Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Mitchell Zuckoff has composed a biography worthy of its subject. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is the most compulsively readable 'inside Hollywood' book since Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. I found it almost literally unputdownable. It's an appropriately Altmanesque bio, a book of overlapping, often contradictory voices that sum into an exceedingly complex portrait of one of the world's greatest filmmakers. (And make no mistake: Altman is up there with Welles, Eisenstein, Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock and Bunuel, among the very greatest of the greats. Here's the supporting evidence for this evaluation: Short Cuts, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Secret Honor, Thieves Like Us, The Player, Gosford Park.) We come away from Zuckoff's book with a surprisingly balanced portrait: there's Altman the genius and Altman the asshole; warm, nurturing Bob and cruel, drunken Bob; here's Altman the filmmaker of uncompromising moral vision, and here's Altman the con man who overbilled his financers, underpaid his employees, and pocketed the difference. Most actors who worked with Altman are effusive in their praise; but one of the book's most interesting moments is Sam Shepard's harsh but cogent (and, I think, entirely fair) criticism of Altman's directorial style. There are many wonderful, funny and sad stories herein, but the perhaps the biggest surprise is the full story of the MASH theme song, which unexpectedly becomes the story of Michael Altman's life. And like all of Altman's films, this bio is replete with memorable images: Sterling Hayden enveloped in a cloud of hash smoke on the set of The Long Goodbye; Kathryn and Robert Altman getting stoned on psychedelic brownies in the front row at the 1993 Oscars; Altman assembling his entire family in the living room of his house in the early 1970s and informing them that if it ever came down to a choice between them and making movies, he would choose movies; and of course Altman's priceless, instantly legendary response to a studio executive's directorial suggestions: "Fuck you. Rude letter follows." This book rarely attempts to interpret Altman's films (as the man always insisted, that's the viewer's job), but it succeeds in painting an indelible portrait of their maker.

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