Directors such as Steven Spielberg,
Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese may have dominated the 1970’s labeled
as “New Wave,” however if it wasn’t for directors such as Robert Altman to
blaze the way almost a decade earlier with creative filming styles and innovative
overlapping dialogue techniques, that would become his signature trademark,
risks that we now take for granted might not have ever been ventured.
Altman’s career in film began in the late 1940’s not with directing but
with co-writing a film called The
Bodyguard with George W. George. But it was when he moved back to his home
town of Kansas City was when he learned the craft of being a directory by
working for the Calvin Company as a director of industrial films for five
years. After his time with the Calvin Company his directed a number of episode
for various television shows including the Kraft
Mystery Theater, Bonanza and Maverick.
In 1963 Altman founded Lion’s Gate production company and produced his first
feature length film Countdown. This
eventually led to his most critically and financially recognized film M*A*S*H. This film cemented Altman as a
visionary director with his hallmark style which included improvisation and
overlapping dialogue. M*A*S*H was
nominated for six Academy Awards, and won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or.
Although it was a box office success, Altman was only paid $75,000 and saw no
money from the television series based on the film.1
Throughout the 1970’s Altman continued to make critically but not
necessarily financially successful films including Brewster McCloud, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye. The exception
was Nashville, it has been argued to be the best film of the 1970’s which included
an ambitious venture with 20+ major characters. But it paid off by being both a
box office and critical success. Although he continued to direct many films
none of them reached the success he had with either Nashville or M*A*S*H.
During the early 1980’s Altman collaborated with Disney on the live-action
film Popeye, starring Robin Williams
and Shelley Duvall. Despite having a generous $20 million dollar budget the
film was an artistic and commercial flop and Altman’s career in Hollywood was ruined.
He sold his production company and turned his attention to stage directing. For
the remainder of the decade he expanded both his knowledge and creativity in
theater and television. It was during this period Altman directed his first
opera at the University of Michigan.
During the 1990’s he made a return to Hollywood but never attainted the
success he had like he did with his films from the 1970’s. In 2006 The Academy
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized his body of work with an Academy
Honorary Award. It should be noted that even though the bulk of Altman’s films
were either commercial and/or critical failures he has nonetheless made a long
lasting impression that has impacted the film industry for decades to come.
1“Robert Altman American Director” Encyclopaedia Britannica on 28 Jan. 2018