Robert Altman was the iconoclastic filmmaker and one of the few directors to have an adjective made out of his name. (An “Altmanesque” film is usually one that features a huge cast, overlapping dialogue and an ever-moving camera style that never quite seems to sit still.) Altman’s work was not limited to films — he began his career by directing episodic television shows (winning an Emmy for directing HBO’s “Tanner ’88”), as well as mounting numerous operas and other stage productions.
But Altman’s love was truly making films. To accomplish his signature overlapping dialogue, he designed innovative sound systems on which filmmakers still rely today. His sets were always a party (some would say a bacchanal), and actors clamored to work with him. Studios, however, would regularly butt heads with Altman, who would promise them a potentially commercial genre picture (a Western, a private-eye noir, a whodunnit murder mystery), then set out to subvert the familiar genre completely. The studios would largely hate it, but his fans would eat it up. Having finally achieved success in film in his 40s, he became a middle-aged wonder boy, then fell from grace completely, clawed his way back and had a late-career renaissance that any contemporary director would envy.
Altman has received acclaim internationally, with his films winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Bear at Berlin and the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. He has been nominated for 5 Golden Globes, with four for his direction (“M*A*S*H,” “Nashville,” and “The Player,” finally winning for “Gosford Park”) plus a fifth for co-writing “Short Cuts.” Altman has also been nominated for seven Academy Awards — five for Best Director and two more for producing a Best Picture nominee (“Nashville” & “Gosford”). Altman was selected to receive an Academy Honorary Oscar, presented by his “Prairie Home Companion” co-stars Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, in 2006, several months before the director’s death.
In honor of his bacchanal spirit, let’s raise a glass (or his preferred joint) to the skies by counting down his 15 best films. Our photo gallery features his greatest movies, ranked from worst to best.
15. POPEYE (1980)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Jules Feiffer. Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Ray Walston.
Altman swung for the fences in this musical based on the iconic comic-book character Popeye, and while it was written off as a flop at the time and undoubtedly hurt the trajectory of the director’s career in the ’80s, the film connects as often as it misses. “Popeye” is not afraid to take chances — Altman’s production designer built an actual seaside town in Malta that is still a major tourist attraction there, and the director represented the beloved characters as real people, oversized forearms and all. In the title role, Altman cast Robin Williams, then strictly known as a stand-up and TV actor, and Shelley Duvall, who is physically perfect as the sailor’s love, Olive Oyl. Some of the slapstick antics just lie there, and Olive’s tangling with a giant octopus is…well, odd. But Harry Nilsson’s song score works well, and Altman’s stylized vision of the Popeye world is a bold achievement.
14. BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Doran William Cannon. Starring Bud Cort, Shelley Duvall, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, Stacy Keach, Margaret Hamilton.
“Brewster McCloud,” the adult fable that was Altman’s follow-up to “M*A*S*H,” couldn’t have been more different than that worldwide smash. With references to the myth of Icarus and “The Wizard of Oz” (complete with a Margaret Hamilton appearance!), “Brewster McCloud” stars Bud Cort as a lonely boy living in a fallout shelter beneath the Houston Astrodome who, with the help of a fallen guardian angel (Sally Kellerman), tries to realize his dream of learning to fly. Though I loved the film when I saw it, it does look a bit dated now, and some of the film’s subplots are all over the place, but it does mark the film debut of young Shelley Duvall, who went on to create iconic roles in such films as “Nashville” and “The Shining.” With all of its flaws, “Brewster McCloud” is an enormously imaginative work that displays Altman’s fearlessness in taking on narratives that no other filmmaker would dare to touch.
13. COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN (1982)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Ed Graczyk, based on his play. Starring Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, Kathy Bates.
During his banishment to movie Siberia after the perceived failure of “Popeye,” Altman could only secure funding for low-budget projects, so he turned his attention to filming stage plays. Some worked (“Secret Honor” with Philip Baker Hall) and some didn’t (“Beyond Therapy” with Jeff Goldblum), but the best of the bunch was “Come Back to the 5 & Dime…,” a play that Altman directed in its Broadway run. Altman took what many thought of as a big risk by casting Cher in one of the key roles, but they were proven wrong when she not only met the demands of an 8-performance week, but stepped up when it came time to make the film version. To this day, Cher credits Altman for giving her a film career.
12. VINCENT & THEO (1990)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Julian Mitchell. Starring Tim Roth, Paul Rhys, Jean-Pierre Cassel.
After some mixed receptions to his theater adaptations in the 1980s, Altman traveled to Europe and filmed this biopic focusing on the relationship between the legendary artist Vincent van Gogh (Tim Roth) and his art dealer brother Theo (Paul Rhys). “Vincent and Theo” marked a departure for Altman in his style — famed for his development of overlapping dialogue in his most celebrated films, he foregoes it here in favor in telling Vincent and Theo’s individual stories separately for the most part, as each brother finds himself battling the growing demons inside him. Finally freed from the confines of filmed plays, Altman seems to luxuriate in the bright colors of Provence, particularly in the film’s memorable scenes of Vincent amidst the sunflowers. “Vincent and Theo” was originally shot as a 200-minute miniseries for television, but Altman was contractually able to create a theatrical version which was released in the U.S., and as a film, it plays beautifully.
11. CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Joseph Walsh. Starring George Segal, Elliott Gould, Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles.
Although not usually regarded as one of Altman’s major works, this shaggy-dog story of two hopeless gamblers (George Segal and Elliott Gould) has some thematic meat on its bones, thanks to its insightful script by Joseph Walsh, an actor who became a gambling addict himself. “California Split” never feels false — it begins as a buddy comedy but as the men become more and more addicted to the “next big thrill” at the roll of the dice or the turn of a card, the laughs begin to give way as the gamblers begin to reexamine where their lives are going. A casino setting is an ideal place for Altman to utilize his sound design of overlapping dialogue, and “California Split” marked a milestone for films of this period, as it was the first non-Cinerama film to utilize eight-track stereo soundtrack.
10. THIEVES LIKE US (1974)
Director: Robert Altman. Writers: Calder Willingham, Joan Tewkesbury, Robert Altman. Starring Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, John Schuck, Bert Remsen, Louise Fletcher.
Altman rarely remakes films, but he made an exception with this adaptation of Nicholas Ray’s 1948 film “They Live By Night,” based on the crime novel by Edward Anderson. The film’s focus is on Bowie (Keith Carradine), a convicted killer who escapes from a chain gang with fellow escapees Chickamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen). They hide out at the home of T-Dub’s sister-in-law Mattie (Louise Fletcher) and seem safe until Bowie is in an auto accident and is rescued by Keechie (Shelley Duvall), the daughter of the local gas station owner. Bowie and Keechie begin to fall in love, but she is put off by his criminality, which he will not give up, a fact that threatens their relationship. Altman filmed “Thieves Like Us” without any showy bells or whistles — in his hands, it’s simply a good story well told.
9. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (2006)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Garrison Keillor. Starring Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Cohan, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly.
Altman’s valedictory film turned out to be a film adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s famed radio series “A Prairie Home Companion.” (The director died five months after the film’s release.) Keillor’s script centers on what just might be the show’s final performance as its new parent company has sent “The Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones) to determine whether the show should be cancelled. Facing the axe, the show’s company treats it like any other performance, with singing team of Yolanda Johnson (Meryl Streep) with her sister Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) and cowboy crooners Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) giving it their all. While all this is going on, waiting in the wings is a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) who may just be the Angel of Death. In fact, there is a melancholy, almost wistful tone to much of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a lovely film that puts a bow on the remarkable career of Robert Altman.
8. 3 WOMEN (1977)
Writer/Director: Robert Altman. Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier.
Altman has always said that the entirety of “3 Women” came to him in a dream, and the hypnotic tone of this most unusual film makes you believe it. In a California desert town, Millie (Shelley Duvall) is a self-absorbed physical therapist at a spa for the elderly and agrees to take in her new co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek) as a roommate at her apartment building. Meanwhile, a third woman, Willy (Janice Rule) silently paints murals on the bottom of the building’s pool. An aura of Ingmar Bergman’s film “Persona” hangs over the story as Millie begins to recognize that Pinky is slowly taking over her personality and supplanting her in the eyes of her co-workers. Altman creates an unsettling mood throughout the film (and remarkably maintains it throughout the two-hour running time), and when you reach the film’s conclusion, you’ll definitely want to talk about it afterward. For her performance as Millie, Duvall won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
7. SHORT CUTS (1993)
Director: Robert Altman. Writers: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt, based on writings by Raymond Carver. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jack Lemmon, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin. Tom Waits.
Altman took on a lot in adapting nine short stories and one poem of the renowned author Raymond Carver and fashioning them into a complex screenplay with 22 major characters, whose lives at time intersect in their attempt to find happiness in Southern California. Ironically, most find sadness, death or infidelity as they take each day at a time, but in Altman’s hands, the film provides a glimmer of hope that there might just be happiness waiting for them tomorrow at last. For their ensemble performance, the cast of “Short Cuts” was awarded a rare Special Golden Globe, and Altman himself was nominated for his fourth Globe for co-writing the film’s screenplay. He also earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
6. GOSFORD PARK (2001)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Julian Fellowes. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Kelly Macdonald, Bob Balaban, Ryan Phillippe, Clive Owen.
Although he is perhaps the unlikeliest of directors to helm such a film, Altman scored a spectacular hit with this old-fashioned murder mystery set at an English country estate in 1932. Altman seems far less interested in the whodunnit aspect of the story as he is on the clash of classes both upstairs and down. Altman directed his all-star British cast to stay in character throughout filming as he would never tell him where his cameras were pointed. Julian Fellowes’ Oscar-winning dialogue flies with such speed that you might want to turn on the subtitles on your blu-ray just to make sure you catch every Maggie Smith bon mot. The principal cast won the Screen Actors Guild for Best Ensemble, and Altman won his first Golden Globe as Best Director for his work on the film. In addition, Altman snared his fifth Oscar nomination as Best Director and his second as producer of a Best Picture nominee.
5. THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Leigh Brackett, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Starring Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Henry Gibson, Jim Bouton.
Altman plunked hard-boiled 1940s private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) in the middle of sun-dappled hippy-dippy 1970s L.A. in this original adaptation of the novel by Raymond Chandler. Working with a script by Leigh Brackett (who also wrote the 1946 film “The Big Sleep”), Altman creates a world where Marlowe is a stranger in a strange land, cut off from the people he is trying to investigate by regularly seeing them through a pane of glass (and sometimes seeing himself in a reflection). The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is breathtaking, and John Williams provides a witty score, featuring the film’s title tune everywhere throughout the film, from supermarket muzak to doorbells. Originally, the film flopped in limited release when it was being sold as a straight detective film, but United Artists, noting the favorable reviews, decided to withdraw “The Long Goodbye” from release, create a brand new campaign featuring artwork from Jack Davis of Mad Magazine, and sell it as a private-eye comedy. Eventually, the film was embraced by its intended audience.
4. McCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)
Director: Robert Altman. Writers: Robert Altman, Brian McKay. Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, René Auberjonois, Michael Murphy, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Hugh Millais.
Altman returned to form with “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” an extraordinarily original take on the American Western. Set in snowy Washington State in 1902, gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty), wanders into a small town and, through his guile, begins to turn the town’s economy around by starting a brothel. British cockney Constance Miller (Oscar nominee Julie Christie) arrives, offers to become the brothel’s madame and sets out to make the establishment high class. However, when someone is making money is a small town, there will always be outsiders who will want to take it. Altman shot the film sequentially with carpenters in period dress literally building the town on camera, and that process allowed the actors to deepen their characterizations as shooting progressed. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is haunting in its beauty, thanks to landmark cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond and soulful songs by Leonard Cohen. There’s not another Western like it.
3. THE PLAYER (1992)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Michael Tolkin, based on his novel. Starring Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Vincent D’Onofrio and seemingly every working actor in Hollywood.
Altman’s film of Michael Tolkin’s “The Player” was simply a triumph and set in motion the director’s late-career renaissance. I recall that months before the film was set to open, I began hearing whispers that, improbably, Robert Altman was back in top form, but I didn’t believe it until I saw that remarkable single-shot opening that lasts nearly eight minutes without a cut. The plot of the film about a studio executive (Tim Robbins) who accidentally kills a screenwriter (Vincent D’Onofrio) is almost secondary to the thrill of seeing Altman back at the height of his powers, creating a wit in his visuals that matches Tolkin’s in his script. And the 65 celebrities who agreed to play cameos for him to help with the film’s verisimilitude almost feels like a “welcome home” party for the great director. For his direction of “The Player,” Altman earned his third Academy Award nomination and his third Golden Globe nod for Best Director.
2. M*A*S*H (1970)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Ring Lardner, Jr. Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall.
Although he had four feature films already under his belt, “M*A*S*H” was the one that started it all for Robert Altman. Everyone knows the long-running TV adaptation of the film, but “M*A*S*H” the movie is another animal entirely with its sex, blood and nudity. Sometimes I wondered while watching it again whether it could be made the same way today. Few outside the industry had heard of Robert Altman at the time, and he wasn’t exactly the studio’s first choice to direct the film (reportedly 14 other directors had been offered “M*A*S*H” and said no thanks) but only Altman was left standing. All of the Altman trademarks are here (the large ensemble cast, the always-moving camera, the overlapping dialogue) that we have come to know, but to see them all together for the very first time, I was gobsmacked by the sheer audacity of it all. “M*A*S*H” competed at the Cannes Film Festival and won its highest honor, the Palme D’Or (rare for an American film and unprecedented for an American comedy). The film was also nominated for five Oscars, including one for Best Picture and a first nomination for Altman’s direction as well.
1. NASHVILLE (1975)
Director: Robert Altman. Writer: Joan Tewkesbury. Starring Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakley, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Harris, Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin.
Then we come to “Nashville,” arguably Altman’s masterpiece and one of the high-water marks of 1970s cinema, a wide-ranging look at the American political system as mirrored through the jingoism of the country-music scene at the time. Altman had achieved success with large casts before but never with such detail with 24 principal characters. I’ve seen “Nashville” at least 10 times now, mostly on the big screen, and I’ve never come away from viewing it without having seen something remarkable that I had never noticed before. “Nashville” earned 11 Golden Globe nominations, the most given to any film in Globes history, and four actresses from the film (Ronee Blakley, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Harris, Geraldine Chaplin) received supporting actress nominations, unprecedented for any major award show. Altman himself earned Oscar nominations for Best Director (his second nod) and Best Picture (his first in that category) as well as his second Golden Globe nomination as Best Director.