The Siren has spoken to several people who have worked behind the scenes with Robert Altman, and they all love him. They tell me he creates an almost familial atmosphere. They all have lunch together and Altman (get this) often bakes bread. He tells great stories. He's fun to be around. I love to think of people having a leisurely lunch with Robert Altman, then going back to the mixing and cutting rooms to turn out another movie reminding us that people are no damn good.
Tonight Hollywood awards Robert Altman an honorary Oscar. It's enough to get you all teary-eyed, this honoring of a likable man for a 45-year career of gleeful misanthropy. Especially when you consider The Player, a movie the Siren wholeheartedly loves. You didn't see the architects' association inviting Tom Wolfe to receive a gold watch for From Bauhaus to Our House. For all its many (many many many) faults, the Academy has got to be one of the few industry organizations that will reward a man for a career that includes a lengthy disquisition on what bums they all are.
Like any genre, films about filmmaking have conventions, one of them being that Hollywood is a cesspool. You can depict that in a funny way, as in Singin' in the Rain, or you can show it in a harsh way, as in Two Weeks in Another Town. Despite that incontrovertible rule, however, another genre convention is the saving grace--the benevolent executives (yeah, right) in Singin' and the Cukor A Star Is Born, the undoubted talent of Kirk Douglas's character in The Bad and the Beautiful.
Along comes Altman to jettison the rules, as he always does (and don't we love him for it). Not only are the executives creepy, the stars are creepy, the hangers-on are creepy and even the art-loving cinephiles are pretentious and creepy. (Thanks, Bob. We love you too.) Possibly the only character who seems entirely sympathetic is Malcolm McDowell, who shows up late in the film to tell Tim Robbins "If you've got something to say about me, say it to my face, not behind my back." (The actor probably ad-libbed the line or had it fed to him by Altman, as most of the stars with cameos in the movie did not have scripted dialogue.)
The Siren sees the occasional sneer at this movie's supposed stunt casting, a jaw-dropping parade of celebrity that dwarfs even Around in the World in 80 Days in quantity, if not quality. But the teeming People cover subjects add a giddy versimilitude, and underline another point about the film colony, namely its sheer cluelessness. Oh sure, they believe they're in on the joke. But do they realize just how dark that joke is? In some of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, Daffy Duck would tear around shrieking, "I know when I've been insulted!" Scene follows scathing scene in The Player--"I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we've got something here"--and you start to wonder if some of the talent milling around has the sense God gave a cartoon duck.
It isn't hard to look at this movie and think lunch with Altman would be an incredible treat. The Player is vicious, but hey, it's fun. There's the parlor-game aspect of spotting the references, there's the late Geraldine Peroni's flawless editing, there's the endless array of visual jokes (like the opening tracking shot that includes a discussion of tracking shots), there's the firecracker wit of the dialogue.
When Altman gets the inevitable, well-deserved standing ovation tonight, the Siren will be raising her glass in a toast--and wondering if somewhere in that theater, there really is a man who is planning to remake The Bicycle Thief.