The Guardian‘s Ryan Gilbey has ranked Robert Altman’s 20 best films, but Gilbey’s favorites and priorities….my God!

Gilbey has M.A.S.H. ranked at #19 (and in this instance below the completely negligible The Perfect Couple) and The Player — Altman’s hugely popular 1992 comeback film — at #14. In the tenth-place slot, the legendary California Split is ranked below Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (?!?!) and also below the troubled, cocaineish Popeye, which is ranked seventh. Gibney has Nashville ranked second, which is unfortunate given the almost universal recognition (except on the part of Larry Karaszewski and the like) that Nashville is snide and misanthropic…it really, really doesn’t hold up any more.

From “Robert Altman Is Dead“, posted on 11.21.06:

“Altman 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: 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‘s presence 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 here?”

“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 Entertainment 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 several years and getting a good laugh from it every time.”

Altman was lucky enough to tap into a five-year period when he made M*A*S*H (’70), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (’71), The Long Goodbye (which was barely paid attention to when it opened in ’73), Thieves Like Us (’74), California Split (’74) and Nashville (’75), which made a big splash at the time with the Pauline Kael review and all.

Terrence Rafferty once wrote that the early to mid ’70s worked well for Altman because “the conditions were right for Altman’s loose-jointed, intuitive, risk-courting approach to making movies, and the planets over Hollywood haven’t aligned themselves in that way since…the wondrous opportunity those years afforded adventurous filmmakers like him was that studio executives, for once in their ignoble history, actually knew that they had no idea what they were doing.”

My all-time favorite improvised line in an Altman film (which may have been written by Leigh Brackett for all I know) is in The Long Goodbye. Elliot Gould‘s Phillip Marlowe is asking a small-town Mexican official about the alleged death of his amoral, sleazy friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), and the Mexican gentleman refers to Lennox as ‘the deceased’ but it sounds like something else. And Gould goes, ‘The diseased…yeah, right.’

Sidenote: In the mid ’80s I rented an apartment on Hightower Drive (off Camrose, not far from the Hollywood Bowl) partly because Gould’s Marlowe lived in an amazing, high-up, elevator-access deco complex on Hightower in The Long Goodbye, and I thought it would be cool to live right down the street from this.

Update: Apologies for misspelling Ryan Gilbey‘s name yesterday — haste makes waste.