Altman

He's original, revered by actors and some critics, often shunned by moviegoers. Yet no one makes movies like this maverick.

obert Altman has struck it big with "Gosford Park," a lavishly filmed comedy-drama that blends his wide-screen style with elements of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the BBC miniseries "Upstairs Downstairs," and the board game Clue.

Moviegoers are making this his most popular picture in years (earning $20 million at the box office so far), and prizegivers are following suit. Altman has been named the best director of 2001 by groups from the American Film Institute and the Golden Globes to the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle.

Does this mean an Oscar looms in his future? All signs point that way - except one.

The prestigious Directors Guild of America (DGA) left Altman off its 2002 nomination list - a disappointment in itself, and perhaps an augury of more disappointment to come. Only five times in the last half-century has the best-director Oscar gone to a contender who hadn't earned the DGA award a few weeks earlier.

This pattern can be broken, as it was last year when Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic") edged out DGA winner Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") in a surprise victory. But this pattern doesn't bode well, and Altman must be anxious.

Or is he? If there's a word most often used to describe this one-of-a-kind filmmaker, it's "maverick," which sums him up for friends and foes alike. He's spent his career bucking the Hollywood system, and his long-shot status in the Academy Award race might be just the position he would have chosen - a bit of a letdown in some respects, but also a reaffirmation of his lifelong refusal to measure success by ordinary rules.

This doesn't mean big-time tastemakers have always overlooked him. Oscar nominations have come his way four times - for "M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "The Player," and "Short Cuts" - and he took the Director's Guild of America award for "The Player" in 1992.

Still, the Hollywood establishment has never known quite what to make of him. His storytelling style is unique - generally short on plot but long on mood, atmosphere, and character development. His cinematic style is even more unusual, using restlessly roving cameras, snoopy zoom lenses, and sound techniques that let any number of actors chatter away at the same time.

These mannerisms have been Altman's hallmark since "M*A*S*H" made him a directorial superstar in 1970, and sometimes they've stumped Saturday-night audiences as much as they've bewildered studio executives trying to figure out how to market them. Many an Altman film has vanished from theater screens with alarming speed, and some have barely gotten there at all. Who remembers "Health" or "Beyond Therapy" or "O.C. and Stiggs"?

He's stayed true to his vision, though, never capitulating to the notion that personal filmmaking is limited to overseas auteurs. "Everything's an experiment," he told me in a 1996 interview at the Cannes Film Festival. "If I knew how everything was going to be done, I'd always be late for work, because it would be dull. But this is exciting for me, because every day I'm a little scared, since I'm not quite sure what's going to succeed."

Most agree that "Gosford Park" succeeds very well, and it's a perfect illustration of Altman's approach. The story is so slim it's hardly even there - the murder doesn't happen until halfway through, and few of the characters care about it when it does.

What matters are the interactions between those characters as they pass a not-so-carefree weekend on a posh English estate in 1932. Some are servants who accept their lowly lot in life; others are aristocrats who assume their own superiority; a few are outsiders bemused by the oddities of the British class system. The murder is less a plot device than an excuse for Altman to keep this motley group in a single setting for several days, allowing his camera to ferret out their secrets and illuminate the social system that molds and manipulates their lives.

This is the method Altman has followed in most of his major films, in settings as varied as the Old West town of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," the film-noir Los Angeles of "The Long Goodbye," the jazz-drenched milieu of "Kansas City," and the quintessentially Southern setting of "Cookie's Fortune," to name just a few.

The consistency of Altman's distinctive approach doesn't mean it has come easily to him, or that it's always brought professional esteem. He had a remarkably late start for a major director, becoming famous with "M*A*S*H" at age 45 after years of industrial documentaries and episodes for TV series like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "The Millionaire."

He's endured more than his share of box-office slumps, as well. One persisted through an entire decade, when the failure of his 1980 musical "Popeye" - capping a string of previous flops - forced him into 10 years of low-budget productions that drew little attention.

His comeback started with "Vincent & Theo," and grew stronger with "The Player" and "Short Cuts" over the next three years. Not all of his recent pictures have done well - the ambitious "Ready to Wear" was poorly received - but his energy hasn't flagged. He completed no fewer than eight films between 1990 and 2000, from the biopic "Vincent & Theo" to the dramatic comedy "Dr. T & the Women."

What draws audiences to Altman's work, despite its refusal to follow the usual formulas? One answer must be its steady intelligence. He has never been a political filmmaker per se, but subtle commentary often underlies his movies.

"Gosford Park" seems like an exception when you learn that Altman and his key collaborators on the film - actor Bob Balaban and screenwriter Julian Fellowes - set the story in 1932 so the imminent rise of European fascism wouldn't intrude on the personal and sociological elements they wanted to explore.

Look a little further, though, and you can't miss the social criticism that gives the movie much of its fascination. Favoring servants over masters, Altman never brings us into the upper-class domain unless there's at least one lower-class character present to keep the story anchored in the hard realities of ordinary life.

Also important is the character played by Jeremy Northam, based on Ivor Novello, a real-life actor and songwriter. He's the token celebrity of the party, and everyone at Gosford Park is thrilled to be in his presence.

Yet he makes the aristocrats a tad uneasy, since he embodies one of their hidden fears: that success can be acquired as well as inherited, and that the 20th century may escape their control as media-savvy American interlopers gain more social and financial power.

In addition to such insights, audiences love the star-studded casts Altman assembles for his movies. He can't pay superstar salaries, since even his biggest hits make far less than Hollywood blockbusters. But he allows his actors to be full-fledged participants in the creative process, using their ideas and improvisations to shape the story, the dialogue, and the personalities of the characters they play. Such opportunities are rare in today's machine-tooled film industry, which explains Altman's ability to populate an offbeat project like "Gosford Park" with the likes of Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, and Alan Bates.

What does Altman still have in store for us? At more than 75 years old, when most filmmakers are well into retirement, he's already planning his next picture: "Voltage," a satirical comedy with a screenplay by longtime collaborator Alan Rudolph and the kind of cast Altman is famous for - Joaquin Phoenix, Liv Tyler, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harry Belafonte, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What's the secret of his staying power and creative freshness? Possible answers range from pure genius to sheer orneriness. Expect both to loom large in the movies he's dreaming up now.

Robert Altman filmography

Gosford Park (2001)

Dr. T & the Women (2000)

Cookie's Fortune (1999)

The Gingerbread Man (1997)

Kansas City (1995)

Ready to Wear (1994)

Short Cuts (1993)

The Player (1992)

Vincent & Theo (1990)

Aria (1998)

The Canine Mutiny Court Martial (1998)

Tanner '88 (1988)

Dumb Waiter (1987)

O.C. and Stiggs (1987)

The Room (1987)

Beyond Therapy (1986)

Fool for Love (1986)

Secret Honor (1985)

Streamers (1983)

Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Popeye (1980)

Quintet (1979)

A Wedding (1978)

Buffalo Bill & the Indians (1976)

Nashville (1975)

Thieves Like Us (1974)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Brewster McCloud (1970)

M*A*S*H (1970)

That Cold Day in the Park (1969)

Countdown (1968)

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