Ready to scorn

Kansas City is Robert Altman's best movie in years--but does anyone care anymore?

Here's a dirty little secret about film critics that won't make an amusing bon mot at the next National Society of Film Critics dinner, unless you want Pauline Kael to introduce her cane to your head: Critics are herd animals by instinct. There are disagreements, to be sure; the next time you're seated between Dallas Morning News pundit Phillip Wuntch and Pulitzer Prize-winner Roger Ebert on an airplane, don't use "So, what did you think about Kingpin?" as an icebreaker. But in terms of expressing truly maverick opinions on a variety of important filmmakers, performers, and genres, American moviegoers are far more unpredictable than your average film critic when they select their picks and pans. In general, we tend the sacred cows of filmdom like it's Jesus' own cattle ranch.

Who among us paid opinion makers would admit that Martin Scorsese's last three pictures were tedious, self-conscious auteur parodies? Or that the Walt Disney animation "renaissance" supposedly launched under Jeffrey Katzenberg's brief reign is a marketing myth and little more? Or that Robert Altman, the most talked-about filmmaker of the '70s and an occasional pariah ever since, is making better movies now than in his post-M*A*S*H* salad days?

By his own account, Altman has made only two features in his career that were box-office hits. He is dependent on the goodwill of American critics who have--not for the first time--turned their backs on him. "I can't wait for this movie to come out and get terrible reviews," the 71-year-old Altman says of Kansas City, his 30th feature as writer-director. His once-famous benevolence toward the press has dwindled to a faint animosity in his bloodshot, laser-blue eyes. "But you know what? It's going to outlive me, you, and everybody who writes about it."

You could call his words sour grapes, but they've been plucked from a fertile vineyard of critical scorn. Except for its acclaimed live soundtrack, Kansas City indeed is receiving lukewarm-to-hostile notices. "Aimless" and "inconsequential" are just two of the adjectives lobbed at him by critics.

Those descriptions are bouquets compared to the feeding frenzy that followed the release of Ready to Wear, Altman's 1994 all-star flop and easily the worst-reviewed feature by any major American filmmaker during the last decade. Those who care to rent the video for a second look just might discover a lightweight sex romp with a finale smarter than anything that preceded it. A bit lethargic? Certainly, but based on the cacophony of horrified, righteous protests, you'd think Altman had filmed one of his bowel movements and charged audiences $6.50 a head to watch it.

"The advance publicity [for Ready to Wear] laid a trap for film critics," Altman says. "While we were shooting, the buzz was 'Altman's taking a peek inside the fashion industry.' Well, that's not what I did at all, and never intended to. In the first place, there's nothing inside the fashion industry--those folks have to reinvent themselves a couple times a year. I wanted to make a farce, an old-fashioned romantic comedy set in a milieu most people find exotic. I think it's a perfectly pleasant little movie."

Kansas City could never be mistaken for "a pleasant little movie," so desperate, amoral, and angry are its characters. Set on the eve of the Missouri gubernatorial elections in the early 1930s, the movie flashes forward and back across a 48-year period in which individuals of fatally different classes and ethnicities clash.

Daft, impulsive telegraph operator Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) thinks it's outrageous that "a bunch of nigger gangsters" headed by dapper sociopath Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte, in the film's most delicious performance) has detained her beloved hubby, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney). Johnny is a small-time hood whose movie-star good looks and graceful swagger can't eclipse the colossal stupidity required to steal petty cash from Seldom, one of the most feared men in Kansas City.

Blondie, who's seen a few too many James Cagney and Jean Harlow flicks, decides to kidnap the opium-addicted socialite, Carolyn (Miranda Richardson, whose stellar comic timing runs her a close second to Belafonte), to pressure the woman's husband into using his connections with the city's corrupt political machine to free Johnny.

"I structured this movie like a jazz song," Altman says. "It really is one long riff on a single theme where each of the actors step up and play their part. That's why there are so many monologues in the film; I see Jennifer and Miranda as a pair of tenor saxes, Harry as a trumpet. They evoke different colors and feelings."

Frankly, you get the impression that Altman has grown so weary of deflecting slings and arrows from the press ("It hurts," he admits), he's taking refuge behind the film's one unquestionably successful component--its dizzying array of jazz superstars and the sumptuous standards they perform as interludes between the movie's action sequences. But Kansas City has much more to offer. It's a sharp little diamond, cutting to the core of some slippery social issues. Altman has been widely criticized as a misanthrope, but in fact he is more generous to losers, scoundrels, and other outsiders here than any other filmmaker you can name--and he doesn't manipulate them like chess pieces in a hypermacho morality play a la Scorsese. He is the ringmaster of American cinematic irony, exploring how the social systems that protect us from each other often separate us from ourselves.

True, you have to actively think about Kansas City while you're watching it, and maybe even catch it a second time to fully appreciate the nuances. Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt have stitched a crazy quilt of race and class conflict in which the same patterns of hypocrisy and class-consciousness pop up in very surprising places. Carolyn moves easily among black working-class people and even scolds Blondie for using the word "nigger," sniffing that "We say 'colored' in my household." Yet in an opium haze she will confuse every black woman she sees with her maid, Rose. Seldom Seen despises white people, who "rape your mothers, burn your babies, and piss in the soup," yet has earned a small, blood-stained fortune on the backs of other blacks. "It's hard to separate the heroes and villains in my movies," Altman says. "And that seems to make people angry. But I like almost everyone I decide to tell a story about. There's got to be something wrong with them, though. Why else would anybody want to watch them?"

Unlike most commercial filmmakers, Robert Altman doesn't offer moviegoers the technical cues they expect as part of the moviegoing experience. He rarely uses close-ups; he mixes dialogue and ambient noise like gumbo; and he doesn't raise or lower a musical score to heighten or prolong tension--in other words, he doesn't tell an audience when, or even how, to feel. Kansas City continues that tradition, and tangos to a conclusion that is shocking, logical, and multilayered. It's the director's leanest, most focused work in a while--and another likely victim of the sour Altman buzz.

So you think Altman is a filmmaker with a mob of angry, torchbearing critics and studio executives at his castle doorstep? Then christen Jennifer Jason Leigh, star of Kansas City, as the Bride of Altman--a petite, dynamic Elsa Lanchester to the director's shambling-monster reputation.

The 34-year-old Leigh has polarized ticket buyers, driven starry-eyed critics to fits of ecstasy and disgust, and been the source of snowballing debate in the entertainment press--but not for who she's dated, or how much money she earns per picture, or how long she'll be A-list. Having rejected the role of Hollywood player years ago to work only with directors she admires, Leigh demands that you judge her on the quality of her work.

Fans and detractors stand in line for the opportunity to do just that. Her angelic mug graced a rackful of magazine covers late last year after Georgia, the film she co-wrote and co-produced, was released. It was, everyone agreed, the kind of passionately executed showcase role that wins an Oscar nomination. (The Village Voice reported a widespread rumor that the movie, which received a standing ovation at 1995's Cannes Film Festival, was barred from official competition at that festival because the anti-Leigh faction was so vocal.)

The Academy delivered a verdict on Leigh's much-hyped performance, all right:They snubbed her in favor of co-star Mare Winningham, a worthy Best Supporting Actress nominee. Naysayers cheered. In an unrelated incident, even media mogul Ted Turner weighed in with his own thumbs-down on a film starring Leigh:He refused to broadcast the Anjelica Huston-directed adaptation of Dorothy Alison's Bastard Out of Carolina that Turner Network Television had financed. He said the film was too brutal.

Review the 1995 list of Oscar winners and nominees, however, and you can't help but notice a double standard. You say Leigh talks in funny voices? Don't tell Mira Sorvino, whose Mickey Mouse-inspired squeak won her an Academy Award for Mighty Aphrodite. You say Leigh's performances sometimes rely on a tangle of mannerisms? Brad Pitt flinched, gesticulated, and leered his way to an Oscar nomination for Twelve Monkeys.

In Kansas City, Leigh takes a backseat to Miranda Richardson's dope-addled comedy and Harry Belafonte's masterful villainy. Still, for those who were frustrated by the avalanche of attitude in Georgia, this is a cleaner, more consistent performance.

Her hair in henna-red Medusa tangles, wearing high-heels and a leopard-print blouse, Leigh recently held court in a New York City hotel suite to which a dozen print journalists from throughout the country had come to pick her apart. The casual conversation among writers before the interview had already determined who among us admired Leigh and who dismissed her talents.

But by the end of the session, she had beguiled friends and enemies alike. Sipping a Diet Coke, laughing often and staring right into your eyes, she was a queer mix of shy and blunt. On her accent in Kansas City, she said, "It just came out. The first scene we shot, I was holding a gun to Miranda's head, trying to talk like a tough guy. The dialect coach said it had enough Midwest to work. I thought about Jimmy Cagney pushing people around, and Harlow in Red-headed Woman."

On working with Robert Altman: "Usually when you make a movie, there are all these rules you never think about. They're just the conventions of filmmaking: You don't step on somebody else's line, you stick to the choreography, etc. But on an Altman production, all those are lifted. He lets you try anything, and if it works, he'll keep it."

On Ted Turner's Bastard Out of Carolina veto: "It's interesting to me that someone would buy a book that's very well-known, give it a really decent budget, make the movie, and then see it and say they don't like the subject matter. We didn't improvise anything."

On her current project, Agnieszka Holland's Disney-produced adaptation of Henry James' short novel, Washington Square, co-starring Ben Chaplin, Albert Finney, and Maggie Smith: "I met Albert Finney in a hotel elevator in Paris when I was 5. He was so handsome. He patted my head and said, 'What a beautiful child.' And I was like, 'Oh!'"

She feigned a swoon.
"And now he's playing my father, so I guess the Oedipal complex is complete."

Kansas City. Fine Line. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte. Written by Frank Barhydt and Robert Altman. Directed by Robert Altman. Now showing.

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