Robert Altman’s been dead for nearly three years, and apparently the time for politeness is over. (Hey, it’s longer than Heath Ledger got).
Mitchel Zuckoff’s “Robert Altman: An Oral Biography” hit shelves last Tuesday, a book built out of Altman’s final interviews and the voices of his collaborators that doesn’t skirt the fact that, however acclaimed he was as a filmmaker, Altman could be a real dick. Janet Maslin notes actor Michael Murphy’s anecdote about how “Bob would make the best bloody mary I’ve ever tasted. Then he would stand up and make a speech, pretty much the same speech every night… ‘No one in this room knows what this movie is about except me.'”
Reviews have been generally respectful, with exception of a blind haymaker from veteran film writer Richard Schickel at the LA Times, who spends, oh, about a paragraph of his 939-word review actually talking about the book before rambling off about how terrible Altman’s movies are, and what a jerk he was to so little end. Schickel likes “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Nashville,” “California Split” and that’s it. The rest of Altman’s movies are “solipsistic,” like being “trapped in someone else’s not-very-interesting drug haze.”
The article’s prompted some LA Times infighting, with filmmaker Alan Rudolph (“Afterglow,” “The Secret Lives of Dentists”) writing in to defend his mentor from the wrath of Schickel. “He negates Altman because of his life style. Would he dismiss Huston’s drinking or Hitchcock’s sexual repression as influences on their film gifts?” Furthermore: “Directors, writers and actors don’t have to replicate Altman for him to have impacted their sensibilities. […] Bob’s insistence on doing things his own way was essential. It’s the major struggle. And Altman won.”
For all his influence, no one’s ever successfully imitated Altman stylistically, or even tried. In a way, Rudolph’s admirably intentioned defense does Altman a disservice: it suggests that his major legacy isn’t in the work, but in paving the way for other mavericks who wanted to flip the bird to studios while taking their money. The lesson to take: when a guy like Schickel takes a book assignment for the clear purpose of being a cranky reactionary, it’s really better to just let it be.
[Photo: Altman and Lindsay Lohan on the set of “A Prairie Home Companion,” used without permission]