- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

It took Robert Altman more than a decade to establish a professional foothold in Hollywood. Another decade passed before he could leverage a successful career in serial television — directing episodes on such shows as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Bonanza,” “Route 66” and especially “Combat!” — toward a more desirable pasture: theatrical features.

Even then his first major studio project, “Countdown,” a would-be timely melodrama about astronauts prepping for a lunar mission, resulted in a sacking from Jack Warner, who disliked the prevalence of overlapping dialogue in the rushes.A year later, Mr. Altman inherited a script that had been rejected by many other directors: Ring Lardner Jr.’s adaptation of a minor comic novel about Army medics operating near the front lines during the Korean War. Serendipity took hold, and “M*A*S*H” took off in the first quarter of 1970, providing Mr. Altman with a breakthrough box-office hit at age 45.

Given this preamble, it’s not too surprising that another 35 years transpired before the movie industry was sufficiently reconciled to the Altman durability and mystique to recognize his career with an honorary Oscar statuette from the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Despite five nominations from his peers in the Directors Guild — for “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville” in 1975, “The Player” in 1992, “Short Cuts” in 1993 and “Gosford Park” in 2001 — Mr. Altman has yet to win an Oscar.

Lily Tomlin, who played major roles in “Nashville” and “Short Cuts” and returns to the Altman stock company in his latest feature, “A Prairie Home Companion,” scheduled for national release in June, will present the award during tomorrow night’s Oscar ceremony.

Depending on how one chooses to count the Altman filmography, “Home Companion” is his 35th or 38th feature. His productivity between 1968 and 2006 has probably been exceeded only by Woody Allen. Add the scores of industrial, business and public service films made by Mr. Altman in his hometown of Kansas City from about 1950-57 and the scores of television episodes he logged from about 1957 to 1967, and it’s conceivable that he’s unrivaled as the most experienced, even battle-hardened, famous director of his generation — with a resume that bridges filmmaking spheres once considered mutually exclusive.

The academy citation commends Mr. Altman’s “innovation, his redefinition of genres, his invention of new ways of using the film medium and his reinvigoration of old ones.”The honoree did put a fresh and distinctive imprint on several genres — the service comedy in “M*A*S*H,” the Western in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the topical political allegory in “Nashville,” the Hollywood expose comedy in “The Player,” the weekend house party whodunit and upstairs-downstairs social comedy in “Gosford Park.” Still, it’s unlikely that he has redefined any genre with airtight authority.

No one has improved on “The Player” or “Gosford Park” as consummately knowing and stylish comedies in their particular settings. But the earlier variations have dimmed over a generation. The TV reincarnation of “M*A*S*H” eclipsed the appeal of the feature; the lyrical “McCabe” was never a threat to Clint Eastwood; and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” proved a more popular update on country-and-Western celebrity than “Nashville.”

Mr. Altman has been more of a critical, film buff and fellow pro’s favorite than a mass audience magnet.Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except when Hollywood executives choose to hold it against you. Too talented and prestigious to be written off as a cult item, Mr. Altman has remained too idiosyncratic and erratic to be a reliable draw.

In fact, he has alternated high points and low points with maddening frequency. For example, “M*A*S*H” was followed by “Brewster McCloud,” “McCabe” by “Images,” “Nashville” by “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” “The Player” by “Ready-to-Wear” and “Gosford Park” by “The Company.”Few major directors have strung together a losing steak to match “A Wedding,” “Quintet,” “A Perfect Couple” and “Health” in the late 1970s.

Mr. Altman spent much of the 1980s retrenching as an improbable specialist in off- or off-off Broadway theater. With cable television basically in mind, he directed film versions of “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” “Streamers,” “Secret Honor,” “Fool for Love” and “Beyond Therapy.” He lived in Paris part of the time and spent an interlude as an artist-in-residence at the University of Michigan.Staying busy and resourceful, he recovered art-house traction with “Vincent and Theo” and then general comeback recognition with “The Player.”

The ease with which Mr. Altman seems to insinuate himself into some settings doesn’t necessarily carry over into others. On paper, “A Wedding” and “Health” looked like swell pretexts for Altman ensemble comedy, but they backfired. “A Prairie Home Companion” would appear to be right down his alley structurally (episodic showbiz concert format) temperamentally (presumably mellow-to-bittersweet) and politically (knee-jerk liberal). So admirers can be guardedly optimistic.

Mr. Altman seems most comfortable as a maverick Hollywood showman and most characteristic as a humorist drawn to show business cultures and pathologies. His encouragement of such technical refinements as multitrack, intricately layered sound recording is essentially an enhancement to cinematic immediacy and realism. A dislike for post-recorded dialogue prompted him to mike performers individually in order to sharpen the interplay of live voices and sound effects.

Mr. Altman’s flair for juxtaposing contradictory impressions and moods is also a boon to psychological realism. He’s been more astute than most filmmakers at recognizing how one person’s preoccupations may be poignantly oblivious to others in the general vicinity. For example, the townspeople in “McCabe” struggle to save their burning church while unaware that the title character, a gambler played by Warren Beattycqs locked in a gun battle in a gathering snowstorm.

Four women seduced by Keith Carradine’s character in “Nashville” have reason to believe that he’s singing only to them while performing the Oscar-winning “I’m Easy” in a nightclub sequence. A splendidly graceful composition links the actresses in a wide-angle shot, connecting them from right to left with seemingly slight, spontaneous nods of the head.

At his most deft and observant, Robert Altman has been an exceptional humorist and heartbreaker.

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