Film World Mourns Director Robert Altman

Director Robert Altman, photographed in April 2006. i i

hide captionDirector Robert Altman, photographed in April 2006.

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
Director Robert Altman, photographed in April 2006.

Director Robert Altman, photographed in April 2006.

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Robert Altman, for decades one of Hollywood's most acclaimed filmmakers — a risk-taker who directed such iconic hits as M*A*S*H and Nashville — died last night in Los Angeles at the age of 81. Altman was nominated five times for Academy Awards, and finally received an Oscar for lifetime achievement earlier this year.

Huge casts throwing scripts to the wind and improvising; long tracking shots that would be insane to attempt even without actors who were improvising; the blackest of black comedy, and everywhere, dialogue overlapping and bleeding from one scene into the next. That was Robert Altman's signature from the first time anyone noticed him, in 1970, with his irreverent wartime satire, M*A*S*H.

At a time when movie dialogue was all about clarity, Altman's opening scene – with people talking over each other as a helicopter lands rendering all of them basically inaudible, is a declaration that things this time, will be different.

M*A*S*H made Altman the grand old man of Hollywood's new wave. In his late 40s, when the headline-making Spielbergs and Scorceses were decades younger, he wasn't much interested in doing things the Hollywood way.

He made a sort of anti-Western called McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which was all about whorehouse capitalists spreading corruption. He crossed up detective movie conventions in Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, with Elliott Gould. And then, in Nashville, he made what is arguably his masterwork, setting the likes of Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine to singing country songs in a film that more or less defines the term political satire.

Altman's work in the decades after Nashville was erratic, as he leaped from intimate dramas to enormous ensemble films. His interlocking epic Short Cuts perfected that narrative style long before films such as Crash. His Hollywood-mocking comedy The Player opens with a tracking shot that's both a joke and a tour de force. And if it sometimes seemed that he followed every successful film with one that was simply strange, he was, as he told NPR's Jacki Lyden six years ago, philosophical about how his films were "received."

"All these films, it's like your own children. I love them all, we tend to love our least successful children the most, because they seem to need the most protection, but when they're finished they're finished, they're disconnected for me, that cord is cut, and all I can do is observe them and pray for them and hope that they succeed in happiness."

Often they did, though Hollywood's moguls kept writing him off anyway. There was no love lost between Altman and the business world of film. But he had nothing but respect for actors, and the feeling was mutual. Tinseltown's biggest names clamored for even bit parts because he gave them a chance to discover and create and grow. So much so, that as he told NPR's Lynn Neary on the set of Prairie Home Companion last year, they often got completely caught up in the moment, and so did he.

Prairie Home Companion, a kind of showbiz elegy that was all about wrapping things up, was fated to be Altman's final film. When he received his Oscar for lifetime achievement earlier this year, he revealed that he'd had a heart transplant a decade ago, and had never really expected to work again after it. Happily for audiences, he worked more or less constantly, crafting seven more films, earning a fifth Oscar nomination for best director, and staying true to his fiercely independent ethos.

"There's not a filmmaker alive," Altman told David Darcy for NPR, "nor has there ever been, who's had a better shake than I have. In 40 years I have never been without a job, without a project of my choosing. I may be doing a picture for $8 million, $9 million today where if it were done under normal circumstance with a studio it would've been 25-to-30. But it suits me fine."

It suited audiences too.

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