and magazines, made industrial and sports films (1946–56), and worked in television, directing episodes of some of the best-known television series of the late 1950s and early 60s. After directing several forgettable feature films, Altman scored his first success with M*A*S*H (1970), a Korean War comedy-drama that implicitly criticized the Vietnam War. Throughout the 1970s he enjoyed an unusual degree of creative control and independence as he directed numerous idiosyncratic films, including Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves like Us (1974), and Three Women (1977).

Altman's second major commercial success, Nashville (1975), a sprawling, multilayered drama set in the world of country music, is widely considered his masterpiece. In the 1980s he turned to theater and theatrical adaptations in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (play and film, 1982), Streamers (1983), and Fool for Love (1985). He returned to popular and critical favor with the film The Player (1992), a witty skewering of the Hollywood movie scene that features one of the most spectacular tracking shots in movie history. Altman struck directorial gold again in Gosford Park (2001), a witty, stylish, and multileveled social comedy–murder mystery set in a 1930s English country estate, which displays his ensemble technique and his keen awareness of class and sexual conflicts. Among Altman's other movies are Vincent and Theo (1990); Short Cuts (1993); Kansas City (1996); The Company (2003), a drama inspired by the Joffrey Ballet; and the elegaic A Prairie Home Companion (2006), his last film. In addition, he directed two mock political documentaries for television, the series Tanner '88 (1988) and Tanner on Tanner (2004), both with screenplays by Garry Trudeau. Altman was also a screenwriter and producer. In 2006 he was awarded an Academy Award for lifetime achievement.

See biography by P. McGilligan (1989); M. Zuckoff, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009); Robert Altman: A Guide to References and Resources (1984); studies by G. Plecki (1985), H. Keyssar (1991), and D. O'Brien (1995).

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