“When he’s bad he’s very bad, but when he’s good he’s extraordinary.” Pauline Kael’s verdict on Robert Altman was made early on – in her review of the director’s 1972 film Images. It’s a perspective that has, to some extent, hung around in appraisals of Altman, which have sometimes tended to segregate his films into two categories: game-changing masterpieces (MASH, Nashville, The Player) or mark-missing duds (Quintet, Prêt-à-Porter).
In fact, exceptionally insightful Altman critic though she was, Kael’s comment does a disservice to those Altman films that fall between these extremes, or those works (such as 1977’s 3 Women) whose stature has grown in the years since their release.
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Unfailingly idiosyncratic, Altman’s output abounds in films that, if far from fully realised, still contain many vital elements. These range from unheralded great performances to unforgettable moments of off-kilter vibrancy. The latter often come from Altman’s unpredictable framing, zooming and depth of sound techniques: the expansive, fluid approach nicely defined by scholar Helene Keyssar as “visual and aural promiscuity”, which always encourages the viewer to perceive more, participate more, and think more.
The following list, while in no sense intended to be definitive (it does not take into account Altman’s TV work, while A Perfect Couple, Streamers or The Company are all equally valid candidates for inclusion), seeks to dig deeper into the output of one of cinema’s great iconoclasts, highlighting a selection of under-seen or under-appreciated Altman films that reward reappraisal.
That Cold Day in the Park (1969)
Intimate psychological portraits of female characters may not be the first thing that one associates with Altman. But this important strand of the director’s output – one connecting Images, 3 Women and Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) among others – starts as early as his second fiction feature proper: That Cold Day in the Park.
It’s a haunting drama, which casts the incomparable Sandy Dennis as a lonely woman, who, spotting a young man sitting out in the rain from her window, invites him to stay in her apartment. From there begins a relationship (of sorts) between two characters who are as different from each other as they are equally odd. Seeds of Altman’s signature style can be seen in various visual touches, and, especially, the overlapping sound used in a doctor’s waiting room sequence. Most memorable of all, though, is Dennis’s brilliant performance, which invests a potentially appalling character with a strange awareness and grace.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
While Altman’s first subversive take on the western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), soon became regarded as one of his finest films, his second, Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, was much less liked, although it did pick up the Golden Bear at that year’s Berlinale.
Freely adapted from Arthur Kopit’s 1968 play Indians, this episodic film explores and exposes history as theatre, following the day-to-day performances and behind-the-scenes machinations of Buffalo Bill Cody’s ‘Wild West Show’. With Paul Newman playing Cody as a buffoonish braggart, unable to separate his constructed image from anything authentic, the film is not as subtle as it might be. But it’s ambitious, highly entertaining and an important addition to Altman’s sustained interrogation of the disjunctures between American myths and realities.
A Wedding (1978)
According to most critics, doubling the number of Nashville characters as Altman decided to do in A Wedding (from 24 in the former to 48 here), simply diminished the result and blunted the satiric intentions of the piece, leading to what Gene Siskel dismissed as “a particularly mean-spirited movie likely to please no one.”
For sure, the whirling A Wedding doesn’t touch Nashville’s greatness, but this account of the lavish nuptials uniting an old money Chicago family (with dubious connections) with a nouveau riche southern one is much more varied in tone than Siskel suggests. It offers plenty to keep the viewer occupied, from revelations of deceptions, affairs and addictions that manage to be genuinely surprising, to a very particular role for Lillian Gish, here appearing in her 100th film.
In terms of general critical response, Paul Newman didn’t strike it lucky in his work with Robert Altman. The pair’s second collaboration is probably the single most disliked film in the Altman canon. Quintet is indeed a true curio, a futuristic sci-fi parable that sets the viewer down in an apocalyptic new ice age, where Newman’s Essex, and his wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), the last pregnant woman alive, wander the frozen wastes. Essex becomes embroiled in a deadly tournament of which we are told: “The only intelligent expression left is the game of Quintet. All the elements of life are contained in it. Our art, our philosophy… The game is the only thing of value”.
That’s an example of dialogue which, to put it mildly, lacks the wit that one invariably associates with Altman. Nonetheless, Quintet is helped by its distinctive look, with Wolf Kroeger’s art direction and Leon Ericksen’s production design transporting us to the tundra via Jean Boffety’s Vaseline-glazed images. At once heavy-handed and obscure, Quintet will remain, for many, a patience-testing head-scratcher. But those with a perverse penchant for self-conscious art follies should consider this singular film nothing less than a must-see.
“Don’t turn your back on health!” urges Lauren Bacall’s Esther Brill, a clean-living zealot who’s one of two main candidates for the presidency of the National Health Organization. Unfolding at a bustling (natch) Florida convention during which the outcome of the vote will be revealed, Altman’s 15th feature is a broad-brush satire on the US health industry and an allegorical comment on national politics as it was then playing out during the 1980 presidential election.
Scattershot and slapdash, the film nonetheless boasts several pleasures, including a sometimes-shrewd take on the place of big business in politics, a piquant early role for Alfre Woodard, Glenda Jackson following up her Nixon-inspired nun in Nasty Habits (1977) with a memorable Adlai Stevenson variant, and Carol Burnett’s laugh-out-loud funny encounter with a body in a swimming pool. All good reasons not to turn your back on Health.
Secret Honor (1984)
A thrilling tour de force performance from Philip Baker Hall and a rich, pungent script by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (adapted from their one-man play) are among the principal attractions of the startling Secret Honor, which imagines a dark night of the soul for one Richard Milhous Nixon, as, prowling his office and watched over by portraits of forebears and contemporaries, he attempts to dictate a defence of his actions.
Excitingly blending theatrical and cinematic techniques, Altman keeps the camera alert and moving as it tracks the brilliant Baker Hall – expostulating, apostrophising, offering a very creative spin on Watergate, and locating a core of vulnerability in the character. The result is a perfectly distilled and immersive experience that completely outclasses Peter Morgan’s synthetic dramatisations (including Frost/Nixon) in terms of political bite, dramatic intensity, formal finesse and emotional insight. It takes the viewer into deeper, weirder, more interior terrain.
O.C. and Stiggs (1987)
Made in 1984, O.C. and Stiggs didn’t see the light of day for three years following hostile reaction from test audiences. Derived from a National Lampoon story, the film was apparently envisaged by Altman as a satire on teen comedies of the time. In fact, it occasionally participates in the casual sexism and homophobia common to that genre (the former is mitigated slightly by the intelligence and insight brought to her role by a young Cynthia Nixon).
Still, this tale of two teens (Daniel H. Jenkins and Neill Barry) taking elaborate, sustained revenge on their rich neighbours scores when it comes to issues of wealth and privilege. By the time Dennis Hopper is on the scene for some ripe Apocalypse Now parody, as a Viet vet willing to take class hostility to the next level, the film might almost be described as a freewheeling proto-Parasite.
The Gingerbread Man (1998)
Adaptations of John Grisham legal thrillers were staples of 90s cinema. Altman’s contribution isn’t one, quite – rather it derives from a ‘discarded’ story and screenplay that Grisham wrote. According to Altman, the end result wasn’t liked by Grisham, and it wasn’t liked by many critics either. But the atmosphere and texture that Altman brings to this absorbing neo-noir – which unfolds in a murky, clammy, hurricane-threatened Georgia – make it extremely compelling, with some genuinely scary, strange and unsettling moments.
Kenneth Branagh is oddly cast but effective as the lawyer getting himself into hot water as he tries to aid a frightened young woman (Embeth Davidtz) who is being menaced by her unhinged pa (a great, creepy, funny turn from Robert Duvall).
Cookie’s Fortune (1999)
“Aunt Jewell was murdered!” Except she wasn’t (and it’s no spoiler to say so). Rather, the murder plot is an elaborate ruse concocted by Jewell’s niece (Glenn Close, amusingly duplicitous and self-righteous) to avoid the scandal of a family suicide – a ruse that ends up implicating Jewell’s close companion and caretaker Willis (Charles S. Dutton).
An absolutely delightful and often hilarious comedy of southern manners and misdemeanours, at once sharply focused and marvellously relaxed, Cookie’s Fortune slipped under the radar at the time of its release. But this film is the definition of a gem, and one that has some slyly subversive things to say about family and race too. A crack cast creates a wonderful comic buzz, from Patricia Neal’s sublime (if all-too-brief) appearance as the eccentric Jewell, Chris O’Donnell’s adorably befuddled and horny cop, Liv Tyler’s independent-minded daughter and Dutton’s warm Willis. Then there’s Julianne Moore, as Close’s oppressed and apparently simple-minded sister, who is liberated by her starring role in a wonderfully shaky amateur production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
A sweet swansong that doesn’t lack for bite in its direct confrontation with the theme of mortality, Altman’s final film focuses on a group of old timey folk singers and musicians gathering for the last-ever episode of Garrison Keillor’s radio variety show. Keillor is on hand to play himself but the musicians are mostly played by a gallery of stars, including Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters and John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as a cowboy duo contributing the hilarious ‘Bad Jokes’. Then there’s Virginia Madsen, stalking the studio as a mysterious ‘Dangerous Woman’.
Altman has always delighted in taking audiences ‘behind the scenes’ and this remains palpable here. Some elements fail to work, but the warmth, humour and irreverence on display, as well as some lovely musical moments, make A Prairie Home Companion a modest but enjoyable coda to Altman’s exceptional career.
A Robert Altman season runs at BFI Southbank from May to July 2021.
Nashville is back in a new 4k restoration in cinemas nationwide from 25 June.