Book review

Altman broke ground, tweaked convention

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / October 21, 2009

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Robert Altman, the iconoclastic director of groundbreaking films such as “M*A*S*H,’’ “Nashville,’’ “Short Cuts,’’ and “The Player,’’ never met a Hollywood executive he trusted. Throughout his career, Altman (and his crews) maintained an “us against them’’ mentality about the studios who financed his films. Even in his younger days in television, director Altman pushed the boundaries with his trademark dark themes and rejection of linear storytelling. After a few run-ins with the sponsors of “Kraft Suspense Theatre’’ in the early 1960s, Altman retaliated by telling a magazine interviewer, “the show is as bland as its cheese.’’ Needless to say, Altman never worked for Kraft again.

Mitchell Zuckoff’s biography is a lot like an Altman film. There’s no overarching narrative structure to tie the pieces together into an easy-to-understand story. Instead, Zuckoff offers us interweaving snippets of interviews from the people who knew Altman best (including Altman himself). Again like an Altman film, these snippets are at times maddeningly contradictory. While actors such as Paul Newman and Tim Robbins adored Altman’s loose, supportive directorial style, members of his own family were less enamored of his philandering and stunning eruptions of anger.

Altman himself described his style: “Stories don’t interest me. Basically I’m more interested in behavior. I don’t direct, I watch.’’ As these interviews show, Altman put the creative responsibility on the shoulders of his actors. Most actors loved him, although a few deemed his style chaotic. Actor Elliott Gould often disagreed with Altman’s improvisational approach on “M*A*S*H.’’ Gould once testily told Altman, “You tell me what you want and that’s what you’ll get.’’

Altman’s actor-centric direction didn’t mean he surrendered creative control. He worked hard to carve out an atmosphere in which his actors could take risks. He could also provoke strong emotion from an actor who wasn’t fully immersed in his role: As Altman’s assistant director Alan Rudolph said, he “knew where to go inside of any person and what he could tweak. Because he didn’t have any decorum rules, he could challenge people on an emotional, personal, political, creative level.’’

Altman enjoyed challenging convention on and off set. An Iranian friend of Altman’s tells about the time he and Altman checked into a Las Vegas hotel: The director convinced his friend to pose as an Iranian prince. The “prince’’ and his assistant Altman were given the hotel’s most luxurious suite and entertained by Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, who were both introduced to the “prince’’ after the show. Altman’s risk-taking had its dark side too. An affair with actress Faye Dunaway, one of many Altman flings, nearly destroyed his marriage.

Zuckoff takes us on the sets of all the great films and shows us how they were made. Actor Kevin Kline, who worked on Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,’’ speaks for many: “The script was the script, but anything can happen, anything can evolve, anything can mutate into something else. . . . It’s a willingness [by Altman] not to control, to let things happen that you didn’t plan.’’ Such freedom sometimes led to messy, unstructured films, but, in the best of them, led to some of the most memorable achievements in screen history. Zuckoff’s biography is like his subject’s movies, filled with a multiplicity of voices and averse to defining “meaning.’’ Yet in the end, readers understand Altman’s stubborn vision, his refusal to compromise with commerce, and his hard-earned, eccentric genius.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer based in Dorchester.

ROBERT ALTMAN: The Oral Biography

By Mitchell Zuckoff

Knopf, 560 pp., illustrated, $35

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