Iconoclastic helmer Altman, 81, dies


Robert Altman, one of cinema's great democratic spirits whose wry appreciation of the idiosyncrasies of human nature suffused such films as "MASH," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Nashville" and "The Player," died this past week (HR 11/22). He was 81.

Surrounded by his family, the director died Monday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from complications of cancer. He had been dealing with the disease for the past 18 months, even as he completed his last film, "A Prairie Home Companion," and readied his next movie.

Altman was Oscar-nominated as best director five times without winning — he also earned two best picture noms for "Nashville" and "Gosford Park." But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remedied that oversight at the 78th annual Academy Awards, where he was presented with an honorary Oscar.

"No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have," Altman said in accepting the award. "I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film I didn't choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition."

Altman could be as hard to categorize as the best of his films, which turned established genres inside out. With 1971's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, he reimagined the Western as a muddy opium dream in which pioneering individualism is pitted against corporate interests. In 1973's "The Long Goodbye," he cast a shambling Elliott Gould as a modern-day Philip Marlowe who must find his way through the laid-back Los Angeles smog. And in 1974's "Thieves Like Us," he drained the romantic glamour out of period tales of lovers on the run.

"Bob embodied the directors' ideal: a fiercely independent voice that was always challenging convention," DGA president Michael Apted said. "In doing so, he created a body of work of breathtaking diversity."