Robert Altman

Master of the wandering camera and maverick director of 'M*A*S*H', 'The Player' and 'Nashville'
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The Independent Online

Robert Bernard Altman, film director: born Kansas City, Missouri 20 February 1925; married 1947 LaVonne Elmer (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1949), 1950 Lotus Corelli (two sons; marriage dissolved 1955), 1957 Kathryn Reed (one son, one adopted son); died Los Angeles 20 November 2006.

The director Robert Altman won fame at the age of 45 as the director of M*A*S*H, a black comedy set during the Korean War which struck a resonant chord with both critics and audiences with its mix of iconoclastic humour and stark tragedy. The film's appeal to the counterculture and refusal to acknowledge convention or timid sensibilities proved typical of a director whose irreverent approach and adamant refusal to be easily categorised was to earn him the oft-applied classification as maverick.

He would encourage his players to improvise, and favoured overlapping dialogue - his leading actors in M*A*S*H, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, rebelled at his methods and almost had him fired, though Sutherland was later to say, "My God, it changed my life!"

In a career in which he wavered in and out of industry favour, Altman had a fair number of misfires and films which were, at best, cult movies, balanced by such gems as M*A*S*H, the brilliantly mordant dissection of Hollywood fame The Player, and what is arguably his masterpiece, Nashville, with its fascinating tapestry of 24 characters whose lives interweave during the course of a weekend in the country-music capital. In London earlier this year he directed, disastrously, a play at the Old Vic, but fortunately it was followed by an honorary Oscar and the news that his latest film, The Prairie Home Companion, is a success.

Of English, Irish and German descent, Altman was the son of an insurance broker, born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1925. Educated at Jesuit schools, he served as a bomber pilot in the Second World War before studying engineering at the University of Missouri. He tried various jobs while writing screen stories with a friend, George W. George, one of which was purchased by RKO and filmed by Richard Fleischer as a superior "B" movie, The Bodyguard (1948).

Unable to find steady employment in Hollywood, where he appeared as an extra in the Danny Kaye vehicle The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), he became a director of industrial movies for the Calvin Company in Kansas City, learning all aspects of film-making. In 1957, raising money from local businesses, he wrote, produced and directed his first cinema film, The Delinquents (1957), part of the era's cycle of films on juvenile crime, then, with George, he co-directed a documentary, The James Dean Story (1957) before moving into television, where he honed his craft with well-received episodes for such series as Combat!, The Roaring Twenties, Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

He returned to features with Countdown (1968), a drama about astronauts starring Robert Duvall and James Caan, which was drastically cut by the producer Jack Warner, who fired Altman after looking at rushes and declaring, "That fool has everybody talking at the same time!"

After filming a psychological drama starring Sandy Dennis, That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Altman made his breakthrough with M*A*S*H (1970), which won the Golden Palm at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for him as best director - he lost, but Ring Lardner Jnr won for his script, which was the first for a major studio to include the word "fuck" and to mock openly a belief in God.

Typically, with studios offering him carte blanche and large budgets, Altman chose to form his own company and make a quirky piece of whimsy, Brewster McCloud (1970), starring Bud Cort as an oddball youth whose dream is to fly inside the Houston Astrodome. "It's about insanity," Altman said. "It's about cruelty; but the main physical substance is bird shit." It was a critical and commercial disaster and an indication of the wayward course his career was to take.

His next film, McCabe and Mrs Miller (1970), did not please everyone, but its magnificently photographed, if bleak, rain and snow-swept settings, its dark mood and uncompromisingly stark depiction of what the West was really like earned it a share of critical acclaim and a cult following which has grown with the years. "What a collection of stereotypes," Altman said of the script:

There was the gambler down on his luck, the whore with a heart of gold, the three heavies. Everything that you've seen all your life in westerns. The audience can supply most of the story already. That left me free to work on the backgrounds and the atmosphere and the details.

In contrast, Images (1972), which he wrote and filmed in Britain, with Susannah York as a psychopath increasingly unable to separate fantasy and reality, was like a demented mixture of Bergman and Polanski.

Altman's adaptation of Raymond Chandler's thriller The Long Goodbye (1973) brought a revisionist view of the author's private-eye hero Philip Marlow (previously played by Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart as taciturn, flip and wise-cracking). Altman's detective was played by Elliott Gould as a cat-loving anti-hero, and, despite fine performances from Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell and Nina Van Pallandt as suspects worthy of Chandler's intricate plotting (reproduced with fidelity by Altman), it did not find favour with audiences.

Thieves Like Us (1974), based on a story inspired by the careers of Bonnie and Clyde and already filmed by Nicholas Ray as They Live By Night (1949), replaced the noir quality of Ray's movie with a convincingly rustic atmosphere. Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, who were to become part of Altman's repertory company, were excellent as the doomed pair, but despite critical approval the film did scant business, as did California Split (1974), a diffuse tale of two gamblers (Elliott Gould and George Segal) trying to arrange a high-stakes poker game in Reno. Altman himself was a compulsive gambler, as well as a heavy drinker, though he stated that he did not drink while working. (Heart problems eventually forced him to give up alcohol.)

His career was resurrected with his next film, Nashville (1975), a masterful blend of humour, satire, romance and drama. It follows the intertwining relationships of two dozen disparate people who congregate in Nashville for a centennial-eve weekend, which includes a political rally and a country-and- western festival. A brilliant cast - who were encouraged to write their own songs as well as improvise dialogue - included Altman regulars like Carradine and Duvall alongside Karen Black, Henry Gibson and Ronee Blakely.

In addition, memorable performances were given by Lily Tomlin as a gospel singer unfazed by her affair with womanising folk singer Carradine, Barbara Harris as a klutzy, aspiring singing star who gets her chance due to an unexpected tragedy, and Geraldine Chaplin as Opal, "from the BBC". The scene in which Carradine sings his Oscar-winning song "I'm Easy" to a crowded room in which several women believe he is singing only for them, is one of myriad set-pieces in a film in which the concepts of illusion and deception are constantly questioned.

The critic Pauline Kael, one of Altman's most fervent champions since she had urged her colleagues to reconsider the merits of McCabe and Mrs Miller, noted his use of glass reflections in both The Long Goodbye and Nashville - "You see an image and you see through it at the same time." The logistics of this huge ensemble piece are daunting, but Altman manages to keep the wide-screen images (which often feature important peripheral action) under complete control. Nashville won the New York Critics Awards for best film and best director.

Alas, Altman perversely followed his masterwork with a wildly misjudged version of Arthur Kopit's play Indians, retitled Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), starring Paul Newman in a bizarre, pretentious and overlong treatise on the inaccuracies in American history. Altman based his next film, Three Women (1977), on a dream he had. Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule were the ladies of the title, and there were some delightfully surreal scenes (particularly those with the ditsy Duvall) in a tale of some profundity (or pretentiousness - critics could not agree).

For A Wedding (1978), Altman returned to the multi-character form (there were more than 50), but it was less keenly structured or interesting than Nashville, and was described by the New York Daily News as "irritatingly cynical". Nobody liked Quintet (1979), a science-fiction allegory, despite a cast headed by Paul Newman, and an even more impressive cast list - including Lauren Bacall, Glenda Jackson, Alfre Woodard and James Garner - could not save H.E.A.L.T.H. (1979), a contrived political satire.

Altman worked with Shelley Duvall again on the big-budget musical Popeye (1980), and the actress's perfect casting as Olive Oyl was about all that could be said in the film's favour, despite its impressive credits - script by Jules Feiffer, songs by Harry Nillson. Altman turned to the theatre, directing Ed Graczyk's play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1981), which he later filmed, using a Super 16mm camera. Featuring the original cast members Karen Black, Sandy Dennis and Cher, this tale of a reunion of women in a Midwestern café and the revelation of some startling secrets, was effective and enjoyable, but its release was largely confined to art houses and festivals.

He continued with modest fare, including some television work and more film transcriptions from the stage: Streamers (1983), about a group of soldiers waiting to be sent to Vietnam; Secret Honor (1984), a one-man anti-Nixon diatribe based on Richard Nixon's own words; Fool for Love (1985), with its author Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger as feuding ex-lovers; and Beyond Therapy (1987), starring Glenda Jackson in a would-be comedy about New Yorkers and their analysts.

Altman won praise for his direction on television of Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter (1987), Herman Wouk's play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1988), and a mini-series, Vincent and Theo (1990), with strong performances by Tim Roth as Van Gogh and Paul Rhys as his brother. "Seldom has an artist's life been so convincingly or movingly portrayed on screen," Variety said.

Two years later Altman made another of his spectacular returns to mainstream favour with a film about Hollywood, The Player (1992), starring Tim Robbins as a movie executive willing to murder to maintain his position in the Hollywood hierarchy. The eight-minute tracking shot that opens the film is a tour de force, and it is a mark of the respect generated by Altman within the industry (akin to that accorded Woody Allen) that he was able to muster a collection of name players (66 in all) to take small (sometimes virtually walk-on) parts in the ambitious tale, one of Altman's funniest, as well as most acerbic, films. (The mock gas-chamber scene in the movie-within-a-movie was one of the comic highlights.) Altman and the film (which he called his "third comeback") were both nominated for Oscars.

For the first time, Altman did not follow a major triumph with a disaster - Short Cuts (1993), a collection of nine Raymond Carver short stories melded into a moderately cohesive whole, was not as big a hit as The Player, but it was a fine movie that won Altman another Oscar nomination. Prêt-à-Porter (1994) nostalgically brought together Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, who had made several films together decades earlier, but the shallow satire of the fashion industry began another poor period for Altman - his tribute to the jazz heritage of his home town, Kansas City (1996), was a disappointment, The Gingerbread Man (1998) had John Grisham's first film script but proved ineffectual, and Dr T and the Women (2000), starring Richard Gere as a society gynaecologist, was accused of being misogynistic.

It was time for the Altman reputation to be rescued again, and it came in the form of a genial parody of country-house murder mysteries, Gosford Park (2001), filmed in the UK from a wise and witty script by Julian Fellowes that neatly dissected the class system on the Thirties. With a distinguished cast including Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, Altman fashioned a leisurely but amusing and ingratiating film which won him a fifth Oscar nomination as best director (he lost, but Fellowes won for his script).

Altman's final film, The Prairie Home Companion, opened earlier this year in the United States, and is said to have the extensive cast, overlapping dialogue and wandering camera, traits that now tend to be called "Altmanesque".

In 2003 Altman was featured in a television special, A Salute to Robert Altman: an American maverick. "For 30 years," he said, "I have always had a film of my own choosing, and I've also had control", and he stated that action on screen "should just seem to be happening".

In March this year, he was awarded an Oscar for life achievement, presented to him by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, who, after some carefully prepared overlapping dialogue, stated, "You leave his movies knowing that life is everything at once." As Pauline Kael wrote, "Altman's art, like Fred Astaire's, is the great American art of making the impossible look easy."

Tom Vallance