One month ago today, maverick filmmaker Robert Altman was at the Hamptons International Film Festival in Long Island, NY, reflecting upon his career behind the camera at a tribute in his honor. The 81-year-old American director walked on stage to a standing ovation at Guild Hall for the annual “A Conversation With…” event and afterwards, was toasted during a Nick and Toni’s dinner hosted by Picturehouse. That evening, he held court in the middle of the restaurant, receiving well-wishers. Altman died at a Los Angeles hospital last night (Monday) from complications due to cancer, according to his New York City production company, Sandcastle 5. For the last 18 months Altman continued to live and work with the disease and was in pre-production on a new film which he planned to shoot in February. Altman has been in the spotlight for much of this past year, receiving a number of major tributes following the world premiere of his final film at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
Following the debut of “A Prairie Home Companion” in Berlin, Altman took what will now be remembered as a celebratory victory lap at film events around the country. And for those lucky enough to catch up with him at various stops, it was a memorable opportunity to learn more about the man and his movies. Two weeks after the Berlin festival, Altman was in Los Angeles to receive the first Academy Award of his career, an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The following month he was at a Sarasota Film Festival tribute and later in the year was toasted at a rousing tribute in the Hamptons.
Over the course of his career, the sometimes feisty Altman was noted for working with large casts of actors, with performances by women often receiving particular acclaim in his films. Introduced as having worked with “every actor from Lillian Gish to Lindsay Lohan,” by critic Peter Travers (who moderated last month’s Hamptons conversation), Altman was asked what still excited him about making movies. “The cast,” Altman responded immediately, “It’s always the cast.” He added, “As you pull a layer off, you realize they are really courageous, really gutsy…I admire them for what they bring to me (and) to the audience.”
Near the end of the Hamptons tribute, Robert Altman was asked to give advice to aspiring filmmakers. Pausing, he said plainly, “My advice is the same advice I give my children and that is, never take advice from anybody. If i give advice, I am giving it from my point of view. You must find your own way. People who want to make films today just have to go do it.”
For many who saw “Prairie Home” at the Berlinale this year, it was hard not to watch Altman’s 37th feature — a film about the end of Garrison Keillor‘s long-running American radio program — without thinking about it as perhaps the last from the aging director. In “A Prairie Home Companion, the main character struggles to avoid dealing with a major change in his own career. Not that any of those who cheered “Prairie” at the Berlinale were hoping Altman would stop directing, but his age was an issue for the backers of the latest feature. Paul Thomas Anderson was hired as a back-up director and had to be on set whenever Altman was, just in case.
“Because I am so old and ancient…” Altman quipped at a Berlin press conference, “In order to get insurance we had to have a stand by director — they thought they’d have a better picture if I croaked and P.T.A., Paul Thomas Anderson, took over” But, praising his understudy, Altman said of Anderson, “He couldn’t have been more helpful and less intrusive – a great deal of the film is due to him.”
On Oscar night, Altman surprised a worldwide audience by revealing that he had secretly undergone heart transplant surgery a few years earlier. While insiders debated some of the A.M.P.A.S. voters’ choices for at this year’s Oscars, it was clearly a night in which maverick spirit in filmmaking was honored. What a fitting evening to present their first Oscar to 81 year old Altman, who over his career received five nominations for directing.
“I’ve always said that making a film is like making a sandcastle at the beach,” Altman said, after receiving a standing ovation from the crowd on Oscar night. “You invite your friends and you get them down there, and you say you build this beautiful structure, several of you. Then you sit back and watch the tide come in. Have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away.”
“And that sandcastle remains in your mind. Now I’ve built about 40 of them, and I never tire of it. No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop. I love filmmaking. It has given me an entree to the world, and the human condition and for that I’m forever grateful.”
Robert Altman’s Films
A Prairie Home Companion
Dr T and the Women
The Gingerbread Man
Vincent & Theo
Aria (“Les Boreades” segment)
O.C. and Stiggs
Fool for Love
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
A Perfect Couple
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson
Thieves Like Us
The Long Goodbye
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
That Cold Day in the Park
The James Dean Story
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