In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the old guard in Hollywood gave way to a new breed of actors, producers, writers, and directors, who were plugged into the latest cultural trends, and who learned their craft in university programs dedicated to the study of cinema.
That was not Robert Altman’s story.
While Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma were still precocious students, practicing what they’d learned from underground cinema and various European New Waves, Altman was already a veteran director. He’d made industrial films back in his hometown of Kansas City after serving in World War II; and when he moved to Los Angeles in the late ’50s, he hired himself out to any TV production that could use him. What he had in common back then with his younger soon-to-be colleagues was hustle. Whether assigned to prestige network dramas like Bonanza or Combat!, or to syndicated trash like Whirlybirds, Altman always asked himself the same question: “How can I make this interesting?”
By the time Altman shifted over to feature filmmaking at the end of the ’60s, he had a reputation as an unmanageable maverick who made uncommonly good work. But even after he had a smash hit with the 1970 Korean War comedy MASH, he still often had a hard time convincing financiers he knew what he was doing. Altman shunned both disciplined process and authority figures, preferring instead to gather a bunch of gifted actors onto striking, impeccably dressed sets, and then let his cameras roam among the cast as they riffed off the rudiments of a script. He preferred to play loose, hoping to catch something unexpected and magical on film.
But when Altman was in a zone? Few filmmakers have ever been as effective at revealing characters’ interior lives, simply by creating a vivid place for them to inhabit. Altman had a sharp sense of humor, which could come off as mean-spirited, but which actually sprung from his deep empathy for humanity at its best and its worst. He was delighted by his cast’s talents, and loved to give them the space to show what they could do. In his heyday, he pumped out good-to-great movies in bunches, making hip genre exercises, oblique experiments, and casually profound statements about the times in which he lived. And when no one would give him any money, he scaled down and came up with innovative ways to bring plays to the big screen, using limited sets and just a few actors.
Altman died on November 20, 2006. To commemorate his passing — along with Warner Archive’s long-awaited Blu-ray release of his cult classic Brewster McCloud, out today — here’s a look at his entire feature filmmaking career, from the forgettable to the indispensable.
36. The James Dean Story (1957)
In Kansas City, Altman made a name for himself by bringing more than the requisite intelligence and artistry to industrial films. When he took his skills to Hollywood, he tried to do the same, with whatever work was available. The quickie documentary The James Dean Story, made to capitalize on the star’s death, promised a bold experiment in cinematic storytelling: “the dynamic exploration of the still photograph.” But while a roaming camera would later become an Altman motif, moving it across otherwise static images didn’t make those shots any more compelling — or this project any less sleazy.
35. The Delinquents (1957)
The whole reason Altman came to California in the first place was because a Kansas City entrepreneur had bankrolled this low-budget youth-gone-wild melodrama, which was meant to cash in on the post-Elvis rock and roll movie craze. The sub-Rebel Without a Cause plot would’ve been too dull to impress Hollywood producers even in 1957, but the director does bring ample flair to the rough-and-tumble high school party scenes. The Delinquents is a “fans only” film (and just barely even that), but it’s also easy to see why Altman didn’t have much trouble finding entry-level gigs in Los Angeles, with a reel or two from this picture as his calling card.
34. Beyond Therapy (1987)
By the end of the 1980s, Altman found himself more or less back where he was when he arrived in Hollywood in the ’50s. The major studios knew his work, but didn’t trust him enough to hand him any plum assignments. So he took whatever was available, and tried to make it his own. Christopher Durang’s hit play Beyond Therapy — a comedy about romance in the age of psychotherapy, which had been a career-booster for the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Collins, Dianne Wiest, and John Lithgow on the New York stage — was a bad fit for Altman, even with the highly capable Julie Hagerty and Jeff Goldblum playing newly dating Manhattanites who are being inadvertently sabotaged by their analysts. The director heavily rewrote the script, yet even with his copious experience with guiding small casts, his shaggy, improvisational approach was unsuited to Durang’s carefully timed farce.
33. O.C. and Stiggs (1985)
Given that the likes of Animal House and Stripes likely wouldn’t have been possible without Altman’s MASH, it made sense to put him in charge of this vulgar ’80s sex comedy, based on a series of National Lampoon articles about jerky privileged teens. Altman knew the story’s flippant attitude inside-out, but for some inexplicable reason (beyond a misguided desire to produce something more “commercial”), he failed to make O.C. and Stiggs properly satirical. Instead, he turned out a clunky version of a John Hughes romp, but one lacking both the funkiness and the populist politics.
32. Quintet (1979)
The last of Altman’s ’70s genre deconstructions is this version of an arty, post-apocalyptic science-fiction saga, with Paul Newman playing a hunter-gatherer who treks across an icy wasteland to play an elaborate dice game in a casino where the players’ lives are on the line. Newman was an Altman friend and fan, and did what he could to ground a hard-to-follow plot, centered on a confusing competition. But though the dreamy end-of-the-world imagery is beautiful to look at, the film lacks enough of a sense of purpose to justify its tediousness.
31. That Cold Day in the Park (1969)
According to Altman lore, when the director’s assistant first reached out to Leonard Cohen about using a few of his songs on the McCabe & Mrs. Miller soundtrack, Cohen agreed only because he liked the one Altman movie he’d seen. When asked if he meant MASH, Cohen said no — he’d been impressed by That Cold Day in the Park, an elliptical suspense film shot in the singer-songwriter’s native Canada. Seen today, the film works okay — but it’s just-okay ’60s cinematic melancholy, reflecting the emerging cultural backlash to the “free love” era. Based on a Peter Miles novel, That Cold Day in the Park tells a bizarre story about a lonely woman (played by Sandy Dennis), who imprisons a drifter in her Vancouver apartment to fulfill erotic desires she can’t entirely articulate. Altman’s style was still nascent at the time, which meant he was overly faithful to a script so frustratingly vague and not as sophisticated as it pretends to be.
30. Health (1980)
Post-Nashville, Altman tended to have too much confidence in his ability to assemble a bunch of superb actors, give them a premise, and let them roll. In Health, he assembled regulars like Paul Dooley and Henry Gibson alongside Altman-world newcomers like Dick Cavett and James Garner, for what was supposed to be a serrated spoof of New Age “wellness” hucksterism. The cast is strong enough to keep the movie watchable, but whatever Altman and his collaborators meant to say about “Me”-generation hypocrisy — and the rising tide of ruthless greed-heads at the turn of the decade — goes largely unarticulated amid the low-key goofery.
29. Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter) (1994)
Though it’s generally more excruciating to watch than Health, Altman’s attempt to extend his early ’90s hot streak following The Player and Short Cuts is at least more memorable. As they take indiscriminate potshots at the fashion industry, the media, and Parisian grime, Altman and his A-list cast (including Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, and Kim Basinger) don’t seem to have much of an overall aim. And yet every now and then throughout Prêt-à-Porter’s interminable 133-minute running time, they stumble into something great: whether it’s a nostalgic reunion of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni or a conceptually brilliant runway show where the models are all nude.
28. A Wedding (1978)
Altman consciously (and somewhat desperately) tried to top Nashville with this ensemble comedy, which — according to legend — was born when the director boasted to a journalist that he was planning to make a movie about the upper-class American institution of big-money weddings, which would feature twice as many characters as his masterpiece. The problem was that Altman didn’t really have a story in mind for A Wedding, and once he started making the thing — from a patched-together, team-written script — he quickly realized that filling a film with nearly 50 distinct characters meant that none of them could be developed in any meaningful way. That said, the director was still mostly in a good groove circa 1978, and with a cast that includes powerhouses like Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, and Lillian Gish, he was able to produce something slight but likable, with scattered insights into how a common rite of passage reflects society as a whole.
27. Brewster McCloud (1970)
Riding high from MASH, Altman jumped right into Brewster McCloud, a freewheeling Houston-set riff on detective thrillers and The Wizard of Oz, written by Doran William Cannon. Some Altman fans adore this movie, which, if nothing else, is impressively ambitious. It’s stuffed with characters and comic business — much of the latter revolving around bird-droppings — and Bud Cort brings his usual spacey charm to the character of a weirdo inventor who lives inside the Astrodome and tinkers with homemade wings. For those who have trouble getting on Brewster McCloud’s wavelength, though, the incessant quirkiness can be grating, mitigated only by how effectively the movie freezes the look and feel of an oft-overlooked American metropolis, circa 1970.
26. Dr. T & the Women (2000)
What Brewster McCloud did for Houston, Dr. T & the Women tried to do for Dallas — only with slightly less wackiness, and a much sweeter tone. Though it got mixed-to-negative reviews at the the time, this is actually a lively, imaginative, and often very amusing movie, starring Richard Gere as a mega-successful gynecologist weathering literal and metaphorical storms on the days leading up to his daughter’s wedding. Screenwriter Anne Rapp places just as much focus on the doc’s many female relatives, co-workers, and patients as she does on the hero, creating a sense of the community surrounding this man — who often seems overwhelmed by all the fast-talking, demanding, powerhouse ladies in his life.
25. Countdown (1968)
The first “real” Altman film is an extension of the kind of work he’d been doing in television in the early ’60s, before producers got tired of his insubordination and experimentation. A speculative science-fiction melodrama about the first moon landing — released a few months before Apollo 11 made its story moot — Countdown stars James Caan and Robert Duvall as Americans racing to beat the Soviets using untested technology. Though it tells a straightforward (and, frankly, fairly dry) suspense story, the movie still caused trouble for the director, who aggravated his bosses with his casual, naturalistic “men at work” scenes, featuring what would soon become one of his signatures: overlapping dialogue.
24. Images (1972)
Throughout Altman’s early career, between his genre deconstructions, he played around with modestly surreal, elliptical art films, influenced by Europeans like Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. The icy, stripped-down 1972 psychological thriller Images stars Susannah York (who also wrote the screenplay) as a children’s book author who is quickly losing her grip on reality. This particular Altman homage owes a big debt to Roman Polanski’s 1960s suspense pictures, whose female protagonists worry whether their troubles are all in their heads. Images lacks Polanski’s potent payoffs, but it does sport some winningly ethereal Vilmos Zsigmond cinematography and a memorably dissonant score from Stomu Yamashta and future blockbuster movie composer John Williams.
23. The Gingerbread Man (1998)
Because Altman was never all that interested in telling complete, satisfying stories on film, in theory he should’ve been the worst possible director to take on a legal melodrama penned by bestselling author John Grisham. But The Gingerbread Man is actually a more interesting movie to revisit than the more plot-driven Grisham adaptations that came out in the ’90s. Focusing more on Kenneth Branagh’s committed performance as an obnoxious Savannah attorney than on the hero’s efforts to help a woman find her missing family, Altman at times goes out of his way to deny his audience any conventional resolution, instead asking them just to spend two hours soaking in the sights and sounds of coastal Georgia.
22. Fool for Love (1985)
Next to Secret Honor, Fool for Love is probably the best-known of Altman’s filmed plays, because it had a decent budget and a healthy home video release, and because it offered the rare opportunity for theater geeks worldwide to see playwright Sam Shepard star in his own work. But while the movie’s a marvel of visual design and cinematic choreography — with the crew manipulating the neon lighting of a motel set, to isolate flashbacks within the same frame as the present-day action — Shepard’s sweaty psychosexual tension demands the intimacy of a live setting, and not Altman’s foggy drifting. The best thing the film has going for it are its performances: Shepard as a heartbroken, violent lothario, and Kim Basinger as the woman he’s dangerously obsessed with, despite the perverse past they share.
21. Streamers (1983)
Altman doesn’t try anything too fancy with his adaptation of David Rabe’s Streamers, a play about soldiers preparing to ship out to Vietnam. Most of the story plays out in the barracks, where a cast that includes a young Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier bickers about race, class, and sexuality — revealing an America at war with itself at home as much as with communism abroad. This is the plainest of Altman’s feature films from his theater era. He lets excellent actors and great writing do most of the work.
20. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Whenever Altman was on the outs in Hollywood, he still found ways to stay busy, taking advantage of his gregarious personality and his connections with actors to find work either in the theater or back on television. He directed Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean on Broadway, then immediately made a movie version that briefly brought him back into critics’ good graces (and ran for a long time on cable, to boot). The film established Altman’s approach to staging plays for the screen in the ’80s. Rather than “opening up” the action and moving the characters around between different locations, here he takes a cast of top-shelf actresses — including Sandy Dennis, Cher, Kathy Bates, and Karen Black, all playing the aging members of a James Dean fan club — and has their characters swap memories and fire barbed comments at each other within a confined set, while his camera roams around, like another guest at their party.
19. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
Though it’s not really thought of as one of Altman’s filmed theater exercises (because it was made in the ’70s, in a more naturalistic style), Buffalo Bill and the Indians is actually based on Arthur Kopit’s 1969 play Indians, about Chief Sitting Bull’s unwillingness to cooperate with a whitewashed rewriting of Native American history. Paul Newman is spot-on as Buffalo Bill, anchoring a cast that includes Burt Lancaster as the mythologizing western reporter Ned Buntline, and Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley. The performances and premise are right in line with what Altman devotees had come expect back then. But while the movie’s entertaining overall, it feels half-finished, as though the director was so determined not to repeat what he’d just done with Nashville that he stopped production too soon, before giving the picture enough oomph.
18. Kansas City (1996)
Altman didn’t really make autobiographical films, because he was much more interested in observing other people than in talking about himself (as just about anyone who ever tried to interview him can attest). The closest he came to revisiting his own past on screen came with Kansas City, a historical drama and quasi-musical set in the city where grew up, at a time (1934) when he would’ve been 8 or 9 years old. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a fast-talking moll whose husband is being held captive by a big-time crime boss, played by Harry Belafonte. As she kidnaps a politician’s wife for leverage, Altman uses her story as an excuse to revisit the seedy dives and swanky mansions of his youth, while loading the soundtrack up with hot jazz.
17. Cookie’s Fortune (1999)
After starting the ’90s strong with his trio of comeback films (Vincent & Theo, The Player, and Short Cuts), Altman hit something of a creative and commercial slump in the back half of the decade. Even his committed fans didn’t have high hopes for 1999’s Cookie’s Fortune, a low-key Southern mystery/dramedy about two sisters (played by Glenn Close and Julianne Moore) who cause all kinds of trouble in a small Mississippi town when they try to cover up the truth about their rich mother’s death. But Altman must’ve found the simplicity of screenwriter Anne Rapp’s story freeing, because he ended up turning it into one of the most clear-cut, enjoyable films of his late career, filled with amiable, soft-edged performances that the director allowed to breathe.
16. Vincent & Theo (1990)
Originally released as a nearly four-hour TV miniseries, the art world biopic Vincent & Theo was eventually trimmed down to just over two hours and given a theatrical release. Thanks to its relatively large budget and scale, it became Altman’s fullest, richest film in over a decade. With the help of a bold lead performance by Tim Roth as the visionary painter Vincent van Gogh (with Paul Rhys as his long-suffering art-dealer brother, Theo), an often-jarring Gabriel Yared score, and vivid “you are there” production design from Altman’s son Stephen, Vincent & Theo captures both the look and the emotion of the van Goghs’ troubled lives. Julian Mitchell’s screenplay is superb, delving into the impossible sacrifices that art demands — both from those who make it, and from those who try to sell it.
15. Short Cuts (1993)
After Vincent & Theo and The Player showed critics, fans, and movie producers that Altman still had plenty of kick left in him, he seized the moment and made the film he’d been dreaming about for years: a sprawling, quintessentially Altmanesque, Los Angeles-set ensemble piece, drawn from Raymond Carver’s piercing slice-of-life short stories. Unlike the similar Nashville (or A Wedding, or Health), Short Cuts has more of a clearly defined narrative, following Carver’s miniature plot-arcs from start to finish, as their characters struggle with everyday dramas like marital spats, drug addiction, and grief. The relative directness is unlike Altman, and even with a talented cast (including Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Robert Downey Jr., and many more), he doesn’t quite hit all the notes on-key. But his vision of L.A. is as radiant as anything the city’s two big cinematic champions — Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino — would produce later that same decade; and the way Altman pulls together Carver’s many strings inspired a whole wave of “everything’s-connected” indie movies, like Magnolia, Crash, and Babel.
14. Secret Honor (1984)
Most of Altman’s filmed plays are worth watching, but none are as essential as the innovative and riveting one-man-show Secret Honor, which stars Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon, alone and fuming after his resignation from the presidency, recording his thoughts about what happened and why. Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s script presumes the audience knows a lot about Watergate, and about Nixon’s various wars with the media across the decades. So the movie is less a history lesson than a historical analysis, delivered from the inside — or at least what Freed, Stone, Hall, and Altman imagined that inside to be. Stylistically, Altman treats the material in much the same way as he did Come Back to the Five and Dime, making maximum use of a minimal setting, and letting his actor and his camera roam around a world shrunken by circumstance. The result is something as hip and savvy about politics and power as Altman’s other films are about gambling, the military, showbiz, and any other topic he chose to tackle.
13. Popeye (1980)
Is Popeye a masterpiece or a disaster? A flop or a stealthy blockbuster? A cautionary tale about the hubris that ended the “New Hollywood” era, or a prime example of the artistry and energy that wave brought to American cinema? Probably the most divisive movie in the Altman filmography, Popeye was the director’s belated attempt to become a big-budget auteur on a par with his contemporaries Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, by adapting a venerable comic strip and animated cartoon series into a family-friendly musical, with the help of star Robin Williams (one of the hottest comedians around, at the time), producer Robert Evans (the man behind The Godfather and Chinatown), screenwriter Jules Feiffer (a beloved counterculture cartoonist), and songwriter Harry Nilsson (a puckish genius with a career as checkered as Altman’s own). The result was something that in 1980 — the era of Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark — struck many as off-puttingly eccentric. The picture actually made a lot of money, and has been increasingly appreciated over the years for its impressive production design, catchy songs, and mumbly, deadpan humor. But the mere perception of failure was enough to bump Altman off the A-list for more than a decade.
12. Gosford Park (2001)
Altman enjoyed one of his biggest hits toward the end of his life: a multi-Oscar-nominated British drawing-room mystery, set among rich English-folk and visiting Americans in the 1930s, and penned by Julian Fellowes (the lone Academy Award winner here, and one who would soon become much more famous for creating the TV sensation Downton Abbey). Working with an all-star cast of accomplished, versatile U.K. actors — including Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, and Kristin Scott Thomas — Altman let them approach Gosford Park more like a theater-piece, treating the dialogue fairly reverently. He then did his usual, remarkable job of sensing exactly where to move the camera in order to capture all the subtle gestures and facial expressions that convey this story’s underlying class-war themes.
11. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Don’t let your aversion to the since-disgraced Garrison Keillor and his radio show A Prairie Home Companion steer you away from Altman’s final film. The movie is an elegiac wonder: a salute to the people who spend their lives in the entertainment business, as well as a farewell to them, over the course of a final performance together. Altman stripped this goodbye of any overwrought sentiment. “The death of an old man is not a tragedy” is the film’s key line, which was often quoted after Altman himself died, just a few months after A Prairie Home Companion’s release. To prove that point, the movie spends less time dwelling on death than it does on watching great actors like Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, and John C. Reilly put on a show — enjoying each other’s company one last time, through singing, dancing, and jokes.
10. A Perfect Couple (1979)
With any filmography as expansive and varied as Altman’s, there are bound to be movies that are under-seen or underrated, even by those who consider themselves fans. A Perfect Couple may be the most unduly overlooked of Altman’s films. Co-written with the actor/musician Allan F. Nicholls, this is arguably the most focused of the director’s late ’70s pictures: a breezy Los Angeles-set rom-com, with Paul Dooley playing a dumpy, awkward rich guy and Marta Heflin playing the gifted, undervalued backup singer in a communal rock band. Altman here dials back on the roaming cameras and overlapping dialogue, and instead helps his cast and crew sketch out something honest and hopeful, showing how decent, well-intentioned people handle the complications of art and family in the same way: by valuing collaboration.
9. MASH (1970)
The years haven’t been kind to the humor in the big-screen version of MASH, in which a few boorish, sexist, drunken U.S. Army surgeons pull dumb pranks and mistreat women for laughs. Yet while countless 1970s American movies emulated the organic shagginess Altman brought to his adaptation of Richard Hooker’s semi-autobiographical Korean War novel — with its overlapping dialogue, muttered asides, and casual profanity — MASH’s off-the-cuff qualities still feel like a revelation. Altman’s stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould were convinced they’d been saddled with a reckless incompetent, until they saw what turned out to be one of the hippest films of the counterculture era: a Hollywood production showing the messy parts of life that other pictures had always left out.
8. The Company (2003)
Screenwriter Barbara Turner fought hard to convince her longtime friend Altman to direct The Company, even though he insisted he had no interest in a backstage melodrama set at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. He found his way through the material by stripping the plot down to almost nothing, only occasionally checking in on the parts that were supposed to form the spine of the story, with Neve Campbell as a stressed-out hoofer seeking comfort in the arms of a local chef, played by James Franco. Altman seemed more enthused about Malcolm McDowell’s performance as the company’s director, who blows in occasionally with his big personality, offers a few prompts, and then just watches art happen. They’re all very different in approach and intent, but Altman’s “last words” trilogy of Gosford Park, The Company, and A Prairie Home Companion are as lively and essential as anything in his entire formidable filmography, because they clarify what ended up being the director’s greatest gift: his enthusiasm for other people’s talents.
7. The Long Goodbye (1973)
It’s hard to call any part of Altman’s career “calculated,” but a big reason why his early ’70s films are his most revered is that a lot of them have an inadvertent conceptual unity. Year after year — and sometimes multiple times a year — the director put his own knuckling spin on classic Hollywood genres, from westerns to war films to gangster pictures. In 1973, he and screenwriter Leigh Brackett brilliantly turned Raymond Chandler’s already loose-limbed private eye novel The Long Goodbye into a knowing and cynical study of “the new macho” in touchy-feely ’70s California. Elliott Gould plays Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe as a quasi-somnambulant hep-cat in wrinkled clothes, pursuing a couple of intertwined cases that put him in conflict with thugs, gurus, and socialites — all while trying to overcome his own lackadaisical “it’s all right with me” attitude.
6. The Player (1992)
In interviews, Altman sometimes disparaged his best-loved movies, insisting they were no better than the ones critics considered his calamities. He especially seemed less than enthusiastic about The Player, an adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s wickedly satirical Hollywood murder-mystery novel, starring Tim Robbins as a shallow, paranoid studio executive. But there’s a reason why The Player was an award-winning art-house hit, giving Altman back his industry mojo. Between the dozens of big-name stars playing “themselves” and the zingy inside-showbiz jokes — which, as in MASH, feel so much truer than anything that had been in a movie before — this film is simply a pure pleasure, at once playful and wise.
5. Thieves Like Us (1974)
In an era when just about any film project featuring well-dressed Depression-era criminals got a green light, Altman’s version of Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us (previously adapted by director Nicholas Ray into the 1948 noir classic They Live by Night) got a little lost in the shuffle. That’s too bad, because it’s one of the best of the bunch: a down-to-earth take on poverty and crime, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall at their best as a couple of kids too innocent and dim to be in a gang. Thieves Like Us also has a clever stylistic conceit, using vintage radio broadcasts on the soundtrack in place of original music — letting old-timey serial adventures comment obliquely on the action, while the movie reveals the more modest lives of real outlaws.
4. California Split (1974)
Based on screenwriter Joseph Walsh’ personal experiences with gambling addiction — and informed by Altman’s own affinity for taking big chances — California Split is one of the director’s purest films. It’s just 100 minutes or so of George Segal and Elliott Gould bantering as two guys on an epic bender after meeting in a Los Angeles poker parlor, bonding over their mutual love of “action,” and spending a few weeks riding the high of risk, from racetracks to Reno. The patter never stops, and much of it is hilarious. But what lingers after the film’s bittersweet conclusion are the melancholy details of people leading lonely lives of compulsion and loss, looking for sympathetic companions in order to feel less sick.
3. 3 Women (1977)
Easily the best of Altman’s European-style art-films, 3 Women is literally based on a dream — and it looks like it too, with a visual style that relies heavily on the blinding shimmer of water and mirrors. Sissy Spacek plays a meek young woman who befriends her cocky co-worker (played by Shelley Duvall) at a California desert health spa, only to gradually take over her new pal’s life and identity. Spacek’s southern gentility and Duvall’s motor-mouthed confidence play off each other superbly, in a film that’s as funny and well-observed as it is trippy and metaphysical. The emphasis on abandoned tourist traps and dreary singles’ apartment complexes skewers ’70s West Coast banality as sharply as any film of its era.
2. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
If Altman spent too much of the ’70s (and part of the ’90s) jumping into projects without knowing where he’d land, that may be because that way of working succeeded so beautifully in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Not just a revisionist Western, this movie was a happening, for which Altman and his cast and crew essentially constructed an entire Northwestern frontier town on film, building by building, pausing occasionally to fit in the plot of an Edmund Naughton novel. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie play two entrepreneurs who nurture a gambling and prostitution empire within a piddling mining camp, becoming so successful that they draw the attention of robber barons. The movie is simultaneously about the end of the “Old West” and the unique pain of the lead characters’ uneven romance. Leonard Cohen’s wistful music and Vilmos Zsigmond’s snow-globe cinematography give audiences something to latch onto until the story eventually kicks in, about halfway through. By that time, the effort viewers have put into understanding the muffled, diffuse dialogue pays off, making them keenly attuned to these characters’ quirks and hopes before they are crushed by the relentless wheels of American industry.
1. Nashville (1975)
The “fake it ’til you make it” bravura that Altman adhered to throughout his career reached its apotheosis with 1975’s Nashville, which started out as an afterthought assignment (“Bob, do you think you could you make a movie about country music?”), and became a Grand Statement about Bicentennial-era America just because Altman kept insisting to anyone who’d listen that it could be. Screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury brought her boss a bunch of scattered anecdotes from her time researching Music City, and he dispensed pieces of them out to over two dozen characters, while also asking some of the actors to come up with their own ideas and even their own music. What resulted was a crazy quilt of themes, one-liners, and vignettes, tackling Southern culture, backroom politics, celebrity-worship, and the constantly shifting ideals that a diverse citizenry holds onto tightly. It’s Altman’s accidental masterpiece.