.

Robert Altman: Legendary Director With a Rebel Spirit

From his last ever interview: Altman on working with Hitchcock, fighting with Warren Beatty and why "A Prairie Home Companion" is about death

November 22, 2006 10:41 AM ET

A month ago, I introduced Robert Altman at the Hamptons Film Festival -- it turned out to be his last major interview -- by saying why I admired him. Sure I talked about the way he spent the last half century making movies that changed the way the world looked at movies. But what I love most about Altman is that he never got respectable.

The audience of film buffs on that sunny Saturday afternoon knew exactly what I meant. And so does anyone who ever let an Altman movie mess with his head. Cancer may have claimed Altman's life on November 20th, 2006, with his wife Kathryn and their family gathered around his bed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. But watch any of Altman's forty movies and the man comes alive again -- ornery, exuberant, ready to share a joint or a contrary opinion, hellbent on busting rules and determined to laugh at the Hollywood kings who stupidly thought they could make him do things their way.

Fat chance. Altman was eighty one when he died, but his rebel spirit stayed about nineteen. Here was a director who spawned his own adjective, Altmanesque. That meant overlapping dialogue -- think of all the characters talking at the same time in M*A*S*H. That meant movies that fit no existing mold -- think of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Three Women, Images, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Thieves Like Us. That meant large ensemble casts -- like the hordes of actors in Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park, Short Cuts and what turns out to be his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, who came together under his direction to create a teeming sense of collective life that no director has been able to match since. Oh, they try. Paul Thomas Anderson came close with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but Emilio Estevez missed by a mile with Bobby.

I've known Altman for fifteen years. He goaded me unmercifully. At a preview screening of one of his movies, he handed me twenty bucks. When I laughed at the joke bribe, he shot me that evil twinkle that defined him at his happiest and told me that was ten bucks more than he offered Pauline Kael, the late critic who helped put him on the map with her rave review of a rough cut of Nashville in The New Yorker in 1975. There's another thing about Altman: He hated it when you hated one of his movies. He'd pretend to shrug it off, but when he remembered any of the unkind words I wrote about Quintet, Health, A Wedding or Beyond Therapy, I'd get the infamous Altman glare. He felt most protective of his stunted children.

Altman was a cool dude from Kansas City, Missouri. He loved jazz and made movies in the same style, like musical riffs. Cool jazz dudes don't care what other people think. But Altman cared, deeply. At a rough-cut 1993 screening of Short Cuts -- a film of his I particularly revere -- Altman's hands were shaking when he took my hand to say goodbye. But he'd never ask for a reaction. He said he could tell by watching your posture, an unnerving thought when he's watching you watch a three-hour movie. If you gave him a compliment, he didn't know how to take it. He always said all his work on a movie was done with the casting. On set, he'd just let the actors take over. A lie of epic proportions, as any actor who worked for him will attest. And he's directed most of them, from silent screen legend Lillian Gish to party animal Lindsay Lohan.

During our on stage interview at the Hamptons Festival, I asked Altman about his health. He'd had a transplant a decade before, receiving the heart of a woman in her thirties. "I've got at least forty years left on this thing," Altman said, "it's the rest of me I'm worried about." It was my turn to tease him. "Did you keep the heart?" I asked. That got the Altman laugh, a unique snort that turns him into a boy again. "Sure," he said, not missing a beat. "I know those Hollywood clowns I fought with all my life would want proof that I had one. So I keep the damn thing in a jar and my wife Kathryn waters it every day."

That afternoon, we talked about his entire career, from his days in television working with Alfred Hitchcock to the fun he had with Lily Tomlin and his new favorite Meryl Streep on Prairie. He recalled old grudges, with Warren Beatty on McCabe and Mrs. Miller and with Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, who went behind his back to try to get him fired on M*A*S*H. "I never worked with Sutherland again," he said. But he did work with several times with Gould. What happened?. "Simple," said Altman. "Elliot apologized." And what about the demon weed that reportedly upped the high of being on an Altman set? "Not true," he said, "we used whatever drug was popular at the time."

We also talked about things he hadn't previously made public. That health reasons had forced him to use a backup director on in his last few movies, just in case. Paul Thomas Anderson was happy to sign on for Prairie, watching his idol at work being no hardship. And Stephen Frears, now winning raves for The Queen, did the honors on Gosford Park. Frears had only one condition: "Damn it, Bob, don't you dare croak before you finish the scenes with Maggie Smith. She scares the hell out of me."

Another laugh. Another chance to recall the good times. But Altman was never one to live in the past. He was always on to "the next one." That was to be Hands on a Hard Body, a kind of model for an Altman movie with lots of his usual crew, plus Streep and maybe Billy Bob Thornton. The story is about a group of Texans who enter a contest to win a truck by keeping their hands on the thing for days at a time. The last one holding on gets the truck..

Altman couldn't hold on for the next one. Like the voice on the loudspeaker says at the end of M*A*S*H, "that is all." But what an all. The Academy handed him an honorary Oscar in March as payback for nominating him five times -- it should have been ten at least -- and never awarding him the golden goose. Somehow it seems right that the ultimate outsider never made it inside that very private, very conventional club.

And so we have Altman's films to get lost in over and over. There's nothing linear about them, they just seem to drift, stopping at places that fascinate the director and moving on when there's something new to pull him and us in. Maybe that's why Altman films rarely feel dated, they're fresh, curious and timeless, the opposite of trendy. And you can almost imagine Altman behind the camera, giggling at the joy of doing what he loved best, confounding expectations.

The last laugh I shared with Altman onstage came when he was discussing A Prairie Home Companion. He said he had upset Garrison Keeler, who thought of the film based on his radio show as a light romp. Altman shook his head and said, "No it's not, it's a film about death. Virginia Madsen plays an angel who keeps picking people off. By the end of the picture she's practically taken the whole cast with her." In retrospect, Prairie feels even more like an elegy for a time past that won't come back. But Altman wouldn't go in for eulogies. "It's just death," he said, "nothing to be afraid of."

Like I said, Robert Altman never got respectable.

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