Altman ultimate ringmaster

Altman ultimate ringmaster

As an honorary Oscar winner, the rascally Robert Altman might have seemed slightly out of place amid the customary pomp and circumstance of the Academy Awards. Despite five nominations for his direction of movies ranging from "MASH" to "Gosford Park," he always has been slightly, and rather proudly, out of step with Hollywood.

But in introducing the 81-year-old director, Lily Tomlin, an Oscar nominee for his film "Nashville," and Meryl Streep, who appears in his latest film, "A Prairie Home Companion," delivered a bravura, two-woman approximation of Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue, cannily demonstrating the free-spirited exploration of life that characterizes the best of his films.

With a teasing grin, Tomlin noted that when watching an Altman movie, "To some moviegoers, it seems the popcorn they've just been munching has suddenly turned into peyote buttons." And she and Streep concluded in unison, proclaiming, "You leave his movies knowing that life is many things at once."

Greeted by a standing ovation, Altman said, "I always thought this kind of award meant it was over, and then it dawned on me." But taking stock of his recent activity, he relaxed, because "I realized it's not over."

Unlike many an honoree who has been called back for a bow long after his career has ended, the indefatigable Altman never has rested on his laurels.

The director flew into Los Angeles on Saturday from London, where he just directed a stage production of Arthur Miller's "Resurrection Blues" at the Old Vic.

On Friday, "Companion," which debuted last month at the Berlin International Film Festival, will have its North American premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin.

In typical iconoclastic form, when Altman learned he was being considered for an honorary Oscar, he resisted the idea. But those around him persuaded him to accept, arguing that the award was as much recognition for the crews and actors with whom he has worked as it was for his personal accomplishments.

"Of course, I was happy and thrilled to accept this award," he said from the stage Sunday. "And I look at it as a nod to all my films because to me, I've just made one long film."

He offered a group thanks to all the crews and casts with whom he has worked ? Altman always has been the No. 1 fan of the casts he has assembled.

Throughout his career, he has delighted in mixing such big, established names as Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Julie Christie and, most recently, Streep with relative unknowns whom he often has cast simply because their faces bring an unexpected touch of reality to the screen.

He discovered such offbeat actors as Bud Cort, whom he cast in "MASH" and "Brewster Mc-Cloud" before Cort went on to cult success in "Harold and Maude," and Shelley Duvall, who joined Altman's informal theatrical troupe for such movies as "Brewster," "Mc-Cabe & Mrs. Miller," "Thieves Like Us" and "3 Women" long before she co-starred opposite Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."

In the late Bert Remsen, Altman found one of his favorite actors. Remsen, a character actor who'd abandoned acting after an on-set accident in which he broke his back and had gone on to a career as a casting director, was lured by Altman back in front of the camera in such movies as "Brewster," "California Split" and "Buffalo Bill and the Indians."

To watch Altman on one of his sets is to see him in the role of circus ringmaster, who sets the show in motion and then sits back, hoping that his actors will surprise him and more often than not chuckling appreciatively when they do. In his acceptance speech, he likened the whole process to "making a sand castle at the beach."

While there's never any doubt that Altman is the man in charge, he frequently has subverted the typical hierarchy found on most film sets ? encouraging suggestions from everyone, delighting when actors invent an unexpected piece of business. And after a day's filming, he even turns the ritual of watching dailies into an open party.

On Saturday, the Altman faithful gathered at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to toast the master at a reception held by Picturehouse, which is releasing "Companion."

The crowd was typically eclectic. Longtime Altman players like Henry Gibson mixed with newer Hollywood tyros like director Paul Thomas Anderson. Hollywood establishment figures like producer Alan Ladd Jr. mixed with current execs, including New Line Cinema's Michael Lynne and Mark Ordesky.

Asked whether Altman was enjoying all the attention, Tomlin said, "Oh, you know Bob, he pretends he isn't, but he is."

But Sunday night, Altman, for once, couldn't conceal his joy. After thanking his wife, Katherine Reed, for her support, he said that being the recipient of a heart transplant, he now has a heart that had belonged to a woman in her 30s. "By that calculation, you may have given me this award too early," Altman said. "I think I have 40 years on it, and I intend to use it."