A Seat at Bob’s Table

“I’m prepared to sing for my supper,” declares Robert Altman, sitting down at one of the two tables he favors at Elaine’s, back by the kitchen entrance. (The other is up front, near the bar.) Kathryn Altman, his stylish wife of 42 years, is with him. A few showbiz friends are expected later on, after they’ve attended a screening of the director’s new film, Gosford Park.

At 76, he is tall, blue-eyed, white-haired, goateed – casual in a brown suede jacket and blue oxford shirt. He looks well but says he’s under the weather: “I got a flu shot two days ago, and it worked – I got the flu.” He asks for water and a glass of Chianti.

“Bob, Elaine’s really gone all out for you tonight,” says Kathryn, handing a basket around. “She’s toasted the bread.”

One of America’s greatest and most prolific directors, Altman is known for his fiercely independent relationship to Hollywood: He’s been a New Yorker for nearly three decades and recently returned to the city after a year in England filming Gosford Park. The movie, distributed by USA Films, opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 26. “What I like about London as an American is you’re not class-distincted out,” he says. “You get special dispensation. You can say ‘fuck’ and toss the pudding about.”

Altman’s wry, deadpan charm is delivered in the flat tones of his native Kansas City, and he gestures elegantly as he talks. With Gosford Park, set at an English country manor in 1932, he has fashioned a hybrid upstairs-downstairs social commentary and murder mystery – Agatha Christie by way of Merchant-Ivory by way of Robert Altman. The who’s-who British cast, including Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, Richard E. Grant, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, and Emily Watson (plus the American Bob Balaban, whose idea the story was), do wonderful things with Julian Fellowes’s intricate screenplay. Altman is jazzed about Gosford Park, and at test screenings audiences have greeted the film warmly. Dare he contemplate a hit? “Be still my heart,” he murmurs.

His last significant box-office success was The Player in 1992, and he wouldn’t mind doing some business this time, too. “It’s a tough battle out there,” he says.”The better your picture does, the easier the next one is to get – they pay more attention to you, and you get more money. But if you get one, two, three in a row that don’t do so good, you fall off the cocktail-party list.”

Whenever that happens, there’s Elaine’s. “It’s great, I can come in here any time and I can always find someone to sit down and have dinner with – it’s like a little club,” he says. “And the food is … pretty good. I remember times here, in the seventies I guess, when we played a lot of poker. Then for a couple of years everybody was playing backgammon. Now it’s just who can ring up the bigger bill.”

The Altmans are Upper West Siders and lead an active life in the city – a lot of theater, a lot of dinners. Their friends include Harry Belafonte, agent Sam Cohn, attorney Jerry Walsh, and painter Yuri Kuper. If they go to the West Coast, it’s chiefly to visit their children.

“I live here and I work here,” says Altman, who after 27 years of working in the Delmonico Hotel (“They finally evicted me”) in January moves into a new office-studio- editing facility on West 45th Street.

“Your environment rubs off on you,” he says. “Here you’re just stepping into it all the time, you can’t miss it, it’s in your face. I think if I lived in any other place, I’d get very nervous. I wouldn’t be where most of the information that I want is.”

Over the next several hours, Elaine’s fills up, with much of the crowd keeping an eye on the TV, where Game Five of the World Series – the night after the first Yankee miracle, in other words – is under way.

“I have found myself many times rooting against the Yankees, but it wouldn’t even enter my mind today,” says Altman.

Did the attacks change the way he felt about living here?

“I’ve been known to leave the country in the face of greater danger,” he replies somberly. “When Bush got elected.”

Which Bush?

“Does it make any difference? I have a picture from a London paper of Cheney, Bush, and Powell – nine years ago, when they were going after Saddam Hussein. Same cast, only today it’s Bush Jr. And they’re reaping the rewards of whatever they were protecting. I imagine it had something to do with money. I was in London both for the election and this, uh, World Trade business – I don’t even know what to call it.”

“Twin Towers attack,” suggests Kathryn.

“Everybody’s trying to make up a title. We should take it out and test it!”When her husband excuses himself briefly from the table, she tells how they met.

“In 1959, I was an extra in Hollywood,” she says. “I used to stand in, I used to double, I was a swimmer in the Esther Williams films, but I never had any acting aspirations. Jobs are like that when you’re raised in Southern California – it was better than typing. So the casting director called and said, ‘I’ve got a job. You’re gonna love this director. He’s got your sense of humor, he’s a terrific guy.’

“The, uh, Razorblades just scored,” says Altman, who has returned to the table.

“So I got on the bus early in the morning to go to some godforsaken place,” Kathryn continues. “And I was feeling hung over, I really didn’t care. I mean, I’d never heard of a director even mingling with the extras. I got off the bus, and it was hotter than Hades. He is standing at the bottom of the stairs and says, ‘How do you do? How are your morals?’ And he had his shirt off, and a wet rag on his head. I said, ‘A little shaky, how are yours?’ We were married about three weeks later.”

The meal is leisurely and steadily replenished, and people constantly drift by to say hello to the director, a shifting tide of peripheral characters and offhand, overlapping conversations that can only be described as Altmanesque. No wonder he likes Elaine’s. There’s the natty undercover cop who says he just gave out World Series tickets to some kids on a Harlem street. There’s the large, affable priest:

“Hello, Father, how are you?”

“Still fat, but otherwise okay.”

Inevitably there’s Elaine Kaufman herself. She’s just come from Yankee Stadium, where she only lasted a few innings.

“I figured if I come back, they’ll win,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do up there.”

Some assume that Altman’s outsider status in Hollywood means he’s embittered about the business, but that’s not the case. “There’s no way that any filmmaker that ever lived has had a better shake than I have,” he says. “I have never been without a film, it was always a film of my own choice, I’ve never had a film cut on me or taken apart – except that first film for Jack Warner. A lot of ‘em were not released, and I have to get my money any place that’s available, but I haven’t got a complaint in the world. The journalists – I get it all the time: ‘The terrible Popeye, the brilliant Nashville,’ blah blah blah. I don’t see it. To me, these pieces, every one of ‘em, they’re like your own child. And you tend to love your least successful children the most.”

He pauses, looks up at the small TV screen above the bar. “This is a nightmare,” he says. It’s now 2-0, Razorblades.

He continues: “But whether it’s a Secret Honor with one man in it, or this film I just finished with 40 people onstage, to me it’s just the size of the painting. If I’m gonna do a mural, tell me how big’s the wall. I may need some help, but I’ll fill it some way.”

His ideas for subjects, he says, generally come from someone or someplace else. “I don’t think I’ve done very many original things – it’s always been, ‘Oh, I’ll take that and just give it a little twist.’ That’s the kind of artist that I am. I don’t think what I do is satire. I have done satire. But it’s not my intention, it’s just a coloring.”

Does he like writing?

“Naaahhh. It’s so painful. Have a scallop.”

The director Alan Rudolph (an Altman friend and collaborator whose films include Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Choose Me) and his wife, Joyce, arrive from the screening.

“So was it full?” Altman jokes.

“You’re getting pretty good at this movie-making thing,” says the younger director, grinning.

“Oh! Well, you’re supposed to get better, aren’t you?”

The Yanks are still losing, the restaurant is noisy and packed. More Chianti is required. Conversation centers on Gosford Park (Rudolph: “Bob, you think you’ve covered your tracks, but it’s still about the warm spot in human beings”) and on baseball. When Brosius homers off Kim to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, the entire joint explodes.

“Look at that!” shouts Altman. “Well, I just don’t believe this. I really don’t believe this.”

Everyone settles in for extra innings. Altman tells Rudolph he’s hoping for an R rating because he wants an audience of grown-ups. “There are three ‘fucks,’ ” he says, pleased. “I put them in. I didn’t want a PG film.”

“Well, there is PG-13,” says Rudolph.

“Not for three ‘fucks’ or more.” (Altman got his R rating.)

The two directors talk actors and camera angles. Earlier, Altman had been describing his methods for grabbing an audience: “The problem is getting everybody in sync. A big shock can do it. Music of course helps. And you can hold them for the first twenty minutes without much happening.” In Gosford Park, he says, “I tried to move the camera arbitrarily. I said, ‘Don’t move with the action, move against it.’ I wanted the audience to feel like they had to look over somebody’s shoulder.”

What was that about big shocks? Because now one arrives: In the twelfth, Soriano singles to win the game. “That’s my number!” Altman crows amid the pandemonium in Elaine’s. Soriano wears No. 33 – apparently the director’s lucky number. “Brenly’s going to go home and say, ‘I’ve got to give this up. I’ve got to pursue a more dignified way of making a living,’ ” Altman says of Arizona’s manager, outmaneuvered on this night.

Dessert sherry is ordered. Just before 2 a.m. on this wild morning, the front of the restaurant bursts into cheers: George Steinbrenner, resplendent in a blazer and white turtleneck, is in the building. He works his way back to Altman’s table.

“George, I know you don’t believe it,” says Altman, smiling.

“I don’t,” admits Steinbrenner, on his way to his own table. “Do you? If I wrote this script, would you buy it?”

With the detritus of a six-hour meal – glasses, plates, bottles, cutlery – arrayed before us, the director grabs the edge of the tablecloth tightly with both hands.

“Let me show you this last trick,” he announces slowly, “and then I’m gonna go.” But why don’t we go first. Let’s move the camera as he would, against the action, past the characters and conversations keeping Elaine’s humming into the early morning, out into a city whose ball club has just gone up 3-2 in the World Series. Never mind the upshot of this last trick – whether it was actually attempted, or the manner in which the table was ultimately cleared. Either way, more is to come. Robert Altman has the mischievous air of a man with many tablecloths still to yank.

A Seat at Bob’s Table