Altman’s Oscar Night
I regularly watch the Oscars, though I usually fall asleep before the final awards are handed out. The ceremony can feel interminable, given acceptance speeches that are filled with the endless thank yous Oscar winners tender their parents, wives and children, and the countless people connected with the making of the film, including agents, hairdressers and lawyers. What also irks me are: the 48 expensive advertising spots that sometimes look like they are competing for Oscars; the compensatory awards to make-up artists, costume designers, art directors for undeserving big budget films that usually win little else; the elaborate musical numbers where the sets and special effects overwhelm the bland songs; and the habitually pointless montages of Hollywood classics that give us little sense of the character of the films.
But there are always a few high points during the evening. The Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s master of ceremony’s dry, sarcastic, clever, and subversive humor was an apt antidote to Hollywood self-promotion and sentimentality. Stewart is no Billy Crystal, who as eight-time Oscar MC conveyed warmth, quick wit, and the feeling of somebody totally at home in the show biz world. But, though Stewart may not be as comfortable with the Hollywood community as the less subtle Crystal, he seemed at ease on the stage, sufficiently confident to wittily deflate Hollywood’s liberal pretensions and smugness, and, at the same time, make a funny crack at Vice President’s Cheney’s expense. It probably wasn’t Stewart’s sharpest performance, but while being civil and controlled, his trademark irreverence was intact.
I also liked the fact that a number of the year’s best picture nominees — like Good Night and Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain, and Crash —were small budget, limited box office films that dealt with a variety of politically controversial issues without being crude polemics. And if none of them were transcendent, risk-taking works of art, they were all generally intelligent, extremely well acted, and stylish.
For me the evening’s apotheosis was Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep’s introducing Robert Altman in the freewheeling, overlapping dialogue-style of his films. Like Sidney Lumet, last year’s honoree, Altman is a still-working octogenarian (his latest film A Prairie Home Companion will be out soon) who has had a luminous and prolific career—directing 37 films in a career that spans more than 50 years. But despite having received five Academy Award nominations for best director, he — like Hitchcock and Scorsese (a testimony to Hollywood’s aesthetic obtuseness)— has never won an Oscar.
Altman is a visionary, iconoclast and Hollywood outsider who has made such fine films as M*A*S*H, The Player, Short Cuts, Thieves Like Us, and Gosford Park, and great ones like Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye. He has had his failures—the egregious Prêt-à-Porter and the pretentious Quintet among others, but Altman has produced a body of films that compares favorably with the work of illustrious contemporaries like Scorsese, Coppola, and the late John Cassavetes.
Altman, in his best films, emphasized behavior rather than plot and exposition, used a great deal of improvisation, and packed his films with dazzling and intricate aural effects and visual images. His open-ended, dynamically cut films also often parodied and inverted Hollywood genre conventions (e.g., the western, film noir, and the armed service comedy), and his work was trenchantly satirical and critical of American mainstream values and institutions.
In his masterpiece, Nashville (1975), for example, Altman interweaves twenty-four characters that either are already top country and western music performers or who are obsessed with getting their big chance. The country and western stars are manipulative, vain, and hysterical—driven by crowd applause and having a successful careers— while the public’s behavior towards them ranges from breathless adulation to petulance and rage. Altman succeeds in creating a country and music milieu that becomes a metaphor for an image-driven, callous American society—a chaotic din where everybody is struggling for their version of a gold record.
The film also includes an invisible, pseudo-populist presidential candidate who prophetically seeks national moral renewal by promoting nostalgia and bumptious iconoclasm. The candidate’s new political party is all image without substance: young female boosters and a sound truck hawking the vagaries of a platform the same way record albums are hyped over the opening credits.
Though Hollywood may be a more sophisticated, politically liberal universe than Nashville, it shares many of its attributes. And in a film like The Player (1992), Altman’s keen satirical eye extended from the world of country and western music to the movie business’ mores and manners. With great flair Altman assembled a Hollywood of amoral studio executives—men and women devoid of even a scintilla of integrity and loyalty— whose commitments, despite their artistic posturing, never go beyond the bottom line. In Altman’s version of Hollywood there is no magic— just crass manipulation.
Given Altman’s critically caustic take on Hollywood, he clearly has never been their favorite son. Still, though somewhat frail, he was up there on stage this time to accept his Oscar. His manner neither sentimental nor arrogant, he simply stated with consummate dignity that he felt fortunate that he never had to make a film he didn’t choose to direct. And that he never tired of making films.
Altman deserved every bit of the long ovation he received. If Hollywood had more directors like him—men and women who make personal, formally adventurous, socially corrosive films—it would be a far more incandescent, far less superficial place. L. Quart