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Comeback Kid: Happy Anniversary, Robert Altman
Ellen O'Donohue Oddy , April 1st, 2022 14:40

It's been 40 years since Robert Altman successfully departed Hollywood, and 30 since he successfully returned. Low-budget indie cinema and satirical black comedy saved the filmmaker, finds Ellen O'Donohue Oddy

The River Seine has more poetry than the Los Angeles River. Flanked by students clutching cigarettes and paperbacks, tourists juggling foldable maps and clunky SLR cameras, buskers serenading strangers, it is almost too obvious to imagine these stone embankments as an auteur’s resting place. Yet when Hollywood director Robert Altman, burned by the heat of the mid-1980s Hollywood’s inflated budgets and drug-addled talent, needed to resurrect his artistic sincerity – it was to the home of French cinema that he went. From his Parisian office, with dark stone floors and high beams looking out of the city, Robert Altman felt appreciated.

Altman did not so much leave Hollywood as much as he was pushed out. After Popeye flopped due to cost overruns, bad weather and rumoured out-of-control drug use by both cast and crew, no one would answer the phone. Plagued, Altman sold his studio for $2.3million and left. He first moved to New York where he turned to theatre directing, producing small plays off-Broadway.

The filmmaker describes this period as “a high time in my life. It was an experiment.” With no money, and no one looking, Altman was able to return to cinema and focus his attention on low-budget adaptations of plays for the big screen, grounding his work in the drama of the everyday, where politics licked at the edge of the narratives. It was within this sphere that Altman made his first of two comebacks. In 1982, Altman’s adaptation of Ed Graczyk's 1976 play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, was released to critical acclaim.

The film follows a James Dean fan club reunion in a small town in Texas. They come together 20 years on from their last meeting – the club ended shortly after Dean’s death. As the club reunites, secrets bubble under the surface, and each character is forced to look in the mirror of their past and present selves. Altman’s characteristic approach to ensemble directing, where characters speak over each other, and the viewer must make their own choice of who to listen to, comes alive.

Credited with the launch of Cher’s acting career, Come Back to the Five and Dime’s cast, which also includes Sandy Dennis, Mark Patton, Karen Black, Sudie Bond, and Kathy Bates, is enough to make the hairs of Gracyzyk’s questionable script stand on end. Altmans’ quiet direction, where slow zooms pressurise Dennis’ stretched smile, or Cher’s sharp hair flicks, speaks to not only the subtlety of human interactions but the artistic elements of cinema at a time of Hollywood’s increasingly commercialised output.

Perhaps Altman found his eroding industry reflected in the context of Come Back to the Five and Dime. We open in the unbearable heat of a 20-year-long drought, where store manager Juanita (Bond) is swatting flies. One of the last of its kind, the five and dime is a flickering emblem of a fading era. It has struggled since the drought, with few visitors and little local custom. Juanita and Mona (Dennis) reminisce about the heyday of the business – “brief but glorious” – when Mona’s almost biblical conception of the only son of James Dean was advertised on the motorway, which “put McCarthy Texas on the map”. The desire to be adored may be produced by Hollywood, but it is a need in every one of us. As Altman turns his camera to the faces of the room looking at the ground, biting their lip during Mona’s dreamy, desperate retellings of being cast as an extra in Dean’s film Giant, he places the hunger of fame within the stomach of a nobody.

The small budget of this film suits not only the buckling weight of the plot’s economic context of rising inflation in the ‘70s, but the claustrophobia of one set, full of characters colliding once more after 20 years, shovelling down secrets. With Come Back to the Five and Dime, Altman turned away the glamour and hunger of Hollywood, to see what it looked like on the hanger of ordinary people.

​​With The Player, released in 1992, the filmmaker shone Hollywood’s light right back at itself. If Come Back to the Five and Dime was Altman’s critical comeback, The Player would, 10 years on, become Altman’s commercial comeback, winning him his second Palme d’Or at Cannes (his first was for MAS*H). Made with ten times the budget of Come Back to the Five and Dime, The Player is a black comedy following a tortured studio exec, threatened by a writer whose pitch he ignored. The Player is life imitating art with bells on, and sets the tone for a genre of ‘80s satire that pulled at the strings of avarice.

As the selfish, wealthy studio exec is played like putty in the hands of an artist, The Player is seeping in Altman’s anti-Hollywood agenda – and the fact that he pulls half of Hollywood in on the joke (the film features over 65 celebrity cameos) gives it its sting. However, if Altman’s point is only about the industry, it is made within the opening minutes of the film. The rest is left for the soul of the viewer. Will you be tempted by your desire for spectacle? Does art no longer entertain you? Happy ending? I’ll give you a happy ending.

Altman makes the most of the budget too, with singular tracking shots moving from office to office, pitch to pitch, lunch table to lunch table, giving us Altman’s overlapping conversations with a platter of egos to feast on. We open with an eight-minute shot of a Hollywood studio, with 14 different scenes, where Griffin is pitched films such as “a psychic-political-thriller-comedy with a heart” and Walter, the chief of security, seems to be the only one interested in the art of cinema. Walter’s rambling about the opening minutes of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil sets us firmly in the Altman-Hollywood metaverse, as he praises how Welles’ “set up the whole picture with that tracking shot.”

As with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Altman undercuts the meaning of cinematic action. Actors speak over each other and the script continues out of shot – such as when Griffin’s acceptance speech advocates for art over entertainment in Hollywood, and we watch the major execs and celebrities combing hair in the mirror, chatting and laughing, disengaged from Griffin’s words which, judging by his career moves, are reappropriated from his own negative feedback.

Whilst Come Back to the Five and Dime is an early exploration of fangirl culture, The Player can be read as an early critique of gatekeeping culture. Altman’s statement is not just that there are a few powerful voices controlling the stories on our screens, but that they are controlling the stories in reality too. One character claims writers have become obsolete, that the stories are already made and just need garnishing with stars and sellable context. In a film where there is almost no difference between the films being made and the lives being lived, this claim is ridiculous. The writer wins, but only when the studio wins too.

This year marks 40 years since the critical success of Come Back to the Five and Dime, and 30 years since the commercial success of The Player. In an interview from the ‘90s, featured in the 2014 documentary Altman, the director is asked whether he has changed. He smiles. “I don’t think I’ve changed.” He rolls his hand like a reel, “I keep doing the same thing.” Then he lays his palms out and crosses them over slowly. “Occasionally what I do crosses with the general attitude of the public and I become very successful,” his left hand splits and goes off-camera, “and then I’m a failure and a has-been”, the left-hand returns, “and I cross back again. But to me, I’m going straight.” He gestures ahead, flicking his palms like an airline pilot signalling emergency exits. Then he winds his left hand, like he is tracing a precarious road. “Everyone else is just going like this.”