Robin Williams, Bruce Willis and Paul Thomas Anderson remember legendary filmmaker Robert Altman in this documentary.
The first but not, one would hope, the last bio-documentary about the late, great American maverick director, Ron Mann’s Altman has its value as an admiring, loving, family-endorsed portrait of an ever-restless artist who both worked within and bucked the system while turning out nearly 40 idiosyncratic films in as many years. But everyone knows that Robert Altman’s life and career were far more turbulent and tempestuous than the one depicted here, so a more uncensored documentary would one day serve as a welcome companion piece to this smoothly assembled, understandably laundered account. World premiered at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater on June 20, this original documentary for Epix, The Movie Network and Movie Central will turn up on home screens in August.
Narrated for the most part by the filmmaker’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, the fast-moving piece makes abundant use of home movies and privately shot behind-the-scenes footage, everything from the moment Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland seem to be meeting for the first time pre-M*A*S*H and Vilmos Zsigmond and the director scouting Images locations in Ireland’s County Wicklow to some of the director’s kids re-creating a silent Western movie rescue and obviously well-lubricated parties at the famous Malibu abode.
Much as Altman’s films were generally overflowing with people, eccentric pursuits and offbeat humanity, so does his life look to have been, with actors, pals, family members and hangers-on always seemingly along for the ride being commandeered, often in a relaxed way, by the former WWII bomber pilot. Mann makes colorful use of his privileged access by offering rare glimpses (almost invariably in ultra-pristine condition) of Altman’s early Kansas City industrial films, his first feature, The Delinquents, made in K.C. in 1956 and starring Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin, and episodes from his TV directing days on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Whirlybirds, Peter Gunn, Bonanza, Combat and many more.
Finally allowed to make a feature at Warner Bros., Altman says here (in one of the many interviews from over the years sampled here) that he was fired from the 1968 moonshot drama Countdown because Jack Warner objected to his having “two people talking at the same time,” although this begs the question of how Warner felt about it when Howard Hawks did the same thing more than twenty years earlier.
By contrast, Altman contends, another old mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, allowed his two young girlfriends to talk him into keeping all the gore along with the comedy in M*A*S*H, which made Altman, in 1970, Hollywood hottest new director at age 45. From this point on, Mann breezes through the career, quickly noting technical innovations and stylistic predilections (the constantly moving camera in The Long Goodbye, individually miked sound on California Split) without going very deeply into what the films were actually about and never discussing their quality, why some Altman films were great and others terrible.
The numerous guest stars are not present to discuss their collaborations with the master of loose sets and improvisation but, rather, to answer the question of what “Altmanesque” means. Mann, either restrained or constrained due to the family cooperation being so fulsomely extended, never dares scratch much beneath the surface to explore demons, misbehavior or misguided judgment, so revelations are not much featured on the menu here. Altman himself allows that his career downturn after the fiasco of Popeye in 1980 was exacerbated by heavy gambling losses, son Stephen admits that constant filming meant that he mostly saw his father on holidays, and there is open discussion of the director’s heart transplant, which was kept a deep secret for a decade for fear that it would scare off financing. Altman died in 2006 at age 81, productive to the end.
Happily included is Kathryn’s wonderful, oft-told account of her exchange with Altman when they first met on during the shooting of a Whirlybirds episode. “How are your morals?” the director asked. “A little shaky,” she replied.
Altman serves as an agreeable, safe, overly placid overview of a rambunctious, unpredictable and irrepressible artist and his amazingly fertile career. Although irreverence, impudence and impulsiveness are discussed and on display, the film never channels the drive, hunger and inspiration that necessarily fueled a career like Altman’s. The two major books about the director to date, Patrick McGilligan’s prodigiously researched 1989 biography and Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2009 “oral biography,” amply reveal how much territory could be mined by a truly ambitious documentary.
Production: Sphinx Productions
With: Paul Thomas Anderson, James Caan, Keith Carradine, Elliott Gould, Philip Baker Hall, Sally Kellerman, Lyle Lovett, Julianne Moore, Michael Murphy, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis
Director: Ron Mann
Writer: Len Blum
Producer: Ron Mann
Director of photography: Simon Ennis
Art directors: Craig Small, Matthew Badiali
Editor: Robert Kennedy
Music: Guido Luciani, Phil Dwyer