Literature / The Player

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"No stars, just talent."
Griffin Mill

A 1988 satirical novel by Michael Tolkin, The Player was brought to the screen in 1992 by Robert Altman with a screenplay also by Tolkin. The film version starred Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher and a ton of stars as themselves.

Griffin Mill is a sleazy studio executive whose job it is to decide which screenplays get produced. He finds his life threatened by a stalker, supposedly a screenwriter whose pitch he once rejected. In a confrontation with a disgruntled screenwriter he believes to be the stalker, they escalate into a fight and Griffin accidentally kills the other man. Naturally, this is where things go to hell for Griffin, not helped by not being certain he was the right man in the first place.

The film is incredibly self-referential that attacks the film industry and the Development Hell each film has to go through to get made. It drops you into the social atmosphere of Hollywood and is ultimately an inverted murder mystery, with a man worried about his evil act being discovered.

Tropes:

  • Anti-Hero: Closer to a Villain Protagonist.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The Rialto Theatre, where Griffin kills the writer, is a real theatre in the city of South Pasadena, California. South Pasadena is distinct from it's neighbor to the north, Pasadena, both of which have seperate city halls and police departments. Yet it's the detectives on Pasadena's police force who are asking Griffin questions about what happened at the Rialto. Justified, as keeping the distinction between the cities would have just confused any viewers not familar with the Southern California area.
  • Celebrity Cameo: Tons and tons of them: Harry Belafonte, Gary Busey, Cher, James Coburn, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Malcolm McDowell, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Bruce Willis,... and those are just a handful of the actors. Appearances are also made by well-known producers, screenwriters, and directors. Most of whom worked for nothing; if they were charged their normal asking prices, the film's budget would've exceeded $100 million.
  • Celebrity Paradox: A notable number of recognizable actors appear in the film as themselves. Notably at the end (delivering the punch line to the movie's main Brick Joke) are Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts. No mention is made of the film's principal actors, notably Tim Robbins (who would later co-star with Julia Roberts in Prêt-à-Porter), Whoopi Goldberg (who had co-starred with Bruce Willis in an episode of Moonlighting) and Lyle Lovett (who for awhile was married to Julia Roberts in real life). Also making a cameo in this movie is Susan Sarandon, with whom Tim Robbins was romantically involved at the time.
  • Character Name Alias: The blackmailer uses the 'Joe Gillis'; the the name of the narrator character in Sunset Boulevard.
  • Comforting the Widow: Griffin does this with the wife of the writer.
  • Conversational Troping: Two guys in the long tracking shot that opens the film talk about other long tracking shots in films.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Griffin Mill and his fellow sleezeball studio execs.
  • Creator Career Self Deprecation: This movie shows that Hollywood is willing to poke fun at themselves. Naturally it was directed by a more independent cineaste: Robert Altman. Altman later said that he was surprised people took this film as a "serious" satire. Altman saw it as a mild comedy and that he went gently on Hollywood (He didn't show the agents for instance) because he was in a good mood. As he says, "the real Hollywood is much worse."
  • Double Meaning Title: In-Universe, in another context, the literal translation of the proposed "Law Procedural" Habeas Corpus ("produce the corpse") also signifies the fact that the screenwriters are pitching a completely ludicrous idea for a movie that has no chance of being successful. Griffin points out the absurdity of it all when he notes that Tom Oakley's pitch distinctly lacks a Second Act; in the originally proposed story, there wouldn't be any meaningful development of the plot or its main character (the District Attorney) until after a sudden plot twist near the very conclusion. Later studio changes after the film gets produced only take an already absurd premise (for a movie) and make it even stranger.
  • Film Within A Film: We see many being proposed. The most prominent one is called Habeas Corpus.
  • Focus Group Ending: Griffin uses this justification for changing the Downer Ending of Habeas Corpus.
  • Happy Ending: Mocked in the film-within-the-film and the real film's ending.
  • High Concept: Set in the film industry, this is now a textbook for how to make film pitches.
    Griffin: Twenty-five words or less.
  • Horrible Hollywood: In spades. Though the real one, as per Altman, is way worse than this film.
  • Hyperlink Story: Not to the extent of other Altman films since Griffin Mill is The Protagonist but there are many loose vignettes and subplots that coalesce with him and aren't really related to each other.
  • Hypocrite: All of Hollywood:
    • Griffin Mill is a hack and executive. He initially talks up his love for The Bicycle Thief, the Italian classic to the writer who points out that he would never allow a film in that style to be made in Hollywood today. Later, he attends a gala event proclaiming cinema as art and dropping names of outsider film-makers like Orson Welles while still shilling the same shlock day-in-and-day-out.
    • Screenwriter Tom Oakley initially defends his story "Habeas Corpus" as a serious edgy crime drama with a Downer Ending and fights for it to Griffin Mill, by the end he has cheerfully and cyncially become a Sell Out, happily taking the bigger cheque and deal offered to him by Mill.
  • Karma Houdini: Griffin gets away with murder, backstabbing and cheapening an artsy film for the sake of profit. The writer who provoked Griffin into committing the murder pulled off his plan without any hitches, and even became Griffin's accomplice by the end.
  • The '90s: The clothes and hair significantly date the film. Also, many of the cameos are by celebrities whose stars have dimmed since 1992, and are less easy to recognize for present-day viewers watching the movie for the first time.
  • The Oner: The opening shot, with improvised dialogue. An homage to Touch of Evil.
  • Oscar Bait: In-universe with Habeas Corpus.
  • Police Lineup: Griffin appears in one, and a witness's mistake lets him get off the hook.
  • Postmodernism: As with many of Altman's films, The Player operates on multiple panes of reality.
  • Red Herring: The writer whom Griffith murdered, as well as Griffith's stalker, who was really a detective attempting to turn Griffith in. The real blackmailer was never revealed.
  • They Plotted a Perfectly Good Waste: Inverted and In-Universe. The in-film movie Habeas Corpus, initially pitched for its "reality" is later described by Griffin Mill at one point as a hairbrained idea with "no second act" and no overarching plot or conflict between the setup and its conclusion. This proves true when it's later revealed that the original ending was not received well by test audiences, which compelled the studio to fit the premise to their more usual formula. In the end, even the film's writer reverses his initial opinion on bringing "reality" in movies.
    Bonnie: How could you let him sell you out? What about truth? Reality?
    Tom Oakley: What about the way the old ending tested in Canoga Park? Everybody hated it. We re-shot it, now everybody loves it. That's reality!
  • Writers Suck: Pitches become so much more important than finished scripts that Larry Levy arrives at the studio to argue that writers are unnecessary to the filmmaking process; anybody can just spin a story pitch out of a newspaper article and plug in a simple, easy to understand formula.
    Bonnie: "Further Bond Losses Push Dow Down 7.15." I see Connery as Bond.
  • X Meets Y: The pitches Griffin hears inevitably get simplified into something familiar, like "Pretty Woman meets Out of Africa" or "Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate."

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