Robert Bernard Altman (February 20, 1925 November 20, 2006) was an American film director, producer, and screenwriter, who came to prominence in the New Hollywood era. He was the most prolific of that generation, the most political and critical director of his time, and the one who retained his independent spirit even when that era ended, and retained it until his final film. He developed a reputation as the industry maverick whose films were admired but little loved, but eventually he came to be seen as one of America's greatest and most original film-makers.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Altman was born to a family of German Immigrants and studied at Jesuit schools and at Wentworth Military Academy. During World War II, Altman joined the United States Army Air Forces at the age of 18. He flew more than 50 bombing missions as a crewman on a B-24 Liberator with the 307th Bomb Group in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. After the war, Altman drifted around, working as an extra, a publicist, industrial film-maker before directing his debut, the independently made The Delinquents made to cash-in on youth films after Rebel Without a Cause. The film didn't attract notices but it provided Altman an entry into television where he worked for nearly ten years until his Breakthrough Hit of M*A*S*H. The shifts in the industry and the society paved the way for greater experimentation in American films, and the late-blooming Altman grabbed his opportunity and went into one of the greatest productive periods by any directors in movie history, turning films like The Long Goodbye, Nashville, 3 Women which were seen as highly innovative for its camera-work, its use of sound and its narrative invention, borrowing from European films but infusing it with a distinctive American spirit and earthiness.
One of his famous techniques was to film group scenes continuously with multiple cameras, forcing the actors to stay in character and sometimes to improvise action or dialogue because any moment of their performance could end up in the film. He was notorious for his overlapping dialogue, multiple planes of action and refusing to clarify and make his film accessible to see and hear for the public. Altman often insisted that his movies were made to be seen more than once and indeed, his particular ensemble movie, called Altmanesque became the reference points for films like Magnolia and Crash.
A moviemaking maverick with little use for the Hollywood establishment, Altman went to France in The '80s when funding dried up in America for his movies. In exile, he made filmed theatre, including the unusual one-man-chamber play Secret Honor and the early HBO miniseries Tanner '88. He made his comeback in The '90s with Short Cuts and The Player and made films in the mainstream for several years. He was still critical of American society and opposed to the policies of George W. Bush. However, the public caught up to Altman's films and worldview to the extent that Altman (after being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director five times) was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2006. On receiving the Oscar, Altman stated that he had a heart transplant surgery in the last few months, Foreshadowing his death a few months later. His final film, A Prairie Home Companion was made with Paul Thomas Anderson on standby to takeover, as a form of insurance, but Altman managed to finish it in time.
Altman occasionally dabbled in songwriting as well, most notably in Country Music singer John Anderson's 1983 hit "Black Sheep" (co-written with singer-songwriter Danny Darst, who also appeared in supporting roles in some of Altman's films from The '90s).
Works by Robert Altman with their own trope pages include:
- That Cold Day in the Park (1969)
- M*A*S*H (1970)
- Brewster McCloud (1970)
- McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
- Images (1972)
- The Long Goodbye (1973)
- Thieves Like Us (1974)
- California Split (1974)
- Nashville (1975)
- 3 Women (1977)
- Quintet (1979)
- Popeye (1980)
- Secret Honor (1984)
- Fool for Love (1985)
- The Player (1992)
- Short Cuts (1993)
- Prêt-à-Porter (1994)
- Cookie's Fortune (1999)
- Gosford Park (2001)
- A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Other tropes associated with Robert Altman:
- Ascended Extra: Literally. A 22-year-old Altman was an extra in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). His scene's about twenty minutes into the film, sitting at a bar behind Danny Kaye, pouring a drink, blowing cigarette smoke through his nose, and mugging a little for the camera.
- Auteur License: Earned it after M*A*S*H and surprisingly hung onto it for the remainder of his career, even after numerous box office failures. A major factor was that he knew how to stay on-budget and film efficiently. Also he had a strong reputation as an actor-friendly director, which led to big names willingly taking pay cuts so they could work with him.
- Benevolent Boss: Robert Altman appeared to be a Nice Guy in real life. He was an artist to wanted to make something his own way but was usually quite supportive of the people he worked with.
- Big Applesauce: Unusually for an American director, he only made one film set in New York, Beyond Therapy, and it was actually filmed in Paris. His 2004 miniseries Tanner on Tanner is also set in New-York and is the only one shot there.
- Bittersweet Ending: One of his trademarks, usually as the result of a Character Death.
- Black Comedy: His comedies lean heavily in this direction, with M*A*S*H being one of the first films of that type to become a big box office hit.
- Chronically Killed Actor: Characters played by Bert Remsen get brutally killed in three different Altman films (Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us).
- Deconstruction: Of all kinds of American ideas, myths and imagery in general.
- His genre films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller portrayed the most historically researched depiction of what The Wild West was really like and the kind of characters that existed there.
- His movies deconstruct politics as a whole. With Tanner '88 (an HBO mockumentary miniseries directed by Altman and written by Garry Trudeau) this is taken Up to Eleven, giving us an accurate look at the demands of a Presidential campaign.
- Early Installment Weirdness: His first few theatrical films note are fairly conventional with few of his signature touches. M*A*S*H was his first attempt at comedy and introduced his familiar style. And of course he didn't have much freedom to experiment in his industrial films or TV work.
- Either/Or Title: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson
- Erudite Stoner: His own persona was the more laid-back variety of this. His fondness for marijuana was well-known but but he was adamant to point out that he never indulged while he was working on set.
- Fan Disservice: He liked doing a variation on this where an attractive person appears nude, but the context of their nudity is so uncomfortable it makes the situation non-erotic. Examples include Sally Kellerman in M*A*S*H, Gwen Welles in Nashville, Mia Farrow in A Wedding, Julianne Moore in Short Cuts and Farrah Fawcett in Dr. T & The Women.
- The Film of the Play: After the disappointing box office returns for Popeye, Altman started directing theatre, where he had more freedom and didn't need to answer to Hollywood money people. Realizing that filmed versions of plays were a good way to get back on the screen without spending much money and targeting a more selective audience, he spend the majority of The '80s doing these, both theatrical and for television.
- Genre-Busting: All his films, to the point that he invented his own genre of Hyperlink Story that later critics called the Altmanesque film. His earlier films, The Long Goodbye and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, deconstructed Film Noir and The Western itself.
- Genre Roulette: Altman never did a straight genre movie and never stuck to one genre. In his career he's done everything from noir to westerns to gangster movies, political satire, thrillers, science-fiction, Victorian period fiction and musicals. He even did a ballet movie with The Company.
- Gray and Grey Morality: What his movies are famous for. While there are out and out villains in some of his movies, in most cases, Altman shows that nearly all his characters have shades of good and bad within them, and even characters who come off as coarse prove to be unexpectedly brave in other respects. Good people can behave in selfish, unthinking ways, while the Jerkass Has a Point.
- Humans Are Bastards: Although Altman loved people in real life, though it would be likely come across a character in each film who committed adultery, showed selfishness, or had jerkass tendencies.
- Hyperlink Story: Brewster McCloud, M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, Nashville, Health, Gosford Park, Kansas City, A Prairie Home Companion, Cookie's Fortune and his TV Miniseries Tanner' 88.
- Improv: If you're in a Robert Altman movie, you better be prepared to make up most, if not all of your lines.
- Le Film Artistique: Not as many as his reputation would lead you to believe, but Images, 3 Women and Quintet all qualify.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Frequently, it's pretty much what he's best known for. Massively ensemble dramas like Magnolia and Crash tend to get compared to his work.
- Los Angeles: The Long Goodbye, California Split, The Player and Short Cuts all take place there, and all have a cynical view of life in the city.
- Meaningful Name: Altman means "old man" in German. He was 80 when A Prairie Home Companion was shot, making him one of the oldest people to ever direct a major studio film.
- Mockumentary: Tanner '88 is a mock presidential campaign documentary starring Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) who goes on a campaign trail complete with logos, entourage, hangers on. What makes this unique is that Altman inserts Tanner into the actual presidential campaign of the 1988-89, showing Tanner participating alongside actual democrat and republican candidates.
- Mythology Gag: The song "Let's Begin Again", which he wrote the lyrics for in The '40s as part of a planned musical, crops up in HealtH and The Player (where it's sung at a karaoke bar).
- Name and Name: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, O.C. & Stiggs, Vincent & Theo.
- New Sound Album: He directed both the Broadway production and The Film of the Play of Ed Graczyk's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which started a new phase of his career in The '80s. Since directing plays precluded him from his signature use of improv and last-second script changes, and plays generally don't have Loads and Loads of Characters, it marked a huge stylistic shift for him.
- Outlaw Couple: Thieves Like Us.
- Raised Catholic: He became lapsed over the years, and his films generally have an indifferent or irreverent attitude toward religion (exemplified by the "Last Supper" Steal in M*A*S*H).
- Real Person Cameo: Altman made this trope into an artform. One of the themes of his movies is the blurring between real life and fiction, as a result of the rise of mass media and celebrity culture which has affected everything.
- One can see this in Nashville where Elliot Gould and Julie Christie cameo and the fictional characters recognize them from the movies. He took this further with Tanner '88 his Mockumentary which had cameos from all kinds of political figures, famous and obscure playing themselves and interacting with Jack.
- The Player set in Hollywood is a who's who's of early 90s cinema and Tanner on Tanner his 2004 sequel (set during the John Kerry campaign) has cameos by Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi in addition to other political figures.
- Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Famous for averting this trope, usually with overlapping dialogue and some improvisation.
- Rewatch Bonus: A patron saint of this trope. His films have so many little subtleties you won't pick up on the first viewing, not to mention some instances of Fridge Brilliance that you'll only get after you see the film.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Very much on the Enlightenment side, critical and satirical of a lot of American mores, genres and myths. His movies spend a great deal of time showing how politics work, what drives group and society behaviour, the tensions behind marriages, businesses and friendships. A good example is to compare Gosford Park with Downton Abbey (created by the former film's screenwriter Julian Fellowes). Altman's film is far more critical and subversive of the upper classes than the TV Show.
- Signature Style: Loads and Loads of Characters, frequent use of panning and zooming, overlapping dialogue, ambient sound as a prominent part of the audio mix, Grey and Gray Morality and episodic plots with plenty of Narrative Filigree, to name the most obvious things. There are also many individual motifs he was fond of that show up in most of his films, like shooting scenes through a window, or having a character speak with a cigarette or pipe in their mouth.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Many films of his can go more towards the cynical end of the scale, but some of them such as Popeyeand The Perfect Couple are more on the idealistic end.
- Title by Number: 3 Women. Also his production company Sandcastle 5.