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Overlapping Dialogs

Robert Altman as remembered by the many, many people who knew--and sometimes liked--him

Daniel Krall

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/16/2009

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

Mitchell Zuckoff

Borzoi, hardcover

Of course Robert Altman gets an oral biography. What better way to tell the life story of a filmmaker whose trademark was overlapping dialog that offered many levels of information and occasional competing takes on reality? Not that there's that much substantive disagreement voiced in Mitchell Zuckoff's book. As captured here, Altman was generally a pain to Air Corps pilots, producers, studio executives, and any other authority figures who tried to rein him in. He was generally worshipped by actors, to whom he gave enormous freedom in creating their roles and, via that freedom, his movies, which were often groundbreakingly brilliant (1971's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1975's Nashville) and frequently pretty dire (1980's HealtH). He was a generous spirit, a mean drunk, a devoted husband, an indifferent father, and a spendthrift with a compulsive work ethic, all at the same time.

Born into a middle-class family in Kansas City, Mo., in 1925, Altman's trajectory followed that of many American men of his generation as he served in World War II, married and started a family, and settled into a career--in his case, making industrial films for a hometown firm. Altman's ambition eventually led him to Hollywood, though, where he further honed his chops in TV. He was 44 by the time 1970's M*A*S*H made him the hottest new director in town; his creative knack and anarchistic spirit led to a string of successes and experiments through the '70s unparalleled by any other post-studio-system American director, from eccentric folly Brewster McCloud through Raymond Chandler reboot The Long Goodbye to dream-like harbinger 3 Women. He didn't, and perhaps couldn't, keep it up, but he continued to make a movie almost every year and "came back" at least twice (with 1992's The Player and 2001's Gosford Park) before his death in 2006.

Zuckoff interviewed Altman for a more straightforward book about his filmography shortly before the director died, leaving the author to regroup with the oral-bio format. It should come as no surprise to any fan that this account is full of entertaining anecdotes (e.g. freewheeling Altman vs. perfectionist Warren Beatty), but then there isn't much surprise here in general. When not addressing early biographical material or delving into the director's most loved movies, Zuckoff settles for toggling between brief visits to film sets and round-robin discussion of Altman's character and personal life. As such, Robert Altman lacks serious analysis and doesn't probe very deeply even when it tries, leaving it enjoyable but far from essential.

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