MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

Alt + Control … Delete

Robert Altman was a scoundrel.

It’s perhaps not quite the way one might expect to recall someone that I personally considered the greatest living American director. To be certain it’s said with a large degree of affection. I don’t believe he could have survived and prospered within the film industry if he were any less strategic.

By the industry yardstick he was an old guy by the time he had the sort of success that makes people take notice. He made a cheapie independent back in 1955 called The Delinquents that starred the future Billy Jack and a pretty good thriller, That Cold Day in the Park, toward the end of the 1960s. However, he was primarily thought of as a premiere TV director for his work on robust series such as Combat.

At least according to movie lore he was something like the 47th choice to direct M*A*S*H. It certainly wasn’t a priority project at Fox, despite the fact that the script was by Ring Lardner Jr. The Korean war yarn was some sort of sop to agent turned producer Ingo Preminger, shot on the cheap on the studio backlot and anticipated to bring back its money from university towns where anti Vietnam war sentiment was strong.

Lardner didn’t like the completed film though winning an Oscar and years of receiving kudos for that particularly film softened his view over time. And the studio certainly had no idea what it had, as opposed to its other bygone war saga that year, Patton. It opened in early 1970 to critical raves and a few months later won the Grand Prix in Cannes. The film also grossed a then phenomenal $50 million and the man that couldn’t get arrested on the brink of his 50th birthday was suddenly at the top of everybody’s wish list.

I encountered Altman many times over the subsequent decades and wish I’d asked him how he felt about his dramatic reversal of fortune. My suspicion is that he was savvy enough about the industry to realize that being an industry darling has a short life span and that the opportunity to do what interested him was more important than chasing after more commercially obvious material.

He chose to do Brewster McCloud, a bizarre allegory based on the Icarus myth set in the Houston Astrodome. Though he generally maintained that he loved all his films in the way that a parent loves each child, he once admitted to a special attachment to that film. About a decade ago I asked him if it was still his favorite and he said, “Yes, because it was the hardest to do.”

My first face-to-face was on the next film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or The Presbyterian Church Wager as it was known during filming. I convinced Maclean’s Magazine that there was a great piece to be done on Don Francks who’d been cast in the movie. Francks, best known today as the star of the ill-fated movie adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow, was supposed to be a great international star but when Hollywood and Broadway came knocking he wound up choosing monumental clunkers. After Finian he dropped out, moving to an Indian reservation with his wife and adopting some bizarre monicker like Iron Buffalo.

I was tipped incorrectly that he had a major role in the film rather than little more than stand-in status. The assignment was worse than Lebanon and my memory of the set was of barely contained chaos and impending catastrophe. Ironically, I consider the finished film his most enduring and resonant work.

I didn’t really have much interaction with Altman during McCabe and wouldn’t run into him again until Thieves Like Us debuted in Cannes in 1974. For no particular reason we hit it off during an interview and he extended an open invitation to visit him on his yacht whenever I felt like it. Again, ironically, I had less interaction with him than his wife Kathryn when I dropped by on several occasions. We shared a common dislike for a French publicist and concocted several elaborate pranks to play on him during the festival.

Altman was very shrewd about capitalizing on the perception of success. Post-M*A*S*H was littered with some of his most interesting work and commercial flops that included Images, The Long Goodbye and California Split. McCabe was the only film that broke even … barely.

Several tributes have likened him to a gambler and in retrospect one has to assume showing the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael an early cut of Nashville was a calculated risk. She gushed and the anticipation of another colossal hit loomed. It was a hit and nominated for lots of Oscars but his popular films were rarely as big as the hype behind them.

Nashville nonetheless paved the way for his most recklessly non-commercial period that included the truly remarkable Three Women and such misfires as Quintet and A Perfect Couple. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, that began as a love affair with Dino De Laurentiis, ended with the producer re-cutting the film and pulling out of a planned adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.

The next irony was Popeye. Shot in Malta, it’s become famous as an outrageously decadent set and a film that went way over budget. The critics didn’t like it but I’ve seen it several times since it opened and it’s one of his most remarkable and entertaining films. The bitter pill is that it was perceived as a commercial failure though it actually was a sizeable hit. However, perception trumps all and for the rest of his career he worked outside the studio system.

It took Altman several years to figure out how to make and finance films independently and while the initial efforts were on the ragged side, he quickly found his stride and worked as prolifically and successfully as he had when there was studio backing.

In 1982 I was in Montreal for the premiere of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Altman had staged the material in New York and everyone knew the film version was made fast and on the cheap. Expectations were not high and the filmmaker and his producers were noticeably anxious about the response in Montreal and the subsequent screening in Venice.

They also knew (though it wasn’t advertised) that I’d been assigned to review it in Variety and I guess I knew somehow that they knew. So when I walked into the filmmaker’s suite to do an interview (I’d already sent off my review), I felt as if I was being x-rayed and did my level best not to give away a thing.

Two weeks later in Toronto one of the Jimmy Dean producers grabbed me and said, “Bob’s really pissed at you.” In the split-second between the pause and his next word a thousand things ran through my mind about what grievous deed I’d done. “When you walked out of the room in Montreal, he looked at me and said, ‘we are dead in Variety.‘ We couldn’t have been more surprised and pleased when we got the review in Venice.”

Altman developed a healthy suspicion toward just about everyone for good reason. He knew a lot about betrayal first hand and grew a pretty sturdy protective shell, especially after his experience in the studio grist mill. I don’t believe that it was simply a good review that put me in his circle of trust but from that point in time on the few occasions when I need him for a story or comment, he was always available.

Trust notwithstanding, Altman didn’t talk to me for a year because of some trifle that occurred about five years back. Mike Kaplan, a common friend who worked on at least a dozen of his movies, shrugged when I told him about the incident. He told me everyone got the Altman cold shoulder at some point and it would pass … as it did.

He was fond of saying, “I tell the truth, it’s easier to remember.” In that spirit, I had to assume anything out of his mouth was fair game. At Cannes, when he was putting together the financing on Short Cuts, he told me that Tim Robbins‘ agent Elaine Goldsmith had been dodging him because she knew that 1) Robbins loved working with him on The Player, and 2) Altman would never pay his current quote.

“I’ve heard through channels that she said, ‘he can have Tim Robbins over my dead body,'” the filmmaker said with a chuckle. “So, I sent back this message: I don’t climb that high.” Ms. Goldsmith, in case you hadn’t guessed, is on the zaftig side.

It was a perfect story for a daily column I was writing for Screen International. Coincidentally, the evening it appeared I went to a dinner for the version of Of Mice and Men that Gary Sinese directed and was seated with Johnny Planco, Altman’s agent at the time. Johnny waved to Bob and Kathryn when they arrived and from across the room the big man pointed a finger at me and pushed his thumb forward as if firing a gun.

I girded myself for a famous Altman tirade but when he reached the table he came over to me and leaned in and said in a whisper, “you knew the story you wrote. I don’t think I told it quite that way.” He then sat down two seats away with Kathryn separating us. A few minutes later she leaned in and said, “You know Bob says he didn’t quite say what you printed. But I think you got it exactly right.”

A few years ago I hosted a conversation with him and screenwriter Anne Rapp at the Austin Film Festival. They had just finished Dr. T and the Women and he was as relaxed and forthright as I had ever seen him. He’d talked about his process with writers and script in the past but with Rapp present he went into considerable detail with her adding a few anecdotes in the process. He just told the truth.

There was no one quite like Robert Altman. He made some great films and his influence was considerable. I haven’t been this upset about a passing since John Cassavetes. Both men left a void that, despite nature’s abhorrence for a vacuum, will not be filled. He was the last of a superb vintage.

Fade to Noiret

Philippe Noiret was a great actor, pure and simple. He could do it all and did it without fuss as if it were no more difficult than breathing. Zazie, Coup de Torchon, Il Postino, Les Ripoux (aka My New Partner), Le Juge et l’assassin, Cinema Paradiso, Life and Nothing But, La Grande Bouffe are just the tip of the iceberg. It is a fabulous legacy.

My favorite Noiret performance is in Le Vieux Fusil. Though almost unknown here, it earned him the Cesar award in France. Set during the Second World War, it centers on a man who sees his wife and daughter murdered by the Nazis and systematically sets about to kill the men who did the deed. When I saw it back in 1975, the memory of Death Wish was still fresh and, of course, the French variant is superior because it’s very clear that there are psychological consequences to taking a human life as well as dealing with what spurs the most unlikely person to murder.

In the aftermath there’s an exchange between Noiret and his friend played by Jean Rochefort that is as fine a piece of acting as I have ever seen. It’s funny and it’s chilling and it makes me want to go out and find a copy to view this very minute.

But I’ll pause long enough to recall my sole encounter with the actor. It was about 20 years ago at Cannes. I was trudging through the Carlton Hotel to my office when I spied the actor seated having lunch. About ten paces later I came to a halt and thought I’ve just passed by one of the greatest actors in the world and didn’t bother to stop and tell him how much I appreciated his work. When am I ever going to get this chance again? Don’t be a schmuck.

I did an about turn and made a bee-line for his table. I apologized for the interruption and told him how much I admired his work, particularly Le Vieux Fusil.

“Will you join me for coffee,” he said extending his hand. Gracious to a fault we chatted for about 20 minutes and suffice it to say, he was every bit as good off-screen as he was on-screen.

November 30, 2006

– by Leonard Klady 

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon