I’ve just heard about the death of the irreplacable, eternally influential Robert Altman. There are hundreds of things I could riff on, but death’s honesty always seems to be a little too blunt — too sudden — when it comes to really special guys like Altman. I guess the Academy got around to giving him his gold-watch award last year none too soon. His health was getting shakier and shakier over the last three or four years.
I’m more than a little startled by this. I was always thinking Altman might just have one more bulls-eye in him. Something satiric and snappy, but in a gentle-trippy- haunting way. That’s what I think of when I think of his great films.
He was a beautiful ornery man, occasionally touched by genius. That’s how genius is — it visits, whispers, flutters down and lights you up…and then it’s gone. And you can’t even show the world that it’s touched you unless you’re lucky as well. Altman was lucky and imbued enough to have things really work out maybe six or seven times in his life, and that’s pretty impressive.
I’m talking the usual litany, of course: Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, M.A.S.H., California Split, Thieves Like Us, Tanner on HBO, Gosford Park…what is that, eight? A Prairie Home Companion was warm and very spirited…an engaging mood piece (I loved Garrison Keillor and Meryl Streep‘s singing), but not quite pantheon-level.
I used to get a real kick out of Altman’s ornery-ness. He was always friendly, but he never smiled unless he really meant it. He tended to scowl and he didn’t suffer fools. He sure as shit didn’t tolerate any of my bullshit when I first started to talk to him in early ’92, when early screenings of The Player were happening and I was trying to spread the word that Altman was back in a big way.
When I asked to do a second Entertainment Weekly interview with him prior to the opening of The Player in April ’92, he thought I was being inefficient and taking too long and flat-out said so: “What are you, writing a book?” A month or two later we were both at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was trying to get quotes for an EW piece about celebrity reactions to the Rodney King riots that had just happened in Los Angeles. I asked Altman for a quote at a black-tie party on the beach, and he scowled again. “This subject is too important to comment about for Entertain- ment Weekly,” he said, and then turned his back.
You can’t hear me, Bob, and if you were here you wouldn’t give a shit anyway, but I’ve been telling people that line for the last 14 years and getting a good laugh from it every time.
I lived in a studio on Hightower Drive in the Hollywood hills in ’85 and ’86 precisely because it was on the same little street where the way-up-high, elevator-access, deco-styled Long Goodbye apartment was located — the one that Elliot Gould‘s Philip Marlowe lived in. You know, the one with the naked hippie-girl neighbors who used to ask him to pick up some brownie mix on his way out to the super market at 1:30 am?