Altman, director who defied film industry, dies at 81

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America was mourning the loss of one of its most inventive, irreverent and prolific film-makers yesterday with the death of Robert Altman, a director who made a point of refusing to follow Hollywood convention and thrived anyway over a 40-year career.

Altman, who made his mark in the Vietnam era with M*A*S*H and went on to direct such classics as The Long Goodbye, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts, died at a hospital near Los Angeles on Monday night. He was 81.

Altman had been in indifferent health for more than a decade, and underwent a heart transplant in the 1990s. But that did not stop him from working right up to the end. Just a few months ago, he released A Prairie Home Companion - a film, perhaps aptly, as much about death as it was about the dwindling fortunes of an old-fashioned radio show - and had at least two or three projects he was considering next.

One critic, Scott Foundas of the Los Angeles Weekly, remarked a few years ago that he still directed with the enthusiasm and inventiveness of a young man. Altman himself liked to tell interviewers that nobody had had a better time of it in the movie industry than he had - never making a movie over which he had anything less than total control, from the script to the final cut. At times he was reviled by the industry - not least because of his open disdain for mainstream Hollywood - and for a long fallow period in the 1980s he had to content himself with chamber pieces like Secret Honor - a withering one-man show about Richard Nixon - and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, adapted from a play he directed on Broadway.

But Altman always found a way to bounce back, both critically and commercially. It was his satire of Hollywood mores, The Player, that put him back on the map in the 1990s. And it was his tongue-in-cheek drawing-room murder mystery, Gosford Park, that kept him going at an age when most insurance companies wondered if they dared take a risk on his continuing strength and good health.

Altman once said of Hollywood that the studios made films he had no interest in making, while he made films that did not seem to interest them. Through the first flowering of his career in the 1970s, he led an extraordinarily precarious existence bouncing from one studio to another, culminating in the commercially disastrous big-budget musical version of Popeye he made for Disney and Paramount in 1980. He never directed another studio picture again.

The industry politics is likely to subside in importance, however, compared with his reputation as an extraordinarily incisive observer of American social and political mores and a film-maker who liked to experiment with form and technique.

He wasn't interested in three-act plots with a neat beginning, middle and end. Rather, his films meandered in and out of different stories, his actors improvised much of their dialogue and talked over each other, and plot points were frequently addressed as open questions rather than issues to be resolved and closed. Altman's ability to construct complex ensemble movies remains perhaps his crowning achievement, and a big reason why actors would fall over themselves to appear in his work, often agreeing to be paid little more than the industry minimum.

Director's cut - his top five

Short Cuts

Altman's reworking of Raymond Carver's short stories had so many overlapping storylines that the director and his screenwriter had to stick flags in a board to work out what was happening when.

The Player

A satire about Hollywood in all its profound superficiality.

Nashville

Probably Altman's most celebrated film, this sprawling epic combines country music, an array of memorable performances and trenchant observation about post-Vietnam America.

The Long Goodbye

An entertaining foray into Chandler territory.

McCabe and Mrs Miller

Altman delighted in introducing a little mud and rain into the western genre.

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