Remembering Kathryn Altman: "She Was Fundamental to Robert Altman's Success" (Guest Column)

Kathryn and Robert Altman

The wife of the late director, she ws the great facilitor of his movie family, a welcome presence on his sets who smoothed any ruffled feathers and made sure everyone felt welcome.

This year’s edition of the Maine International Film Festival, which runs from July 8-17 in Waterville, Maine will be dedicated to Kathryn Altman, a frequent visitor to the festival. Altman, who died March 9, was the wife of the late director, Robert Altman.

“I used to call her Kathryn the Great because she was like a queen. Queen Kathryn. She was incredibly gracious to everyone and knew everything that was going on. She had this weather eye and could see behind her head and as well as from all sides. And could be blind when she had to be.” — Lauren Hutton, from Mitchell Zuckoff’s oral biography, Altman.

Kathryn Reed Altman was a star.

She wasn’t a movie star though she might have been. 

She was a star of the movie world for anyone who met her during the 45 years she was married to Robert Altman, the risk-taking, groundbreaking, sometimes volatile director who changed the way movies were made and how we looked at them.

An Altman film was a family film, not in subject matter, but in the way he created an atmosphere that included everyone he worked with, in front of and behind the camera, in pre- and post-production.

But “The Altman Experience” was both Bob and Kathryn. He was the generator of the family; Kathryn was the facilitator. After a hard day’s shooting, one would count on her gracious, welcoming presence at the film’s dailies, where the entire crew was invited to ”watch the work they had done the previous day” (per Bob) and relax over a full buffet .

If any feathers had been ruffled, Kathryn would sense something was off-kilter and would smooth things over through her wit and beauty, always at the ready to level any tension or pepper a conversation with a sharp one-liner that would turn trouble into smiles. She learned the ropes of the movie business as a showgirl and an extra, instinctively knowing how to manage any social situation, seamlessly navigating the rituals of the movie business, making everyone comfortable.

She was fundamental to Altman’s success through the stormy highs and lows of his 50-film career. She stayed removed from the business side; her domain was the social back-up.

Yet after Bob passed a decade ago, having lived an extra ten years through the heart transplant he revealed when receiving his Honorary Oscar in 2006, ‘Trixie,” as she was known, assumed the Altman mantle. She became the featured attraction at the numerous Altman retrospectives and special screenings throughout the world — from major events in Los Angeles (UCLA), New York (MOMA) London, Turin, and Venice to the more specialized tributes in Maine, Nashville, Traverse City, Mich. and Marfa, Texas. She was the primary force and participant in Ron Mann’s feature length documentary,  Altman, and wrote the coffee table scrapbook memoir, Altman, with critic Giulia D’Argnolo Vallan.

Published by Abrams, Altman excerpted the 35 yearly scrapbooks she assembled that chronicled both family and professional history. The originals were presented to the Robert Altman archive at the University of Michigan, which also houses the Orson Welles papers, along with over 900 boxes of documents, awards and memorabilia she organized and cataloged.

Being in the Altman orbit meant being challenged and stimulated by Bob and entering a comfort zone with Kathryn, who was genuinely interested in your personal life.  Bob also knew she was irresistible. He once surprised her with his 15-minute tribute film, The Kathryn Reed Story, as a birthday present.

I experienced this first hand in 1978 confronting a roadblock while preparing for the U.S. premiere of Alan Rudolph’s second film, Remember My Name, which Bob produced. The film was financed by Columbia Pictures, which showed little enthusiasm for Rudolph’s modern noir but gave us free rein to stage a benefit showing and press junket in Memphis, the birthplace of blues singer-composer Alberta Hunter, who performed the film’s score and, after decades in retirement, was in the midst of a major career resurgence. Her continuous engagement at The Cookery in Greenwich Village was a phenomenon garnering national attention.

Alberta hadn’t returned to Memphis in 50 years; the city was in the midst of reviving Beale Street, its legendary music center, with clubs and restaurants and was eager to roll out the red carpet for a native daughter in support of the Beale Street Restoration Fund. The film’s stars Geraldine Chaplin and Tony Perkins were flying in, along with Altman and Rudolph and Tony’s wife Berry Berenson. The benefit screening was to be held at a landmark movie palace, capped by Alberta Hunter’s performance at the new Beale Street nightclub.

The events demanded complex coordination between the actors’ and musicians’ schedules, travel accommodations, technical tests , riverboat arrangements for the press and the usual, unexpected last minute details.  The city officials had been overwhelmingly supportive, and national press were covering. But somehow ticket sales were lagging.

It was a mystery why. After some probing, I was reluctantly informed that we weren’t going to be the only premiere showing of Remember My Name. Without informing us, Columbia had booked a commercial engagement of the film in a suburban multiplex on the same day as the gala Memphis premiere and was advertising that showing as a premiere. Moreover, that cinema was in the county adjoining Memphis, and those county leaders were at odds with the Memphis politicians. They couldn’t care less about restoring Beale Street or helping our film.

Editorials attacking the county’s ruthless insensitivity appeared in the Memphis media. I called Columbia demanding they postpone that competing run to a later day. The sales department claimed ignorance of what was happening. It was a hornet’s nest of bitterness…accusations flying…disaster threatening.

It was too much to manage a southern political firefight with the premiere less than a week away. I needed help; someone who could ease the tension, soothe the wrangling and charm the adversaries. I needed Kathryn.

Although Bob kept her away from “the business,” he instinctively grasped the severity of the situation. Kathryn arrived the next day; her emergence was tracked and covered in the press, and after a series of meetings and dinners, egos and attitudes were calmed. And Columbia pushed the suburban playdate.

People magazine arrived to photograph Alberta in front of the W.C. Handy statue with Geraldine, who had just received the best actress prize at the Paris Film Festival for her role in the film. And the premiere was a euphoric SRO event. On Beale Street, Alberta gave a homecoming performance that was electric. Goosebumps prevailed. Bob and Kathryn, great jazz fans, were ecstatic.

A few days before she passed away in March, sounding as sharp as she did a week before at the 45th anniversary showing of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, where we discussed Warren Beatty’s daring performance, Kathryn recalled an encounter she had had at a reception Beatty once held for Jimmy Carter at his Beatty’s suite in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It paralleled her Remember My Name diplomacy.

The Altmans had recently moved into their newly-built home in Malibu and were enduring bureaucratic delays with the Coastal Commission. Gov. Jerry Brown was at the Beatty event.  Knowing her persuasive charm, Bob prompted Kathryn to introduce herself to the governor and explain what they were going through. The obstacles from the Coast Commission were soon overcome.

Losing Kathryn leaves a large hole.  She was a presence of fun, smarts and surprise. Her voice was a touchstone that eased anxiety, eliminated tension and provided true friendship. It’s difficult accepting she’s not a phone call away.

Significantly, her passing has evoked these feelings among her large circle of admirers because we never thought of her as 91. Her energy was infectious; her style effervescent; her intuition faultless.

Kathryn Reed Altman was irresistible.

— Mike Kaplan is the author of Gotta Dance: The Art of the Dance Movie Poster, published by Lagoon Press.