Robert Altman

Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye and Elliot Gould as Trapper in M*A*S*H (1970)

Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye and Elliot Gould as Trapper in M*A*S*H (1970)

  • Born:  1925
  • Died:  2006
  • Rank:  34
  • Score:  618.20
  • Awards:  BAFTA / Golden Globe / 3 NYFC / NSFC
  • Nominations:  5 Oscars / 3 DGA / 4 BAFTA / 4 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films:  34
  • Best:  M*A*S*H
  • Worst:  Beyond Therapy

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. M*A*S*H – 1970
  2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller – 1971
  3. The Player – 1992
  4. Gosford Park – 2001
  5. Short Cuts – 1993

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1970 – 1st – M*A*S*H
  • 1971 – 3rd – McCabe and Mrs. Miller
  • 1992 – 5th – The Player
  • 1993 – 10th – Short Cuts
  • 2001 – 10th – Gosford Park

Robert Altman is a frustrating director.  On the one hand, you have the brilliance of M*A*S*H and The Player and Gosford Park (which gets better every time I see it).  On the other hand, you have the numerous film people who scream that Altman never won an Oscar and worship him (Pauline Kael and her awe at Nashville are to blame for some of this).  But I hated Nashville and didn’t think it was a particularly good film.  Nor was I impressed with his The Long Goodbye, a sedated version of Raymond Chandler that didn’t feel right.

Altman was an erratic director.  He had the early films which are now very difficult to find.  Then he hit paydirt with M*A*S*H, but he followed that up with the truly bizarre Brewster McCloud.  Then he hit paydirt again with McCabe, but he seemed to like to wander in the wilderness.  Thieves Like Us and 3 Women were very good, but the rest of the seventies was just a mess (Quintet was particularly bad), and then came the eighties, a decade in which he failed to make a solidly good film (his best effort was Secret Honor, but he made truly awful films like Beyond Therapy and O.C. and Stiggs).  The nineties started out well with The Player and Short Cuts (the only time he made back to back films better than ***), buy Pret-a-Porter was just a mess.  He followed the quirky but very good Cookie’s Fortune with the weak Dr. T and the Women.  His brilliant Gosford Park was followed by the mediocre The Company.  Then he made a very good film out of Prairie Home Companion, a film I actually enjoyed, which was stunning since I can’t stand the radio show, but then he died.

So, yes, he deserved an Oscar for M*A*S*H.  He deserved the nomination for The Player and should have gotten one for McCabe, but that he never won an Oscar doesn’t sit too badly with me.  After all, of the next nine directors on this list, only one has an Oscar.  So there were better directors who never won.

M*A*S*H – #1 film of 1970

It’s been 40 years and it remains a daring film.  First, there is the whole concept.  Not only is it a comedy about war, but it is a comedy about war released while we were still at war.  True, they were different wars, but does anyone think that people didn’t think about Vietnam while watching this film?

And it’s not just a comedy.  It has truly audacious behavior.  It has doctors who gas their superiors, who get career officers sent to the loony bin, who embarrass the chief nurse, who convince other nurses that a blow job will bring a man back to life.  And it concludes with a football game, one in which they actually take out a needle and sedate a member of the other team.  No wonder the studios didn’t want to do it.  Yet, it got made and earned Picture and Director nominations at the Academy Awards and an Oscar for the script.

Then there is the Altman way of making films.  There was overlapping dialogue (which the studio thought was a technical error and tried to correct).  There was dialogue that couldn’t be heard.  There was the overhead loud speaker that went into meta-fiction land by suddenly announcing the end of the film and the cast members.  This was not an ordinary film and it paved the way for the kind of films that Altman would spend his whole career making.

But it tied together in a way that so few Altman films.  It should be no surprise then that some of the other most successful Altman films (both on a critical and commercial level) were those ones that had a more concrete script and focused on a story rather than simply character development.  Altman’s strength was always in working with the actors and developing characters and that showed through in every film, but in his very best films (M*A*S*H, The Player, Gosford Park) this really shone.  The only truly great film he managed to make with his disjointed way of filming a script was McCabe and in that film the two main characters were so fine toned and the fatalistic naturalism so finely honed that it rose above the process.

Most of all M*A*S*H worked because it was indeed funny.  And in spite of the lack of acting nominations (only Sally Kellerman was noticed), it is finely acted.  The solid performance by Donald Sutherland that anchored the film with great supporting turns from Kellerman and, most especially, Robert Duvall give it a great edge.  Then there is of course Radar.  It’s weird to see him there, the lone connection between the brilliant film and the long-running television show (aside from the great song “Suicide is Painless” which had the words removed and became the theme for the show) because the film and show really are very different.  The show was much more humane, much more sentimental.  And there was no way in hell that Altman would let any sentimentality into his film.  And that’s what makes it so perfect.