My favorite of his many masterpieces? I’ll go with the somber, soulful Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a flop on its release in 1971: the tale of a romantic but hapless frontier businessman (Warren Beatty) forced to take a stand against a rapacious corporation (with a soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs). This might be the best acting Beatty ever did, although Altman said at BAM seven years ago that Beatty hates the film. “Warren’s an asshole,” he explained.
Altman could be a bit of an asshole himself—and he was particularly hostile if you dared to pose some pointy-headed question about the Meaning of his work. I made the mistake of asking, in front of an audience, whether the end of McCabe—the death of the individualist hero, the salvation of the town through a communal effort—represented his last spasm of hope for the dying counterculture, and he looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. (He did warm up later, after he’d slipped out and smoked a joint.) After his epic Nashville—America as seen through the prism of the reactionary country-and-western music world—Altman’s work turned sour. But he found his way back: through theater and his film of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; the semi-improvised, shot-on-video campaign satire Tanner ’88 (a collaboration with Garry Trudeau), which was highly influential; and the brusque yet lyrical portrait of an artist in spiritual exile, Vincent & Theo.
It was a happy irony that The Player, in which Altman thumbed his nose at Hollywood, would prove to be his Hollywood comeback. In the marvelous phase that followed, Gosford Park was the supreme achievement: Who knew he could bring off a drawing-room whodunit with a cast of tony Brits, keeping his chattering upper and lower classes in constant motion while teasing us with indirection? In the last year, he finally got his Oscar (honorary) and a buoyant reception for his lovely collaboration with Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion—a comedy redolent of death.
On the Internet last week, I read that Altman had changed American cinema, but I’ve always been saddened by how little influence his work actually had in an era of wall-to-wall storyboarding and computer-generated imagery. The consolation was that I could always anticipate the next Altman film. I’m already missing it, and the one after that.
Come back, you bastard.