MOVIES : ON LOCATION : The Rules of His Game : 'The Player' marks Robert Altman's return to Hollywood--and his stature makes an expose of the town's deal making more pointed

Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times

It's late afternoon in August. The air is windless and hot, and the desert around this luxuriant little resort--where Robert Altman is shooting his latest movie, "The Player"--stretches out like some vast blank hell: an ocean of sand sweeping up to the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains.

Altman is working on what may be one of the most wounding and satirical of all Hollywood exposes: as dark and mordant as "The Loved One," savage and morality-driven as "The Big Knife," cynical and "inside" as "Sunset Boulevard." Based on Michael Tolkin's 1988 novel, it's a portrait of life among the high-rollers and deal makers of a major Hollywood studio in the post-Golden Age, post-sexual revolution, post-"Jaws" Hollywood. It's approach is unnerving, a nightmare rendered with icy dispassion.

"The Player's" main character, Griffin Mill, is a production vice president who's turned himself into a success/survival machine, and also someone who's juggling the usual studio intrigues with a much darker secret: his killing of a screenwriter. Beneath Griffin's cryptically composed surface--as he moves through an equally superficial world of car phones, teleconferences and power lunches, chilly glamour and false camaraderie--beats a heart ridden with inexpressible guilts and doubts. Is this really a world, as it sometimes seems, where you can get away with murder?

Tolkin's scrupulously detailed novel, published to good reviews and a nearly instantaneous movie sale in 1988, evoked a world light years from "The Bad and the Beautiful," "A Star Is Born," or even "Barton Fink." It was cooler, more contained, more programmed and less overtly emotional: obsessed with money, status and the constantly shifting three-dimensional chess of The Deal, just like Griffin Mill.

Griffin is such a dread-filled enigma it seems almost strange that his tale--seemingly opposed to the immorality of deal making--somehow survived the process itself. But when Altman was hired, "The Player" assumed another, symbolic importance: Backed not by one of the "majors" but by tinier Avenue Pictures, it marks this famous rebel's definitive return to Hollywood, after a decade of outsider status, of filmed plays, cable TV and offbeat independence, the post-"Popeye" decade of "Secret Honor," "Tanner '88," "Beyond Therapy" and "Fool for Love."

If Two Bunch Palms isn't another new-style Hollywood icon, maybe this movie will make it one. A chic hideaway for studio types and others, it's in the middle of a show biz-desert arena that seems indifferent, absurd. As you buzz down the road from Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage to Desert Hot Springs, from Frank Sinatra Drive or Gene Autry Drive, or glance up a hillside at Bob Hope's peculiar Astrodome-shaped mansion, there's an air of parodied glamour: glitz in excelsior.

In the midst of all this, the resort itself is high style, restful. A mix of modern condominiums and '20s-style bungalows--including one allegedly used by Al Capone--are casually spread over the spa's gentle hillocks and slopes. The harsh sun is filtered through a latticework of tamarisk trees (a kind of desert pine), oleanders and eucalyptus. As Altman's crew lays cables and lugs Luma cranes and sound carts, little pools and waterfalls bubble all around us: artesian mineral water, whose 144-degree temperature has been artificially cooled to about 100 degrees.

"I couldn't win a war with this army," Altman mutters, in a "Vincent & Theo"-style straw hat and work shirt, looking something like a jolly Buddha/burgermeister ready for a round of golf. But it's just reflex gruffness, a way of letting off steam. From a distance, his eyes seem dark and piercing, but up close they're liquid and blue. And with a movie this dark, and logistics this complex, he may need a soft demeanor--along with all his celebrated ability to turn a movie location into a party.

Tolkin's novel was chilly, spare and lean: It zeroed right into Griffin's skull. Altman, predictably, has enriched the milieu and built up a huge community around the cipher at the center.

"The Player" is all about Hollywood and it's been filmed in a variety of landmark or buzzword locations: The St. James Club, the Columbia Bar and Grill, Geoffrey's in Malibu, the old La Ristorante. Through these locations, and Altman's enrichments and embellishments, it seems to be evolving into a blend of satire, morality play and hip celebration, of bile and bemused affection.

It's also a typical Altman community movie, packed with cameo parts: a bevy of famous actors--almost 50 in all--who consented to work as background or dress extras. Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon are the stars of "The Player's" movie-within-the-movie--which we hear being pitched and later observe in rushes. Buck Henry pops up at Griffin's studio to pitch "The Graduate 2." And numerous other stars, directors and writers--from Jack Lemmon to Burt Reynolds to Cher--were filmed eating at the eateries, schmoozing at the parties, or mingling and drinking at a gala benefit, staged at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's towering outdoor patio.

The movie's actual supporting cast includes Fred Ward (a studio guard), Whoopi Goldberg (a Pasadena cop), Peter Gallagher, of "sex, lies, and videotape" (a rising young exec), Cynthia Stevenson (a studio idealist), Vincent D'Onofrio (the murdered writer), Dean Stockwell (a sleazy agent) Richard E. Grant (a neurotic filmmaker) and Brion James--the slope-chinned heavy who said "Time to die!" in "Blade Runner"--as the studio head. The "romantic" leads, the only cast members sequestered at Two Bunch Palms, are Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi. He plays Griffin, the killer-V.P; she's his victim's girlfriend, a movie-hating intellectual who claims to be from Iceland.

The hot springs bubble. Idly, I survey Altman's weapons, including a jib arm camera--invented for his old cinematographer, Pierre Mignot, by a Montreal technician--and a black-and-white monitor set before Altman's high, canvas-backed director's chair. The camera, prime factor in the floating, caressing camerawork for which his recent movies are notable, signals Altman's love of moving frames. Indeed, he's decided to open "The Player" with a playful hommage to the spectacular opening tracking shot of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil": an eight-minute crane shot moving and winding through the Hollywood Center Studio (the old Zoetrope), while we meet most of the main characters.

The jib arm is Altman's special tool. But is that monitor now standard filmmaking apparatus? "It depends," Altman says. "Alan Rudolph (Altman's one-time protege--and another "Player" bit actor) hates them. He won't use them. He's appalled by them. Francis Coppola probably goes the furthest: He sits up there (with his monitors) and he's in a different planet. I won't use them to record, because I think it wastes a lot of time. . . . I just use them to check the framing, since (cinematographer) Jean Lepine and I are constantly improvising.

"Even then, I'm not really seizing the moment; I'm making the moment, as you've seen. But I'm trying to make the audience feel that they've just seized the moment."

The setup is completed. "OK," Altman calls. "Dress rehearsal! Same as the show, only nobody comes. . . . "

Tim Robbins, who has lost weight and looks appropriately sallow and evil in a black, lizardy-looking jacket, is unabashedly delighted to be Altman's main Player. "I feel great about it," he murmurs, later on, over brie and cold turkey in the Two Bunch Palms banquet room. "I think we've done some pretty exciting and unusual stuff. In a way . . . " and he hesitates here, knowing he might give offense to past colleagues, " . . . I feel I'm making my first film. I think Bob reinstated my faith in theater."

Robbins has always been a curious, surprising actor--alternating virtuoso gruff or comic roles in movies like "Bull Durham" and "Miss Firecracker," with his anti-Establishment theater work in the L. A. Actors' Gang: a group born from a hit UCLA production of Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi." Robbins remains the Gang's artistic director and, due to his recent movie success, bankroller.

What is the reason he acts?

"To have a good time," he answers, slipping into the toneless, emotionless voice of Griffin Mill, killer. "Being able to laugh in the middle of a tense environment; explore different personalities, characters, emotions." He grins; I recall his more unbuttoned delight several weeks earlier, as he hopped around with his little boy in a caterer's tent while the boy's mom, Susan Sarandon, ruminated about reactions to "Thelma & Louise."

"I've gotten to a point where I was very, very tired and I was being presented with a lot of scripts that were . . . pablum-esque. Dumb. Parts I'd played before. So I was really excited when I met Bob, at the possibility of working with him. And the script was great--though it really wouldn't have mattered. I would have worked with him no matter what."

What about "The Player's" harsh take on modern Hollywood?

"Well," he says, diplomatically, "first and foremost, it's a thriller. With a Hollywood backdrop. There are some very true--and satiric--things in it. But I think everyone has been very careful not to be catty. Bitchy. If anything, I've learned playing this role how difficult the choices are and how hard the system makes it for the players. Because of money . . . how do you feed the Green God and still feed the muse?"

But, doesn't Tolkin present Hollywood as a soulless place?

"I think," says Robbins "That's every business. In order to succeed, it's hard not to compromise. . . . In that climb up the ladder, it's the rare individual who can keep the soul, keep the individuality and the passion that they once had. Certain choices have to be made. . . . But I think it's possible to keep your soul in Hollywood. I know a few people who have their souls still."

"Griffin is soulless," says Michael Tolkin as he puffs on an extravagant cigar.

We're sitting in lawn chairs in the gathering twilight, by a large mineral spring pool; scooped out of the lawn behind the main bungalows, it resembles a dwarf lake. It's Tolkin who discovered Two Bunch Palms years ago, when it was the hangout, he says, "of Ojai hippies and longhaired aerospace engineers," and later recommended it to Altman for the movie's climactic idyll.

As the honeyed sunlight bleeds away, we idly compare "The Player" with Tolkin's favorite movie, Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." Is there a link between Griffin Mill and Marcello Mastroianni's hapless celebrity journalist, Rubini?

"Griffin is smarter than Marcello; Marcello's kinda dumb. He's a winner; Marcello's a loser. Also, there's a point in Marcello's life when he could have changed, become better. For Griffin, that's never a possibility. There's only his job, only his career. He has no soul to save."

What was the book's perspective and genesis? "The novel was written by an unproduced writer," he mentions, adding that he began it not on a word processor, or even a typewriter, but with a pen. All of the seeming parody pitches in the novel itself--from "Cowboy Heaven" to the Willis-Roberts cliffhanger--are based on projects he actually pitched or wrote. "But," he adds later, "Griffin is a self-portrait."

A condemnatory self-portrait?

"Of course," he replies. "There's no point in being autobiographical unless you're condemnatory. A flattering self-portrait would be ludicrous." He puffs again, pensively. Tolkin quit cigarettes 10 years ago, but recently took up cigars between planes in Melbourne, Australia. And, in the LACMA party scene, with cigar much in evidence, he played a hot young director, loosely inspired by both Coen Brothers. (Altman later claimed that he couldn't keep his panatela-sucking wunderkind out of camera range.)

Is he worried that some viewers will find his view of Hollywood too negative? "I don't give a (expletive)," he demurs. "I want to be provocative, if not downright insulting. It's more interesting being inflammatory. And certainly it's more fun going to movies that have a definite point of view.

"This is deeply pessimistic culture that can't bear to look at itself. That's why so many bad movies get made. Bad movies do well. . . . the industry itself is a product of the culture. . . . And there are so many things that happen in this culture that we don't look at, that we're afraid to look at."

Was "The Player" a happy collaboration? "I think so. There's blood on the floor, like in every movie. Everybody's blood. Bob told me, bluntly, he was taking over--and I told him I'd give him all the rope he needed. But . . . he's shooting my script." Unlike some past collaborators, Tolkin feels Altman's assumption of control was correct. "I don't believe film is a collective art." he says. "It's a director's medium. There's nothing independent of a director on a movie--especially now, when they do all the casting."

Has Tolkin--whose own directorial debut, "The Rapture" opens Friday (see story on Page 24)--learned something important? "I'd compare Bob's work and talents to someone like Fellini," he says. "What I got from watching him was his unique way of covering a scene. He puts everything on a zoom, never uses a primary lens--because a zoom lens is Altman. The camera is always on the jib arm, so it's got incredible fluidity. He shoots very long masters. And with the camera zooming in and out, he can sometimes, over four takes, get 20 different angles. . . . What Altman mainly does is: He creates a set which allows everybody to let go of themselves once the camera is ready to roll."

"It all started because of our background: Pierre Mignot's and mine," Jean Lepine recalls. He's a tall, pleasant French-Canadian with a ponytail, in sweatshirt and jeans. Pierre Mignot's camera operator on Altman's early '80s films, Lepine was head cinematographer on the last few, including the stunning, painterly "Vincent & Theo."

The tamarisk trees are strung with lights. Lepine, as he works, is absorbed and sure. Movies about moviemaking have inspired some magnificent cinematographic efforts--Gianni di Venanzo's in "8 1/2," Robert Surtees' in "The Bad and the Beautiful," Sam Leavitt's in the 1954 "A Star Is Born," Harold Rosson's in "Singin' in the Rain" and Pierre-William Glenn's in "Day for Night"--but Lepine, who has evolved a unique, almost symbiotic teamwork with Altman, clearly is unintimidated.

"In Quebec, all the cameramen are from documentary school . . . because the National Film Board is the only film school. So, when I wanted to be (director of photography) I was looking for the cameramen I liked best in Montreal: two guys, Michel Brault (director of photography for Claude Jutra's "Mon Oncle Antoine" and director of "Les Ordres") and Pierre. Pierre and I became friends. We had the same way of thinking about shots: gliding and moving.

"It's documentary style: to be really with the thing, catch what's happening. That's what Bob wants. You have to be receptive, sensitive to the people, the actors. To feel the environment, natural lighting, create an ambience that is real. . . . I don't want to go for a "look" in a shot. I like to think that I'm looking for the life."

The art director--Altman's son, Steve--has dressed up Two Bunch Palms' barbecue area, which Lepine is lighting, into a Fellini-esque trysting place for Robbins' Griffin and Scacchi's June. Colored lights envelop the patio; a pig turns on a spit; champagne bottles reflect firelight; candles shimmer on the tables. A stunning background extra in short silver lame, Pamela Bowen, is in a steamy clinch with a smirking consort. She's temporarily become the star of the set.

"What I'm trying to do is find a place to get the reality of the shot and then go beyond the reality," Lepine sums up. "Bob, despite the freedom he allows you, always has a strong pattern: He's thoroughly logical. And each day there is that double reality, that under-thing.

"Think of the scene we shot last night. Not much happening--Tim and Greta entering a cabana, she gets a drink, he looks in her purse and sees a gun--but there's something behind that scene that we were looking for.

"That's why we go to the mirror, shoot Griffin's reflection. Suddenly, we discovered that Griffin lives in the mirror. He's a double guy. He doesn't know who he is. . . . When I saw that, I thought: Wow! "

Altman is best known for his "community" films" ("MASH," "A Wedding") and the movies where he playfully deconstructs established genres (the Western in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," the Chandler-esque thriller in "The Long Goodbye") or anatomizes social organisms (the country music capital in "Nashville," political campaigns in "Tanner '88"). But even though the multi-leveled industry satire of "The Player" seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable for him, he came to it by near accident--after a stall in his long-term Raymond Carver-derived "L.A. Short Cuts" project (now tentatively scheduled to roll right after "The Player" finishes cutting). And, later on, when complimented on his '80s strategy of staying in the game, working constantly, no matter how low the budget, he replies: "That's true, but I don't have any choice. If I couldn't make films, I'd probably commit suicide."

Now, sometime past midnight, after a full day, in which he's seemed indefatigable, unflappable, Altman reaches the last sequence.

One of the movie's key philosophical moments, it's not in the novel or the script's first drafts. As Griffin and June amble up a pathway--and as Bowen and her lover swim nude in the floodlit 100-degree pool--the production executive explains his job: "I listen to stories and decide if they'll make good movies or not. I get 125 phone calls a day and--if that slips to 100, I know I'm not doing my job." Then he enumerates what he looks for in a script: "Certain elements that we need to market a film successfully. Suspense. Laughter. Violence. Hope. Heart. Nudity. Sex. And happy endings. Mainly happy endings."

"What about life and pain?" June asks, wistfully and quizzically. "What about reality?"

Griffin smiles: He knows he's got her.

As Altman directs, there's something almost maternal about his patience with cast and crew. Even his insults and wisecracks are uttered with such Midwestern placidity and seeming guilelessness that they rarely sting. But this is a tough scene with a tricky lyrical-tense mood. Altman and his actors do it repeatedly. It's a troubled scene. Greta has begun to doubt her character and Altman's patient explanation--June is something of a dream--hasn't jelled. On the first take, she gives a truly ferocious reading: pointed, fierce, abandoned. Her reading, however electrifying, clashes with the languorous but tense mood Altman wants; it has to be modified.

Meanwhile, Tim plays the scene with that weird, somber tempo he's caught: a passive-aggressive, swallowed-up rhythm, pushed deep, deep inside. She tones down. He stays level, a sinister metallic hum of a man. Over and over, with part of the crew sequestered beyond the lights, they replay Griffin's successful pitch, Altman always patiently asking for another angle, another nuance. Lepine is steady on the camera, the swingers keep slipping naked back into the pool; the seduction, endless, takes until near dawn. Light seeps above San Jacinto almost before before Griffin and June consummate their . . . deal.

In the parlance of Hollywood, a "player" is someone who's sitting at the table, who has his/her chips in the game. But a question remains: What's the game? Who wins? Who loses? Presumably, the "players" control the action or take part in it--yet the nomenclature itself suggests it's all a gamble. And isn't that what's wrong with the movies these days? Don't they assume too much the psychology and methodology of a huge casino: executives and moviemakers alike vainly trying to break the bank?

If that's so, Altman is someone who knows the beast's belly. He's a constant game player; gambling and gaming are often in his movies, especially "California Split" and the apocalyptic "Quintet." A month later, at his Santa Monica production headquarters, it's not surprising to see the filmmaker and game player whiling away time between moviola viewings, in an apparently endless game of low-stakes backgammon with son Steve, while co-producer Scottie Bushnell kibitzes.

In the Two Bunch Palms rushes and some others--including an eerie, Pirandellian ending Altman has suggested--Robbins is wonderfully empty, calculated and bleak. Greta, for all her qualms, is warm and lovable. Their scenes have an eerie, dislocated anxiety and wistfulness, a twisted romance.

"You know, I think all you people are wrong," Altman says, shifting the backgammon markers. "Everybody keeps saying there's no one to root for in 'The Player' . . . but I think there's a possibility you're going to root for Griffin. Then, when you get to realize what an ass he is, you'll also realize he's not really a person at all--so it doesn't make any difference."

Someone mentions Oscars. Altman's mood shifts. "The Academy Awards," he muses acridly, "are strictly a money thing. It's about 'the industry' and its image. Awards should not be given by the group getting them. They say, 'Oh, we're getting this from our peers! ' That's bull. You get hate from your peers: Jealousy, competition . . . and sometimes a friendship kind of thing, because you're working together.

"That's why a film like 'The Player' can never even get into those categories. It can be a great film--and I think it could be--but it won't get Oscars. The writing's the only thing that could get it . . . but nothing else could."

Because it's too intellectual?

"Right. It's a movie about a movie that's about movies. . . . But the funny thing is, we've given them absolutely everything else. Remember that speech of Griffin's about what makes a successful movie? 'Sex, nudity, suspense, hope, violence?' Everything he talks about is in my film."

"Plus a happy ending," I remind him.

Altman, bending over the backgammon board, beams his Buddha/burgermeister smile. "Yeah. And a happy ending!"

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