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An Altmanesque Celebration For A Maverick American Director: Robert Altman, 1925 – 2006

An Altmanesque Celebration For A Maverick American Director: Robert Altman, 1925 - 2006

Friends, family members, filmmakers and fans saluted the late Robert Altman during a memorial service in Midtown Manhattan yesterday (Tuesday) on what would have been the maverick director’s 82nd birthday (and three months after he died). In scenes reminiscient of Altman’s film about life in Hollywood, “The Player,” a host of famous people mingled together before and after the two-hour event at Broadway’s Majestic Theater on 44th St. in New York City. The celebration, which included hilarious and moving anecdotes, remembrances, live music and film clips, featured on stage tributes by Paul Thomas Anderson, Bob Balaban, Harry Belafonte, Bud Cort, E.L. Doctorow, Buck Henry, Kevin Kline, Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins, Alan Rudolph, Lily Tomlin and Garry Trudeau.

Meanwhile, among those spotted throughout the crowded auditorium, alongside film industry executives and a few journalists, were such notables as Lauren Bacall, Steve Buscemi, Glenn Close, Harvey Keitel, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Fisher Stevens, Calvin Trillin, Kurt Vonnegut, and Brian Williams. Some 500 tickets to the tribute were also allocated to members of the general public who sat in the balcony and another memorial service is scheduled for March 4th in Los Angeles. Altman will also be saluted at the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica this weekend.

With numerous personal stories, speakers saluted Altman, known for such acclaimed American films as “Nashville,” “Kansas City,” “Gosford Park,” “M-A-S-H,” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” among many more. The program began with live music from the Kansas City Orchestra and a slideshow of photos dating back to Altman’s childhood and also included where live performances byAnnie Ross, William Bolcom, and Lauren Flanigan. Each speaker stood at a podium beside a large projected image, either a relevant film still or a shot of themselves with Altman. The direct was honored as a passionate filmmaker who rejected convention, embracing large casts of actors to tell stories that he would tell with overlapping dialogue, looked at from multiple points-of-view. As more than one person noted, over the years the term Altmanesque joined the lexicon to represent the director’s distinctive style.

“There’s a hilarious new movie in pre-production up in heaven,” said actor Tim Robbins, one of many speakers who noted that Tuesday’s event itself was particularly Altmanesque, playing like a scene that could have been directed by the filmmaker himself. “Bob has gotten the financing together for his new film, called ‘The Memorial’ and we are making the film as we speak. He is watching the people on stage, yes, but there are other cameras looking around the theater today at the subplots, the subterfuge, the silliness, the whispered comments, the backstage preening.” And singling out Altman’s wife Kathryn Reed Altman, whom the director called “Trixie,” Robbins added, “Kathryn, you have a beautiful close-up with a camera dedicated to you, but everyone else beware. He is gonna find us out, and God will laugh.”

“He created an event and then filmed it,” praised director Alan Rudolph near the end of the tribute, “And so, here we are all playing ourselves. How very Altmanesque.”

“Bob never met a status quo he didn’t hate,” noted Bob Balaban, who worked with Altman on “Gosford Park,” saying, “He did not like conformity. This is an understatement.” Continuing, Balaban emphasized a key aspect of Altman, that “his work, his family, his life overlapped much in the same way his dialogue overlapped. Really, you only had to have dinner with Bob and Kathryn…to realize that really (he) was reproducing the thing he liked most, which was being with a group of people (that) he felt very close to.”

Tales of Altman films being a family affair ran throughout the event with many stories of socializing, celebrating and even smoking offering insights into the director and his life. Filmmaker PT Anderson, one of the many working directors who attended the memorial (along with Sidney Lumet, Bennett Miller, Jim Jarmusch, and others), served as Altman’s stand-by director for “Prairie Home.” Sharing thoughts about a director who he once wanted to emulate, Anderson noted that Altman didn’t make films for his love of cameras or equipment. “That was all secondary,” Anderson said, “He loved to make films so that he could be around people. It just kept feeding his desire to be around people.”

“His work was his life,” explained Altman’s son Michael, who stood on-stage alongside three other Altman boys, Stephen, Robert Reed, and Matthew Altman, “Those of us who lived with him or around him over the years will all tell you that he cared for little else, that he tolerated those things not related to his art as best he could.”

Numerous people talked of the strong bond that Altman shared with actors in particular. Tim Robbins, star of Altman’s “The Player,” noted that Altman, “created a unique and wonderful world on his sets.” Calling Altman’s film sets places where “the mischievous dad unleashed the ‘children actors’ to play. Where your imagination was encouraged, nurtured, laughed at, embraced and Altman-ized,” he detailed, “A sweet anarchy that many of us hadn’t felt since the schoolyard, unleashed by Bob’s wild heart.”

“We were important because Bob said so,” Tim Robbins said, and referencing Altman’s, “kindness and generosity of spirit,” the actor/director praised, “He made us all better actors and kinder people and made us believe, for those moments at least, that we were part of an art form.”

But Altman also had an irascible side, as Robbins recounted, “I had heard the phrase ‘he would not suffer fools’ before, but I didn’t know what it really meant until I met Bob,” Tim Robbins said, “He not only wouldn’t suffer fools, he would make fools suffer.”

Actress Julianne Moore, who yearned to work with the Altman after seeing “3 Women,” finally got the chance in “Short Cuts,” when, as she joked, she also had the chance to show the world that she was a real redhead. Moore hilariously noted on Tuesday that over the years Altman embellished the tale of her willingness to appear naked from the waist down in his film. After he had told the story to many friends and journalists over the years, she eventually had to ask him to refrain from sharing it so openly. He naturally acquiesced but it wasn’t long before the film came up during a discussion at a dinner party, Moore recalled, leading once again to the infamous “redhead” tale and Kathryn telling it this time. Interrupting his wife, Robert Altman told her, “We’re not supposed to talk about her pussy anymore.”

“You know what,” Julianne Moore told the uproarious audience, “I’m really glad he did… I love him. Thank you.”

Actor Bud Cort, who worked with Altman on “Brewster McCloud” (and later starred in the acclaimed “Harold and Maude“), recalled his excitement at being invited to be part of the Altman film family. “He made my wildest dreams come true,” Cort said, later adding as he concluded his comments, “There’s a hole in the acting community,” Cort noted, “And I pray to God that somebody can fill it, because I don’t think they can. Prove me wrong.”

Actor Kevin Kline, a star of “Prairie,” took the stage alongside a projected still image of his character from the film seated alone at a piano, a shot that Kline explained had the dubious distinction of being the last shot that the director ever made in a film. Crumbling up a sheet of paper and throwing away the poem he had intended to read, Kline instead reflected on that final Altman image. “As open as Bob always was to accidents and mayem and chaos and overlapping and messiness,” Kline noted about the final shot, “somehow it tipifies, if not encapsulates something about (his) style.”

At Tuesday’s tribute to Robert Altman, actor Kevin Kline stands alongside an image of the final scene from Altman’s last film. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

When “Prairie’s” final scene was shot, Kline recalled, most of the other actors had already left and, he continued, “(There’s) a guy sitting at a piano, improvising, (there was) shit falling from the ceiling, mayem, (people) tearing apart the set, chaos all around and some guy improvising, finishing up a story that he’d been telling and then leaving. And that’s just somehow typical of a day’s (work), it shows that through that kind of inimitable way of working, he could achieve a poetry.”

Over the past year, Robert Altman was on a sort of victory lap, debuting “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Berlinale in February prior to receiving an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ahead of the film’s release. He was also saluted at the Museum of the Moving Image and the Sarasota Film Festival, while just one month before he died from complications from cancer, he was in the spotlight at the Hamptons International Film Festival. During on-stage remarks Tuesday, Picturehouse president Bob Berney, who released “Prairie,” noted that on the eve of the Hamptons tribute a few weeks before he passed away, he joined Altman and a small group at a local Hamptons hotel to talk about his upcoming Picturehouse project, “Hands on a Hardbody.”

Wren Arthur and Josh Astrachan from Altman’s Sandcastle 5 Productions spoke alongside each other at about the midpoint of Tuesday’s tribute, each reflecting on the next Altman film, based on the documentary about a Texas endurance contest that was to have started production last week. The cast was to have included Meryl Streep, Billy Bob Thornton, Chris Rock, Jack Black, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones, Jack White, The Rock, and Lily Tomlin. Astrachan remembered the day last fall when Streep biked to Altman’s Midtown Manhattan office to discuss the new movie. The director had been reclining on an office sofa and when she arrived, told him not to get up. So he didn’t, lying horizontally throughout their meeting. After she signed on they agreed on the February 12 start date, planning to shoot on Lincoln’s birthday and Altman took a catnap. When he awoke, Astrachan recalled, Altman sang a little song. “My name is Abe, I have whiskers on my chin. I freed the slaves, my face is on the fin…”

“He sang the whole song, because he was celebrating,” Josh Astrachan concluded, pausing briefly as his voice trembled, “We were making a movie…”

“Bob was always about truth,” noted actor Harry Belafonte, who related an assortment of stories from his close friendship with the director, “He was relentless in the pursuit of it, he sniffed it out when it wasn’t there and he would discover it when it was being covered by all sorts of things.”

“He loved when things that shouldn’t come together, did – chance and serendipity,” noted Joan Tewkesbury, who worked with Altman on “Nashville” and “Thieves Like Us”. “His definition of truth was that it was fluid and subject to change – that if it got nailed down, it wasn’t truth anymore – just someone’s opinion.”

“I do not believe he was a lover of truth as much as a hater of lies,” Altman’s son Matthew noted, in a slightly different interpretation earlier in the service, “He taught me that although the truth was the truth, it can have many facets. Reflections of the truth through the prism of human frailty were the theme and thread throughout all his art and as I said before, his art was his life.”

A film clip tribute from Chuck Workman closed out the event before a number of VIP guests made their way uptown to famous Altman haunt, Elaine’s. Comprised of music and extended clips from a number of Altman movies, the video tribute also featured footage of Altman accepting his honorary Oscar one year ago at the Academy Awards.

Robert Altman receives his honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards in March 2006. Photo by A.M.P.A.S.

“I’ve always said that making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach,” Altman said, after receiving a standing ovation from the audience at the Kodak Theater in March of last year. “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 sand castle 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
The Company
Gosford Park
Dr T and the Women
Cookie’s Fortune
The Gingerbread Man
Kansas City
Jazz ’34
Short Cuts
The Player
Vincent & Theo
Aria (“Les Boreades” segment)
O.C. and Stiggs
Beyond Therapy
Fool for Love
Secret Honor
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
A Perfect Couple
A Wedding
3 Women
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson
California Split
Thieves Like Us
The Long Goodbye
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Brewster McCloud
That Cold Day in the Park
The James Dean Story

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