Robert Altman by Mitchell Zuckoff

“I just spent a very full Saturday with Robert Altman: An Oral Biography, eavesdropping on a group of the most interesting people sharing in one of my absolute favorite topics of conversation—and I just now put it down feeling heartbroken but happily and deeply inspired by him (the topic) once again.”—Wes Anderson

Robert Altman—visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend—comes roaring to life in this rollicking cinematic biography, told in a chorus of voices that can only be called Altmanesque.

His outsized life and unique career are revealed as never before: here are the words of his family and friends, and a few enemies, as well as the agents, writers, crew members, producers, and stars who worked with him, including Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Paul Newman, Julie Christie, Elliott Gould, Martin Scorsese, Robin Williams, Cher, and many others. There is even Altman himself, in the form of his exclusive last interviews.

After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers through enemy fire in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog-tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with the movie M*A*S*H. He revolutionized American filmmaking, and, in a decade, produced masterpieces at an astonishing pace: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women, and, of course, Nashville. Then, after a period of disillusionment with Hollywood—as well as Hollywood’s disillusionment with him—he reinvented himself with a bold new set of masterworks: The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. Finally, just before the release of the last of his nearly forty movies, A Prairie Home Companion, he received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement from the Academy, which had snubbed him for so many years.

Mitchell Zuckoff—who was working with Altman on his memoirs before he died—weaves Altman’s final interviews, an incredible cast of voices, and contemporary reviews and news accounts, into a riveting tale of an extraordinary life. Here are page after page of revelations that force us to reevaluate Altman as a man and an artist, and to view his sprawling narratives with large casts, multiple story lines, and overlapping dialogue as unquestionably the work of a modern genius.

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Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor of journalism at Boston University. He is the author of three previous books, most recently Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend. As a reporter with The Boston Globe, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and the recipient of numerous national writing awards.

Excerpted from a conversation among Mitchell Zuckoff and his editors, Martin Asher and Zack Wagman:

Q: Do you think there’s any director who blazed the way for Altman or was he just a maverick, a complete original?

A: In a technical sense, Bob was always quick to credit to his predecessors. When people talked about his innovative use of overlapping dialogue, for instance, he’d tell them to look at the films of Howard Hawks. But the real answer to your question is no, there isn’t anyone you’d call a model or a trailblazer for Bob. In terms of his approach to filmmaking and his relationship with the business, Bob earned the titles people hung on him—maverick, renegade, iconoclast, you name it. Even during the years when he was pretty much working inside the Hollywood system —the 1970s, mostly—he did things his own way. Think of it like this: Hollywood runs on genres —comedy, romance, war, westerns, etc.—with certain fairly narrow, clearly defined expectations for each, based on successful films that have come before. In one film after another, one genre after another, Bob knew the rules then purposefully inverted and subverted them, as only a true original can.

Q: If you had to choose one film as Altman’s “masterpiece,” which would it be and why?

A: I’d rather pick three, or five, or seven, but if I had to choose one I’d say “Nashville.” Before I explain why, though, I’ve got to tell you why Bob hated the word “masterpiece.” He felt—rightly, I think—that it turned away audiences, making them think of a pile of vegetables they should eat because it’s good for them. So if we use the masterpiece label, let’s agree that “Nashville” is nothing like that. It’s an enormously entertaining movie that happens to be an absolutely brilliant portrait of America. Without using any of these terms, or laying it on too thick, it gets underneath and exposes the peculiarly American nature of power, fame, race, sex, violence and character. Think of a painting you’d consider a masterpiece. You appreciate its beauty on the surface the first time you look at it. But why do we keep looking at it, again and again, for hours at a time? It’s because the deeper we engage with a masterpiece, whether in oil or marble or on film, the more it touches what Bob called “deep down in the dermis”—the layers of ourselves far beneath the skin. “Nashville” does just that.

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