Making films is a chance to live many lives.
During the New Hollywood Era, as the prominence of directors preceded that of studios, a trailblazer emerged who became one of the most underrated filmmakers in the industry due to his staunch and opinionated personality. . Recipient of many other awards and accolades, Robert Altman, with not a single competitive Oscar to his name, has nevertheless managed to win the Academy Honorary Award for his distinguished contribution to the world of cinema. Considered a maverick for his unique and unorthodox approach to subjects employing satirical and subversive devices, Altman remains one of Hollywood’s most influential underdogs. He was often considered “anti-Hollywood” but was an actor’s favorite because of the creative freedom he offered, as well as the encouragement to bring out the best in it.
Born February 20, 1925 into a wealthy family, Altman’s father came from an upper-class family. Although he was brought up in the Catholic religion and often referred to as a Catholic director, he never practiced his religion. Graduated in 1943, he joined the United States Army Air Force and flew as a teammate in more than 50 bombing missions during World War II. While he never planned to make films, Altman sold his screenplay for the 1948 film. Bodyguard at RKO, and this immediate success prompted him to move to New York City, where he tried his hand at writing. He failed enough, however, and returned to Kansas, where he was hired by the Calvin Company to write and direct industrial films. It was here that Altman, while making such films, tried to employ experimental techniques, thus sharpening his directorial eye.
By the 1950s, Altman had established his name in the television industry, having written and directed various episodes. It was around this time that Altman slowly developed his very famous talent of using simple and natural dialogue between characters. His unique ability to work quickly and on a budget has helped him make a name for himself. Altman was most often fired from various projects due to his rebellious ideas and refusal to comply with immediate authorities, but he still landed jobs fairly quickly. It was around this time that Altman was trying to get into filmmaking but ended up creating box office failures. The political intonation of his work, especially his ideas and feelings regarding the Vietnam War, was quickly recorded and he was quickly associated directly with the anti-war movement, which began to affect the exponential rise of his career.
Altman was always up for a good challenge. His indomitable and fearless spirit helped him accept the script for MASH POTATOES, a film adapted from a modest Korean War-era novel that was a direct satire of life in the military. Altman agreed to direct the screenplay, which had previously been rejected by most of the big names in contemporary Hollywood. While the filmmaking process was quite tedious, with Altman almost getting fired for his radical, non-conformist views, the film ended up being an immediate classic, winning numerous accolades and five Oscar nominations. Very quickly, he embarked on a cinematic rampage, making films like McCabe & Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, They Live by Night, Nashville, CA Split and more. Altman was the greatest ancestor of independent films and hated how studios would appropriate the creative genius of a director. This prompted him to start his own production company named Lion’s Gate Films to encourage independent production. The films produced by the company were however extremely unsuccessful, notably Brewster McCloud, A marriage, 3 women, Quintet and others.
Altman’s career has never been smooth. From continually being questioned to being avoided to being too vocal, he’s made it through the ugliest upheavals with a tumultuous rollercoaster of reputation. After his film was shelved by 20th Century Fox, Altman vowed to “run literate dramatic properties on tight budgets for stage, home video, television and limited theatrical release.” After a mixed bag of outings, including a few successful ones like Vincent & Theo, the player and more, Altman finally realized Shortcuts which was an adaptation of the short story by Raymond Carver, about ordinary people in Los Angeles living their lives over a set period of time.
Altman missed out on the Academy Award for Best Director for Gosford Park, which was adored by critics and fans. Rumors say that his anti-war stance, as well as his fierce opposition to George W. Bush, has cost him a reward. However, that never deterred Altan from saying what he was thinking. He has spoken very clearly about all his problems with the industry as well as with the world. Altman was a one of a kind director with a passionate love for everyday life and people. Altman’s inspiration lay in the hum of everyday life as he found the chaos and calm that inhabit people, along with their beauty and flaws, extremely fascinating. A master of satire, his aesthetic reeked of satirical commentary, whether on industry or the military, it never mattered.
Author in the truest sense of the word, Altman quickly recognized the limits that would be imposed on him and therefore went against the grain to transcend the genre. Identified as the harbinger of “anti-genre”, it cannot be placed in a particular setting such as westerns, musicals, thrillers, etc. he was the god of satire whose quirky and idiosyncratic outlook often cost him box office success as people often didn’t recognize him and spot the main message conveyed. He was very stubborn and mastered his creative genius perfectly, refusing to conform or sacrifice his own ideas and beliefs to contribute to a film’s success. This is often seen as one of the reasons why Hollywood’s big sharks have stood in the way of Altman’s success and is constantly standing in the way.
He was known for his mercurial mood with studio executives, one of whom he punched and knocked out in a swimming pool due to unwanted suggestions. However, among actors he was extremely popular due to the creative and artistic freedom he gave them to explore a character according to their whims and fancies. The love and respect he had for actors was increased tenfold as actors, no matter how famous they were, would give up everything and work next to nothing if it had been an Altman movie. The writers often refused to work with him due to his habit of straying from the script and engaging in random improvisations. Known for the brilliant use of music as well as the unconventional plot in his films with layered characters, Altman was also well recognized for his incredible camera work. The gentle techniques he used even made Stanley Kubrick marvel with awe.
In 2006, while receiving the honor at the Academy, Altman revealed that he was extremely grateful that he never had to go against his wishes when performing. His stubborn self has always helped him achieve the projects he loved and cherished. He ended his speech by revealing how he had a heart transplant ten years ago and that the Academy miscalculated his stay by awarding him an award nearly four decades before his deadline: “Oh, one more thing. I am here, I think, under false pretenses, and I think I have to become frank with you, ”he said. “Ten, eleven years ago, I had a heart transplant. A total heart transplant. I had the heart, I think, of a young lady who was in her late thirties, and so by that kind of calculation you might be giving me that price too soon. Because I think I have about forty years left on it. And I intend to use it. Thank you very much. Thank you.”
Ironically, this was the same year Altman died from complications from leukemia. Since then he has been highly regarded for his passion and never giving up attitude. Known for his love for ensemble casts and all that is revolutionary, his work is recognized as “Altmanesque”. His wonderfully realistic satires rejuvenated the oversaturated world of Hollywood and was like a breath of fresh air in an industry where directors were busy pleasing studio moguls. Altman never cared about money as long as what he produced was aligned with his immense love for art; the implosion of the characters, as well as the psyche that occurred within the Altmanesque, is what made the filmmaker an icon, a legendary author.
Today, on what would have been his 96th birthday, we pay tribute to this legendary author who paved the way for new thinking in Hollywood and challenged and overthrown the quintessential mainstream culture by refusing to give up his freedom of creation.
“All my films are about the same thing: struggling, socially and culturally, to stay alive.”
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