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Literature / The Player

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It's a satirical, cynical, black comedy thriller... with a heart.

"No stars, just talent."
Griffin Mill

A 1988 satirical novel by Michael Tolkin, The Player was brought to the screen in 1992 by director Robert Altman with a screenplay also by Tolkin. The film version starred Tim Robbins, Vincent D'Onofrio, Greta Scacchi, 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. At the outset, he finds himself both the target of a power play by another executive gunning for his job, and receiving death threats by a stalker, supposedly a screenwriter whose pitch he once rejected. In a confrontation with a disgruntled screenwriter he believes to be the stalker, things escalate into a fight and Griffin accidentally kills the other man. Griffin now must stay a step ahead of the police, who are investigating the writer's death, as well as his professional rival, even as he finds himself drawing ever closer to the girlfriend of the man he killed.

Incredibly self-referential, The Player attacks the film industry and the Development Hell each film has to go through to get made. It also 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, now more than ever!:

  • Accidental Murder: Griffin obviously just meant to scare David with a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, but went too far.
  • Acquitted Too Late: Supposed to happen in the movie within a movie. The writer of Habeas Corpus insists that the main character gets acquitted, but too late. By the end of the movie, however, it's changed to an ending where the acquitted is (ridiculously) saved.
  • Adaptational Name Change: In the original novel by Michael Tolkin, June's second name is Mercator, not Gudmundsdottir.
  • Anti-Hero: Closer to a Villain Protagonist.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The Rialto Theater, where Griffin meets and eventually kills David Kahane, is a real building in the city of South Pasadena, California.note  South Pasadena is distinct from its neighbor to the north, Pasadena, both of which have separate 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.
  • Asshole Victim: David Kahane is kind of creepy and unpleasant, and June doesn't act like she misses him all that much.
  • Batman Gambit: Griffin tells his secretary he's taking on Habeas Corpus because he wants Joel Levison to give the project to Larry Levy, who will screw things up, so he, Griffin, will come in and save the day. That's exactly what happens.
  • Betty and Veronica: For Griffin, Bonnie is Betty and June is Veronica.
  • Broken Heel: Bonnie suffers one in her last scene as part of her Humiliation Conga.
  • Butt-Monkey: Bonnie, full stop. Griffin leaves her for the younger, blonder and hotter June without bothering to tell her; she's the sole voice for artistic merit in the eternal "art versus profit" argument the studio execs keep having (universally unsuccessfully) and when she takes Tom Oakley (quite properly) to task for changing the ending of Habeas Corpus she gets fired for her troubles. The last shot of her in the film is her crying on the staircase outside; completely alone in the world.
  • Celebrity Cameo: Tons and tons of them: Harry Belafonte, Gary Busey, Cher, James Coburn, Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Martin Mull, Peter Falk, Jeff Goldblum, Malcolm McDowell, Jack Lemmon, Marlee Matlin, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Ireland, Andie MacDowell, Lily Tomlin, David Carradine, Bruce Willis, Elliott Gould, Scott Glenn, Robert Wagner, Karen Black, Teri Garr, Joel Grey, Rod Steiger... 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. Also, making a cameo in this movie are Susan Sarandon, to whom Robbins was married at the time, and John Cusack, who co-starred with a young Tim Robbins in The Sure Thing and Tapeheads.
    • Whoopi Goldberg, who had co-starred with Bruce Willis in an episode of Moonlighting.
    • Lyle Lovett, who for awhile was married to Julia Roberts in real life.
    • There's also a case involving Brion James. Joel Levison obviously saw the 1988 remake of D.O.A., since he talks about it, but it's unknown if he noticed that the actor who played Detective Ulmer happened to look a lot like himself.
  • Character Name Alias: The blackmailer uses the name 'Joe Gillis'; the name of the narrator (and a murdered screenwriter) in Sunset Boulevard.
  • Comforting the Widow: Griffin does this with the girlfriend 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 Cameo:
    • Michael Tolkin and his brother Stephen as the geeky filmmakers who barge in on Griffin in his office in the scene following the police station questioning scene.
    • That's Robert Altman's own handwriting on the postcards Griffin receives.
  • 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."
  • Creator In-Joke: "Let's Begin Again", the song being sung at the karaoke bar, was a song that Altman had written lyrics for back in The '40s, and it was part of a never-produced stage musical that he and a friend put together. It had previously been performed in his 1979 film HealtH, putting it also into Call-Back and Mythology Gag territory.
  • Double-Meaning Title: In-Universe, in another context, the literal translation of the proposed "Law Procedural" Habeas Corpus ("produce the corpse") is a play on Griffin's job as a film producer and "corpse" being a slang term in the industry for a film that performs poorly, signifying that the screenwriters are, in fact, 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.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The film opens with an amazing eight minute take setting the scene at the studio. Notably, the first cut of the movie comes immediately after Griffin receives the death threat.
  • Fan Disservice: Altman uses extreme close ups, harsh lighting, and a dissonant soundtrack to make the coupling of two exceptionally attractive actors (Robbins and Scacchi) come across as disturbing.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Tom Oakley abandons all of his principles in the making of "Habeas Corpus". He insists that the film not have movie stars and a tragic ending. By the end we see the film starring Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Bruce Willis and ends happily, with Oakley stating that he has to satisfy the audiences more than make art.
  • Film Within a Film:
    • Several proposed film concepts are discussed, with two films actually in production over the course of the story: Habeas Corpus, and Lonely Room (with Lily Tomlin and Scott Glenn).
    • Also, the film ends with Griffin getting pitched his own life story, with the writer calling it The Player. With the clapperboard and off-camera instructions shown at the very start of the film, this opens up the possibility that the film we've just seen is in fact an in-universe production of that screenplay.
  • Focus Group Ending:
  • Foil: Bonnie to Griffin. Put simply: she's a smart, kind, lovable, professional, has artistic integrity... and he's Griffin.
  • Girl Friday: Bonnie, Griffin's indispensable office assistant, and sex partner.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: An understated example, but Detective DeLongpre is creepily intense while Detective Avery is cheerful and affable. Detective Avery drops the mask when she asks Griffin out of nowhere if he's having sex with June.
  • Happy Ending: Mocked in the film-within-the-film and the real film's ending.
  • Horrible Hollywood: In spades. Though the real one, as per Altman, is way worse than this film.
  • Hotter and Sexier: One of the spontaneous pitches Larry Levy cooks up based on a newspaper story is having Jimmy Smits star in a "sexy Stand and Deliver."
  • 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 Bicycle Thieves (called by its more well-known title here, 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 schlock 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 cynically 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. He even ends up with the writer's girlfriend.
    • Griffin's Batman Gambit from above works so well that he not only gets his rival fired; but his boss as well. This leaves a sizeable gap in the studio hierarchy, which Griffin is called to fill. He got a huge promotion (and a much bigger house) as well as the recently bereaved girlfriend.
    • The mysterious writer who sent the death threats is never identified. In the end, he ends up pitching Griffin over the phone a story for a movie - about a studio executive who ends up getting away with murder. Griffin happily greenlights the film - as long as they can keep the ending.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Twice, both involving the opening Epic Tracking Shot of the film.
    • Before the action or background music of the shot actually begins, we hear a director (assumedly Robert Altman) shouting instructions to the film crew, shooting the movie we're about to see.
    • A couple of minutes in, Fred Ward's character is talking about how the long Epic Tracking Shot that opened Touch of Evil set the tone for the film—right in the middle of the Epic Tracking Shot that opens The Player.
  • Match Cut: From the snake that Griffin yanks out of his car to the squiggly lines that June is painting on a canvas.
  • 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.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Griffin Mill thinks he's confronting someone who wants to murder him. David Kahane thinks Griffin just randomly picked him out to torment. Kahane even takes Griffin's reference to postcards as an insult of his writing skills.
  • 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.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After David and Griffin leave the bar.
    David Kahane: Guess who's making promises about getting pictures made to writers in parking lots? Guess what dumb son of a bitch executive is trying to take advantage of me? Do you realize how unstoppable this guy is? You know, I cannot wait to tell the world that when Griffin Mill can't cut the pressure at work, he drives out to Pasadena to pick fights with writers!...You're in over your head. That's why you're losing your job. Then what are you gonna do? I can write! What can you do?
  • Red Herring: The writer whom Griffin murdered, as well as Griffin's stalker, who was really a detective attempting to turn Griffin in. The real blackmailer was never revealed.
  • Show Within a Show: Not a spoiler, as the film begins with The Player being set up and shot. It's the screenplay Griffin steals for himself after murdering the writer.
  • 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!
  • Tropaholics Anonymous: Larry Levy mentions attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, not because he has a drinking problem, but because that's where all the deals are being made.
  • The Unpronounceable: June...Gudmundsdottir. It's from Iceland.
    Detective Avery: Can't even say the bitch's name!
  • The Unreveal: The identity of the writer who is blackmailing Griffin is never revealed, but according to this blogger there's evidence that it might be Phil, the screenwriter who gives the angry eulogy at David's funeral.
  • Write What You Know: In-universe. When David brings Griffin to the Japanese bar in Pasadena, he explains that he used to live in Japan for a year, as a student. Then he reminds Griffin about his story pitch: a student going to Japan.
  • 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. This leads Bonnie to snark:
    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." Altman said that these were poking fun at his own use of Nashville as a reference point when he was trying to pitch Short Cuts to studio execs.