The outsider

Robert Altman continues to have a prolific career in film, and as always, it's on his own terms.

Robert Altman is one of the genuine rebels of American film, that rare director who has made a career not just outside the studio system, but tilting at it -- not just spurning the Hollywood establishment, but in open defiance of it.

If it seems ironic that this quintessential outsider is now being honored by the ultimate "insider" organization -- the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is recognizing him with an honorary Oscar at the age of 81 -- to his admirers, it is only fitting.

"He is a heroic figure in American film," critic and movie historian Leonard Maltin says. "To begin with, he was in the right place at the right time, and when (1970's) 'MASH' came along at the moment it did, it heralded the beginning of a new era in American film."

In movies from "MASH" and 1971's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" to 1975's "Nashville" and on through 2001's "Gosford Park," Altman has experimented with narrative and genre, splintering the traditional protagonist-antagonist format of many American films into fractured ensemble pieces and weaving a densely textured pattern of image and sound that might owe more to France's New Wave than to classical Hollywood filmmaking.

This has drawn admiration for Altman as a filmmaker even as his somewhat irascible personality at times has made studio chiefs afraid to work with him.

"Yes, he can be fierce," "Park" screenwriter Julian Fellowes acknowledges. "But when he is being fierce on your behalf, it is very comforting."

Noting that Altman allowed him to stand by his side and critique aspects of the moviemaking process for the duration of the "Park" shoot, he adds, "How many directors would put up with that for three months of shooting? He was so determined to get the details right."

Altman sees no need to mince words with the press. Asked how he earned his reputation as a maverick, he replies, "A maverick is a lost cow. I don't relish perceiving myself that way. I see myself as a cooperative fellow." Queried on his innovative use of overlapping dialogue, he dryly deflects the credit: "You should do your research better. The sound thing, I get credit for -- look at any of (Howard Hawks') pictures, and all of his pictures were like that. The only thing I did visually was, I was sloppy with a zoom lens. People didn't use a zoom lens a lot." As for his frequent use of a telephoto lens, he says, "It was just what occurred to me."

Among the notable things about Altman is that his career bloomed so late, a rarity among major American filmmakers. Altman was 45 years old in 1970, when "MASH" won the Palme d'Or at the Festival de Cannes, and he made his best movies when he was in his late 40s and early 50s in the '70s.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1925, Altman came to film slowly. A Roman Catholic who briefly attended a Jesuit school, he went to the Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri, before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II and flying several combat missions. Surprisingly, the future anti-authoritarian says he enjoyed both the military academy and his wartime experience.

"I didn't mind it," he says. "I was a pilot in the Second World War, and I found it kind of exciting."

It was during those war years that Altman started to think seriously about film, seeing the work of directors such as Federico Fellini, John Huston and Akira Kurosawa. After leaving the Army, he sought work as a writer, with partial success.

"I passed myself off as a writer. I had a writing partner, and I sold a couple of movie stories. They were pretty boring; they were all stolen from other movies I had seen. I did whatever I thought I could sell."

He was, he acknowledges, "a hack."   

His initial hands-on experience in filmmaking came quite by chance, when a friend who made industrial films helped him get a break.

"I got a really good job," Altman recalls. "I stopped off in Kansas City on my way to New York and ran into a guy I had gone to school with, and he was a director at this company, and I said, 'Can I look around?' He introduced me to people, and they offered me a job, and I took it."

After making dozens of industrials and documentaries, Altman moved into television, working for a decade on shows such as "Bonanza" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." (He met the great man only once, he says, noting that he was "polite to me and kind.")

When Altman's then-agent, George Litto, read Ring Lardner Jr.'s screenplay for "MASH," the black comedy set in the Korean War that seemed to be a veiled attack on the absurdities of the then-raging Vietnam War, Altman leaped at the chance.

In his book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Changed Hollywood," author Peter Biskind says Altman initially resisted making the film because of issues about money -- specifically, his salary. But Altman shoots those reports down, saying that any conflicts between himself and the studio came only after the movie was shot.

"There was no conflict with Fox until after the picture was made," he says.

"I didn't complain about my salary; I was very happy to have it." And later? "There is always a struggle. Studio executives look at pictures and say, 'We should take this out or that out,' and you have to fight for the picture, and I did that." After doing so, he says, "It ended up (being) the way I wanted."

The film's success propelled Altman's career to new heights, but it also set him at odds with studio management -- a pattern that would become familiar over the years to come. While he continued to make studio films during the rest of the 1970s, most were financial disappointments, and, partly because of that, he never endeared himself to many studio bosses.

Altman is reported to have said that the studios make shoes while he makes gloves.

"I did say that," he acknowledges. "I commented on why I didn't make more studio films. The films I wanted to make and the films they wanted to make were basically two different things." And it's no different now, he notes, repeating a line he has said in other interviews: "I couldn't say the names of anybody who runs the studios today."

Altman did make studio films after "MASH" -- not least of which were "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," during which he and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond famously had to mask the desaturated look they had created for the film from studios executives, pretending it was a problem at the lab; 1970's "Brewster McCloud"; and 1980's "Popeye," his last feature made within the confines of a major studio -- and a boxoffice disappointment that even Altman's fans tend not to admire.

Along that road, he also made the picture many regard as his masterpiece, "Nashville," which, in many ways, embodies his best films of the '70s, with its skeptical eye toward society, its diffuse narrative that interweaves a host of different stories and its mixture of satire and sympathy.

As Altman moved from the '70s into the '80s and '90s, his films became smaller in scale, partly a reflection of the economics of the industry and the difficulties he says he has always had in raising money. Altman was fired from one studio picture, 1981's

"Ragtime," after its producer saw what a flop 1976's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson" was. And he was unable to raise money for several other projects. Movies such as the 1982 production "Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," the 1984 production "Secret Honor" and 1994's "Pret-a-Porter" neither cost much nor made much.

"It is always hard to raise the money for anything," Altman says. "I have never had a film where it is not hard to raise money."

Perhaps because of this, while making movies like 1987's "Beyond Therapy," Altman also ventured back into television with one of his more acclaimed projects, the 1988 production "Tanner '88" (a political satire), as well as to the theater. (Indeed, he is currently in London directing a stage production of Arthur Miller's "Resurrection Blues.")

His career took a sharp turn upward once more with his Hollywood satire, 1992's "The Player," but many of Altman's more recent films divided critics -- from 1999's "Cookie's Fortune" to 2000's "Dr. T and the Women" -- until the British murder mystery "Gosford Park" drew seven Oscar nominations, including Altman's fifth as director (his seventh nomination overall).

Altman is now at work on a different subject, Picturehouse's "A Prairie Home Companion," written by Garrison Keillor. And while he is in his ninth decade, he says he does not find filming tiring at all, though he admits his age is a factor in his thinking.

"I am 81 years old, and that in itself has its drawbacks," he says. "But I am not (shooting) out on the high seas or in the Himalayas. I don't do those kinds of active films. But I work -- I work every day -- and I plan to continue to do so."