- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 27, 2009

By Mitchell Zuckoff
Knopf, $35, 576 pages

Mitchell Zuckoff’s biography of director Robert Altman has to be one of the most appealing, vivid, right-on biographies in recent times. It is an oral biography, and as Mr. Zuckoff eloquently writes in his brief introduction to his very long book, “There’s no way to replicate in print what Bob accomplished on film and in life, but an oral biography seemed to be the next best thing. I hope he’d agree.”

I can only heartily agree myself, having just gotten an e-mail of an article I had written for the Village Voice, published Nov. 15, 1973, titled “Hello, ‘Goodbye’ ” about a day I had spent out in Malibu in a house Altman and his wife had rented until Altman decided it was the perfect location for the Sterling Hayden character and his film wife Nina van Pallandt to inhabit in the picture “The Long Goodbye,” a movie made from Raymond Chandler’s last novel.

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Actually it was very eerie to go from reading my own text of 36 years ago to the book where Altman’s wife’s last report on Nov. 26, 2006 - the day the director died - is recorded. He was 81, planning out what would be his last film. His last words that shocked his wife (because throughout his life he had always been so optimistic) were, “I’m never getting out of here, I know it.” He had never wanted to admit the seriousness of his cancer, one kidney removed, heavy chemo.

I pick up the yellowed Xerox of the Nov. 15, 1973, issue of the Village Voice and begin reading: “Altman enters. A large, trim, bearded figure with a broad-brimmed planter’s hat. He stops all conversation by announcing he is putting on a tape of Dave Grusin’s. Altman’s manner is that of a great loving father cum genial host. The mood on the set is like one continuing, hugely successful party. As one of the people on the set said, ‘I’d pay them just to let me hang around.’

” ‘Dave recorded this last night.’ ” Altman explains the soundtrack of the film will always be the same melody, but sometimes coming as a rock tune over a car radio, other times a blues on a piano in a rundown bar, sometimes with the lyrics from ‘The Long Goodbye.’ The roomful of people remains immobilized, broken only by Altman occasionally murmurming, ‘Hey, listen to that, will you.’ ”

Altman joins in a conversation with Sterling [Hayden], “Directors are like artists, each one has his own style. He disgresses into anecdote. ‘You know how I got offered ‘Prime Cut’: … d’you know why? Because I come from Kansas City … [T]hat’s why I became a movie director - to get away from Kansas City. I worked in a meat-packing plant, and I can tell you the last thing on earth I’d do on this earth is make a movie about it.’ ”

Some directors hate showing their dailies even to their actors, but not Altman. Time and again in the oral biographies collected in Mr. Zuckoff’s book, people recount evenings spent at Altman’s watching his dailies.

As I observed, “He positively glories in having people in to watch his dailies. He holds them in his office on Westwood Boulevard, with sofas and easy chairs lined up to face a pulldown screen over the front door. Altman himself sits in the master’s red leather barber chair, with everyone else around him, many on the floor. Drinks go around, and afterward there are fresh vegetable hors d’oeuvres and sandwiches.

“The end shot from outside the house shows Niona behind a bog picture window looking out at Sterling’s back. We see his face; he is gesturing and shouting toward Elliott, who is down by the breakers, and we can see his reflection and the breakers imposed over Nina as he moves toward Sterling, ‘That’s what movies are all about,’ Altman says triumphantly. ‘That’s unquestionably the best piece of film-making I have ever seen.’ ”

A week or so later in New York, talking with a film executive about “The Long Goodbye” I said something like how Altman would have to work awfully hard for this film not to be a success. The executive warding off the jealousy of the gods, smiled and said, “Well, Bob’s a very destructive man, you know.”

But as David Picker, then an executive at United Artists said of him, “On a personal level … people disliked him. He is a complex man. You can get fifteen different reactions from fifteen different people.”

Bottom line: He directed 37 films, produced 27 and wrote 16 of them. He was a wonderfully talented man and Michael Zuckoff has quite splendidly captured this master film-maker.

Cynthia Grenier is a writer and critic in Washington.

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