By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A cold breeze blows through an open window, and a football game silently unfolds on the television screen. The old man sitting on the couch regards the game with mild interest, though not long ago, football was his passion, a way of pocketing a little scratch during those long stretches when Hollywood lost his number. Over the course of the two hours spent with his interviewer in a $675-a-night suite at one of Dallas' most extravagant hotels, he will glance every now and then at the mute screen, quietly rooting for his old hometown team, the New York Jets. "They're undefeated, and so are the Giants, so that's kind of neat." The 75-year-old, clad head-to-toe in rumpled khaki, chuckles softly. In the next room, his wife, Kathryn, is being tended to by two hairdressers clad in black leather pants; in a few hours, she and her husband will attend the Dallas premiere of Dr. T and the Women, in which Altman dresses down (when not undressing) Dallas' empty and elite. "But I gotta tell ya, I enjoyed football more a couple of years ago. I was betting more then. This year, I can't tell what to make of the NFL, so I pretty much leave it alone." For a moment, we sit and view the game in complete silence. It's like watching a game with your grandfather.
It's hard to believe that not so long ago, Robert Altman was considered one of the biggest sumbitches in Hollywood--"a pompous, pretentious asshole," in the words of the late producer Don Simpson, whom Altman similarly regarded as a "bad guy, a bum." Journalists were once terrified of interviewing him, for fear that his razor-edged mood swings would lop off their heads. They visited his set and approached his trailer with not a small amount of trepidation. His myth loomed large: Robert Altman, director of M*A*S*Hand Nashvilleand McCabe and Mrs. Millerand The Player, was a boozer, gambler, stoner, womanizer, and all-around prick.
"Nobody wanted to make a movie with Bob Altman," his old agent, George Litto, told author Peter Biskind for his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex,Drugs and Rock-'n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Nobody wanted him, not even after he had a hit. Not even after he reinvented the movies in his own image, one that merged documentary with fiction until his films looked made up on the spot (and they so often are). Altman regarded himself as auteur, as maverick, as genius; he was right. Studio executives and the occasional actor (namely, McCabestar Warren Beatty) regarded him as boorish, arrogant, a real fuck-up pain in the ass; they were right.
"Making pictures is always the same--it's embarrassinglythe same." He chuckles. "Before, I was on new ground all the time. I was aware that I was in territories I hadn't had experience in. Now, I've had a lot of experience. I've done 35 films, God knows how many television shows--hundreds of 'em. How many hours of film I've actually done, it's uncountable. But it's always the same emotionally. If there's anything different, I'm less arrogant than I have been, mainly because I havebeen arrogant." He smiles. "I love it."
He chuckles again, and just like that, Altman dashes to pieces 30 years of bad press and bad vibes. Perhaps it's simply easy to forgive an asshole his faults when he is, in fact, a charming genius willing to talk at great length about a career marked more by failure than success. Of the 30-plus movies on Altman's filmography--discounting his decades of jumping in and out of television and his years spent shooting industrial films in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri--only a handful ever made any money. Only a handful is known outside the cult. Only a few were celebrated upon release or will outlive their maker. The rest--such films as H.E.A.L.T.H., Quintet, O.C. & Stiggs, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Perfect Couple, among so many others--will end up forgotten. Altman insists he loves all of his "children" equally; time likely will not be so kind.
It would not be hard to make a case for Altman as a Great Director: His are the most noble of failures--experiments gone awry (one of his best films was once among his most reviled, 1973's laconic adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbyestarring Elliott Gould as a disheveled, dispassionate Philip Marlowe). He has never once directed a film to pay the rent, despite his claims that if he were to stop working for a year, he would go broke. He talks often of how he turned down "big, bigmoney" to make a sequel to his 1970 film M*A*S*H, which made a small fortune for Fox and, later, CBS-TV. He made only $75,000 for his work on that movie and received no points; when the film took in nearly $40 million, placing it behind only Love Storyand Airport, he pocketed only lint. A lesser director--one without vision, without hubris, without balls--might have caved. Altman refused to even discuss M*A*S*H 2 (years later, he did consider making a sequel to his 1993 film Short Cuts, but that was hisidea, and he quickly killed it).