It's hard to believe that not so long ago, Robert Altman was considered one of the biggest sumbitches in Hollywood -- "a pompous, pretentious asshole," in the words of the late producer Don Simpson, whom Altman similarly regarded as a "bad guy, a bum." Journalists were once terrified of interviewing him, for fear that his razor-edged mood swings would lop off their heads. They visited his set and approached his trailer with not a small amount of trepidation. His myth loomed large: Robert Altman, director of M*A*S*H and Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Player, was a boozer, gambler, stoner, womanizer, and all-around prick.
"Nobody wanted to make a movie with Bob Altman," his old agent, George Litto, told author Peter Biskind for his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock-'n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Nobody wanted him, not even after he had a hit. Not even after he reinvented the movies in his own image, one that merged documentary with fiction until his films looked made up on the spot (and they so often are). Altman regarded himself as auteur, as maverick, as genius; he was right. Studio executives and the occasional actor (namely, McCabe star Warren Beatty) regarded him as boorish, arrogant, a real fuck-up pain in the ass; they were right.
"Making pictures is always the same -- it's embarrassingly the same." He chuckles. "Before, I was on new ground all the time. I was aware that I was in territories I hadn't had experience in. Now, I've had a lot of experience. I've done 35 films, God knows how many television shows -- hundreds of 'em. How many hours of film I've actually done, it's uncountable. But it's always the same emotionally. If there's anything different, I'm less arrogant than I have been, mainly because I have been arrogant." He smiles. "I love it."
He chuckles again, and just like that, Altman dashes to pieces 30 years of bad press and bad vibes. Perhaps it's simply easy to forgive an asshole his faults when he is, in fact, a charming genius willing to talk at great length about a career marked more by failure than success. Of the 30-plus movies on Altman's filmography -- discounting his decades of jumping in and out of television and his years spent shooting industrial films in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri -- only a handful ever made any money. Only a handful is known outside the cult. Only a few were celebrated upon release or will outlive their maker. The rest -- such films as H.E.A.L.T.H., Quintet, O.C. & Stiggs, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Perfect Couple, among so many others -- will end up forgotten. Altman insists he loves all of his "children" equally; time likely will not be so kind.
It would not be hard to make a case for Altman as a Great Director: His are the most noble of failures -- experiments gone awry (one of his best films was once among his most reviled, 1973's laconic adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye starring Elliott Gould as a disheveled, dispassionate Philip Marlowe). He has never once directed a film to pay the rent, despite his claims that if he were to stop working for a year, he would go broke. He talks often of how he turned down "big, big money" to make a sequel to his 1970 film M*A*S*H, which made a small fortune for Fox and, later, CBS-TV. He made only $75,000 for his work on that movie and received no points; when the film took in nearly $40 million, placing it behind only Love Story and Airport, he pocketed only lint. A lesser director -- one without vision, without hubris, without balls -- might have caved. Altman refused to even discuss M*A*S*H 2 (years later, he did consider making a sequel to his 1993 film Short Cuts, but that was his idea, and he quickly killed it).
That is why he pays for his own films, lining up a distributor only after his completed product is in the can. Indeed, Altman and Richard Gere put up the cash for Dr. T and the Women, opening Friday, and secured a deal with Artisan to distribute the film only a few months ago. It's the only way the director knows he will retain final cut. The moneylenders will not corrupt his sacred temple.
"It wouldn't have been a problem if I had wanted to go out and do M*A*S*H 2," Altman says. "I cannot tell you the amount of money I was offered to do that. They want you to repeat what is the sure success -- or what they think is a sure success, and there is no such thing. There isn't anybody who's ever lived in this business -- in this art, whatever it is -- who's had a better shake than I have. I've never been without a film, I've never been without a film of my own choosing, and I've never had a film edited on me. The last time I had final cut on a studio film was when Alan Ladd was at Fox. I did five films over there, and at that time nobody bothered with me.