Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

Short Takes — Feb 5, 2010

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (Knopf) begins with an epigram that pretty well sums up Altman’s attitude toward “truth” and “realism” in cinema and life. “I don’t think anybody remembers the truth, the facts,” the great filmmaker said. “You remember impressions.”

That describes Mitchell Zuckoff’s book, as well. He wanted to write an authorized biography, but Altman would consent only to a series of recorded interviews that Zuckoff could use to produce a sort of assisted Altman memoir—an incomplete memoir, since Altman insisted on leaving his private life out of the picture. Zuckoff soon realized it was impossible to separate the personal and the professional, in this case above all others. “I don’t direct, I watch,” Altman said near the end of his life. “[T]he real reward [of filmmaking] is the process of doing it and the people that you do it with.” Zuckoff also saw how false it would be to force Altman’s zigzagging career into a linear narrative. “Stories don’t interest me,” Altman remarked more than once.

Altman’s death in November 2006 decisively changed the project, almost certainly for the better. With no more discussions to record, Zuckoff decided to use what he already had, supplemented by comments from people who lived or worked with Altman and excerpts from published articles. The resulting collection is tidier and more methodical than Altman might have liked, but its montage of views and voices approximates the freewheeling impressionism he worked toward in his films.

Just as important, there’s little hagiography in the mix. Many of the people quoted express respect and love for Altman, to be sure. He had a remarkable knack for “nurturing people and giving them permission to be as good as they can be,” says Mark Rydell, the fellow director who played Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye. Actor Henry Gibson, a veteran of four Altman pictures, praises him for “his generosity, the expansiveness of his spirit, his encouragement of others, his taking chances on others, his recognizing talent, his fanning it.” But Altman also had a capacious dark side, and it’s equally on display. Here he is breaking two of his second wife’s ribs because she came home late; there he is punching an executive into a swimming pool because the studio wants to trim California Split. His admirers blame such episodes on booze and pot. Still, his worst behaviors could be mighty bad, as when he sat his family down one day and, in the words of son Stephen Altman, “told us all that if [he ever] had to choose between all of us and his work, he’d dump us in a second.” The younger Altman was only ten at the time, but he had no doubt about “where [Robert] was standing for the rest of our lives.”

Those of us who didn’t suffer such things personally can chalk them up to Altman’s volatile artistic temperament, and return to his films with deepened awareness of the strange forces underlying them. Neither his excesses nor his enemies could stop him for long, and he worked his transplanted heart and cancer-damaged tissues until the very end. Zuckoff last interviewed him about three weeks before he died, and I moderated an event with him and Garrison Keillor at about the same time.

Our paths crossed numerous times over more than thirty years, but Zuckoff’s book convinces me that Altman was more complicated than I ever dreamed. Since it contains so many anecdotes, I’ll end with one that wraps the bright and dark sides into a quintessential Altman moment. One year at Cannes, he was talked into meeting the heads of an obscure French company at his hotel. Altman greeted them cordially, took note of their bad haircuts, ushered them to the door, and said, “You know, you guys look like Moe, Larry, and Curly—you should be in the Three Stooges.” Then he closed the door, turned to his friends in the room, and said, “That went well, didn’t it?”

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