Robert Altman

(1922—2006) American film director

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Innovative US film director more frequently honoured by European critics than by the cinema-going public of his homeland.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, and educated by Jesuits, Altman became a wartime bomber pilot and a trained engineer. Abandoning plans to make a fortune with a dog-tattooing machine, he learnt his trade by making industrial films in his home city. Altman made his feature film debut with The Delinquents (1957), which he wrote, produced, directed, and financed. Years of tedium followed, directing such TV series as Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, with M*A*S*H (1970) Altman shot to fame. This black comedy, set in a field hospital against the background of the Korean War, is usually interpreted as an indictment of the futility of the Vietnam conflict then raging. Altman, fifteenth choice as director for the project, was vindicated by being awarded the Cannes Palme d'Or and an Academy Award for best screenplay.

Capitalizing on this success with the ‘anti-western’ McCabe and Mrs Miller (1973) and his parody of the film noir, The Long Goodbye (1973), Altman then produced Nashville (1975), which the New York Film Critics honoured with their best film and best director awards. Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) flopped at the US box office but won a Golden Bear at Berlin. The misconceived non-cartoon version of Popeye (1980) was likewise a major flop but found few critical defenders. Self-imposed exile in Paris then enabled Altman to indulge his idiosyncratic passions, making films about such tortured souls as James Dean, Richard Nixon, and Vincent Van Gogh. ‘Hollywood doesn't want to make the same pictures I do,’ Altman pronounced, ‘and I'm too old to change.’ A decade later Altman's self-styled ‘third comeback’ produced two stylish critiques of contemporary Los Angeles, The Player (1992), which involved sixty-six celebrity cameo appearances, and Short Cuts (1993), which won the Golden Lion at Venice. Subsequent films include Prêt-à-Porter (1995), an all-star satire on the fashion world, and The Gingerbread Man (1998), a thriller.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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