But when the famously contrarian Robert Altman arrived at a Sony Pictures studio recently to record his commentary for the DVD of his Oscar-nominated "Gosford Park," he had the grim air of a man slipping into the dentist's chair.
You wouldn't know that the Academy Awards were just weeks away and that Altman's movie had seven nominations, including one for best picture and another for best director, the fifth of his career. If Altman was excited, he wasn't letting it show. "I've never been satisfied by any of these DVDs," he says, glumly taking a seat in front of a microphone. "I feel like a real estate agent, trying to tout some fancy house. I always end up saying, 'Oh, here's a nice hallway, there's the bathroom, and there's a bedroom with a wonderful view.' "
He leans over and whispers conspiratorially, "But if I don't do it, I'll just get labeled a curmudgeon, which would be bad, wouldn't it?"
At 77, in an era when the movie industry has been overrun by careerists in search of their next franchise film, Altman is an irresistible throwback to a better day: He's Hollywood's Grumpy Old Master. Like John Huston or Akira Kurosawa, he's one of the few great directors who has made films in his old age that are just as vital and uncompromising as anything he did in his youth.
"Bob's got the eyes of a 30-year-old," says screenwriter Anne Rapp, who wrote two recent Altman films, "Cookie's Fortune" (1999) and "Dr. T & the Women" (2000). "When Bob got famous, he didn't start living behind a big gate--he's stayed down in the fray. Bob's office is always full of people. When it's not crowded, he sticks his head out and says, 'Where is everybody?'"
What really makes Altman's career path so extraordinary is that he's perhaps the only modern-day director who's been able to work regularly--and without interference--outside the major studio system. Most senior citizen directors, if lucky enough to be employed, have begun to repeat themselves or lost their connection with the pop culture of the moment. But Altman, who first became a star in 1970 with "MASH," hasn't lost a step. Since he turned 65 in 1990, he's made nine movies as well as several TV projects.
His artistic vigor is an inspiring lesson for young, independent directors, showing that it's possible to flourish outside the increasingly insular Hollywood machinery. As Rapp puts it: "Bob's like a farmer--he's out there planting a new crop every spring."
Altman remains in vogue because he has the restless artistic instincts of a Young Turk, not an Old Master. Altman abhors predictability. Whether it's a British murder mystery like "Gosford Park," a Southern Gothic comedy like "Cookie's Fortune," a Hollywood satire like "The Player" (1992) or a meditation on artistry (and a model of how to avoid the pitfalls of the biopic) like "Vincent and Theo" (1990), he's always exploring new genres and experimenting with new techniques. Altman is one of those artists--like Bob Dylan or Picasso or Miles Davis--who've retained their youthful intensity long after their contemporaries have become parodies of themselves.
"It's like Bob has created a new genre--the Robert Altman film," says his agent, ICM's Ken Kamins, who has played a key role in helping Altman stay in the game. "If you want a film with a left-of-center story, a fresh visual approach and a great ensemble cast who'll work on the cheap, then you want Bob. He operates on pure artistic instinct. His approach to each film is basically the same: What story do I think is interesting, and what actors do I want to work with?"
Altman hasn't made a film financed by a major studio since "O.C. and Stiggs," a stinker he made at MGM in 1983 that sat on the shelf for four years before being released. He spent much of the '80s reviving his career by doing theatrical adaptations until he hit pay dirt again in 1992 with "The Player," which brought him a new generation of fans and actors eager to be in his films. Even after reviving his career, he's steered clear of the big studio machines. ("Gosford Park" was released by USA Films). "They sell shoes, and I make gloves," he says. "Basically, we're not in the same business. But I've been lucky. I've never done a film that wasn't of my own choosing or successfully taken away from me. You'll never see a DVD of stuff anyone cut out of my films, because it hasn't happened."
'A Short Fuse and a Big Mouth'
That doesn't mean the prickly director hasn't had his share of tiffs and showdowns. He admits there have been times when "I didn't handle success very well and was completely arrogant."
He sued Miramax in 1995 in a dispute over the company's refusal to pay him a box-office bonus for the film "Ready to Wear." In 1997 he attacked Fine Line Pictures for not running Oscar ads for several cast members in Altman's film "Kansas City"; Altman ended up personally spending $18,000 to send out videocassettes to academy members. When PolyGram tried to re-cut "The Gingerbread Man" that same year after a bad screening, Altman publicly threatened to take his name off the movie, forcing the company to back off.
As Altman puts it: "I've got a short fuse and a big mouth." Asked about George W. Bush earlier this year, the director called the president "embarrassing," adding, "I'm proud to say Bush has never seen any of my films." When a reporter recently asked if Altman had seen many recent Oscar-winning films, he replied, "I thought 'Titanic' was the most dreadful piece of work I've ever seen in my entire life."
Altman has flourished without studio support because he's beloved by actors, who flock to his films, knowing he will put them at ease. At the end of each day on "Gosford Park," Altman would serve drinks as the actors watched dailies. Before he even had a finished script, Altman went to London and lined up most of the actors he cast in "Gosford Park," describing their parts to them over coffee or lunch. The all-star ensemble, which included Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren (both nominated for supporting actress Oscars), Alan Bates, Emily Watson and Kristin Scott Thomas, had all agreed to work for scale even before Kamins began to approach any financiers.
Because Altman's films have a modest profit potential, the director has often had to scramble for funding. Even though "Gosford Park" is the third-biggest moneymaker of his career, after "MASH" and "Popeye" (1980), (it's grossed just over $35 million so far), Altman says he still hasn't found a backer for his next project, "Voltage," an Alan Rudolph-scripted ensemble film about the construction of a New York skyscraper. Altman is holding out for a budget of roughly $20 million, but so far, no one has been willing to go above $15 million.
"I assumed with all the accolades coming in that I could make the film," he says. "But nobody is interested (at the budget I need) and I had to release all the actors and come back with my tail between my legs."
But history is on his side. Altman's films, even the ones that initially flopped, like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971) and "The Long Goodbye" (1973), have aged better than their more conventional peers, perhaps because Altman has never catered to the popular taste of the moment. His movies are too idiosyncratic to be reduced to a commercial formula. With "Short Cuts," a film made from a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, Altman put the stories on flashcards and shuffled them around so the characters all ended up in different places.
"If you're adapting something, you can't present it in its pure form, because it exists differently in each person's mind," he says. Altman's best films take a familiar genre and give it a surprise twist. "The critics get upset, because they see it as sacrilegious," he says. "But that's what works for me, taking something that exists and playing around it so the film goes in a direction you'd never expect."
Maybe it's this unpredictability that has kept Altman's artistry from going stale. When I ask him about the value of experience, he scoffs, saying white-haired wisdom is overrated. "Knowing your craft is great, but if you get too good at the mechanics, you lose the artistry," he explains. "I like young directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson because they're all over the place--they haven't learned to polish their films too much. They keep things that everyone else would've wanted them to cut, but those are the things that make their films great."
Altman has a serene self-knowledge--he knows the light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter. But he doesn't feel his age. Altman recalls a conversation he had with one of his uncles, then in his 60s. "Pointing to his heart, he said, 'In here, I'm 32. And I'm shocked when people look at me and don't see it.' And I feel the same way whenever I pass a mirror or see a photo of myself. Inside your head, you don't get older, not when you're doing something you love."