A Field Guide to the Altman Actor

the range of available performing talent as a rolling buffet table

Robert Altman makes movies that seem more alive than those of most directors, movies that, at their best, tantalize the viewer with the special feel of life caught on the fly. His greatest movies don’t feel encumbered by plot or genre, yet unlike so many attempts by American filmmakers to transcend plot and genre, they don’t wind up feeling shapeless. They are collections of moments, often accidental-seeming, throwaway bits, that by the picture’s conclusion have coalesced into a vision. It’s as if the wind gradually blew together leaves and scraps of newspaper until they formed a replica of a Matisse painting. Because of this mysterious quality they have, and because they’re so moment-by-moment pleasurable, they can easily stand up to a dozen viewings. (Altman would be the ideal director for the DVD age, if it weren’t for the fact that the thought of reducing McCabe & Mrs. Miller to an image on a TV screen is bound to sicken some people.) In addition to his masterpieces and some lively entertainments, Altman has also made some of the most godawful movies ever, which is probably an inevitable result of his method. The remarkable thing is that some of those stinkers also feel more alive than most movies. They’re accumulations where the bits and the moods fail to add up to anything much, yet they’re the failed efforts of talented people trying to make something out of nothing, or not enough, and I’ve found worse uses of my time than taking a second look at, say, Brewster McCloud and Buffalo Bill and the Indians and wondering what they were trying to do and pinpointing where it went wrong.

Obviously, a lot of the freshness and unpredictability of Altman’s work is the result of his way with actors, the faith he has in them and his ability to get them to go that extra mile for him. Altman is famous for putting people hanging around the sidelines of his sets into his pictures, and for having in the process activated the careers of people who had abandoned acting, like the late Bert Remsen, who was working as a casting director when Altman first stuck him back in front of the cameras in his mid-forties, and Louise Fletcher, who had dropped out after marrying Jerry Bick, who produced Altman’s Thieves Like Us . (Altman cast her in that movie as Maddie the betrayer, a role that he had expanded once he saw what she did in it. When Altman wanted her for Nashville the next year, she had been snapped up by Milos Forman, who, on the strength of her work as Maddie, cast her as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the movie that won her an Academy Award.) But who knows if those people would have ever found their voice in movies if they’d worked steadily for fifty years and never met Altman?

There really is no such thing as “the Altman actor,” at least not in the sense that we think of certain types of actors in relation to directors like John Ford or Preston Sturges, two other directors whose names are often used in the same breath as the term “stock company.” Many directors have an obvious preference for certain heroic types of leads and a special taste for a particular flavor of character mug. What Altman seems to have is a restless hunger for people and talent, one that’s led him to treat the range of performing talent available to a major moviemaker as a rolling buffet table. Things haven’t always worked out for him, often with people who might seem perfectly suited to his talent who came to him under circumstances that should have been ideal. Paul Newman should have been a dream lead for Altman, and in Buffalo Bill and Quintet, Altman even seemed to want to use him as a sort of stand-in-for-the-director figure, but the movies were like bad nights off-Broadway and Newman seemed equally lost in both. Altman’s version of the Sam Shepard play Fool for Love, which should have been one wild movie, was lethally inert, and in the male lead, Shepard himself was hopeless in it. Altman can trust too much in his actors — in A Wedding, compared by Pauline Kael to “a busted bag of marbles,” he seemed to think that by just piling more and more of them into the frame he could pretend to have made a movie — and when he and a recklessly overconfident, willfully grating actress like Jennifer Jason Leigh, armed with a role that plays to all her worst qualities, meet on a project like Kansas City, his method of directing can seem to amount to handing the performer more and more rope. On the other hand, there are all these people whose work is going to be savored and enjoyed by generations to come because they were lucky enough to once get cast in an Altman movie. They may be up there for only a few minutes, but it’s the right few minutes. Consider the case of Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O’Reilly in M*A*S*H, and who went on to continue the role in the TV series, where over the course of seven seasons the character actually shrank, becoming cuddlier, less sly, less ambiguous, to the point that the show retroactively restored his virginity. Then there are people like Chris O’Donnell, whose wonderfully likable comic turn as the dunderheaded Mississippi deputy smitten with Liv Tyler (herself almost unrecognizable) in Cookie’s Fortune is simply on a different cosmic plane from anything else the actor has ever done in front of a camera.

Sally Kellerman has said that when Altman cast her as Hot Lips Houlihan in M*A*S*H — she had gone in to read for the role of Lieutenant Dish — he made so much of the audition that she thought her career had finally gotten on track, and she was so devastated when she took the script home and found that her character had three lines that she called the director up and called him eighteen different kinds of asshole. Altman patiently explained that he saw the script as a springboard for what he and the actors were going to come up with on the set, and that he’d cast her because he sensed that she had the stuff to make Hot Lips a character who had a hell of a lot more in her than three lines to say. The Altman actor is the one who turns out, in the right role, to have that kind of stuff. Here’s a few of them:

ELLIOTT GOULD (1938-   ) Gould starred in Altman’s breakthrough movie, M*A*S*H, which along with Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice made him a major box office attraction and put him on the cover of Time magazine; he later made two more movies with Altman, The Long Goodbye and California Split, as well as contributing a cameo (as himself) to Nashville. These statistics do no begin to indicate how different both men’s careers would have been without each other. Gould, who, along with his M*A*S*H co-star Donald Sutherland, was so uncomfortable with Altman’s improvisational style that the two of them went behind the director’s back and tried to have him fired, came out of that production a conquering hero, and in the slew of movies that he starred in from 1970 through 1971 (Getting Straight, Little Murders, Move, I Love My Wife) he minted a fatuous image for himself as America’s favorite societal dropout, shaggy and glib and noncommittal in a way that was supposed to be romantic and hip. He also reportedly reacted very badly to suddenly, after a decade of struggling in his profession, having the world at his fingertips; one critic wrote that he was said to have left a trail of broken marriages and discarded, pregnant mistresses from New York to Malibu. It was all over by the time of Nixon’s re-election, and when Gould’s over-exposed face and past-its-sell-by-date image were no longer thought to be audience enticements, nobody in the business felt much inclination to do the man any favors.

Altman gave Gould a second chance to save his career, and in the process he got the performances that define the strength of Altman’s sensibility and his technique, and what it had to express about the post-counterculture seventies. Gould’s performances in The Long Goodbye and California Split are loose-limbed, grungy, and on the fly. They are also just unaccountably beautiful. In their style, they’re very much products of a countercultural sensibility, but what they have to say, at the deepest level, is not something that the counterculture audience, or maybe any audience, would have found fashionable. In both, Gould plays a man who wants to keep his soul. Throughout the years, a lot of people have promulgated the very silly idea that, because Gould’s Philip Marlowe does not look sharp, does not get laid, and gets played for a patsy, the movie is intended as a sacrilege against the heroic character created by Raymond Chandler and played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. But Altman is enough of a realist to know that having values and trying to do the right thing in this society isn’t likely to make you rich and is more likely to make the corrupt people you have to deal with take you for a schmuck than to fill them with awe and terror, and he’s also enough of a romantic to think that this does not make the hero any less admirable or worth the viewer’s time. There ought to be few ideas more radically liberating in popular culture than that someone who doesn’t win the Lotto at the end of the story can count as a hero. Actually, there are few ideas more radical and liberating. It’s just that you can’t make money with them.

In California Split, the gambler Gould plays might be Marlowe after he wrapped up the case, a little wiser and probably a lot sadder but determined not to let his betrayal by Terry Lennox destroy him, embitter him, drag him down to society’s level. He wants a break from the hard questions about truth and loyalty, so he just hangs out for a while, enjoying the games and the ever-shifting tides of luck and having fun, maybe allowing himself to hope that he can still make a new friend. The friend he makes, for a while, is George Segal, who was then rounding out a hot-streak cycle of performances in which he himself seemed to have re-invented the urban Jewish hero in a new loose, relaxed way. Gould, whose performance here is practically boneless, makes Segal look like Charles Bronson at his most constipated. One has to wonder: is the movie a metaphor for all the people in the business who might have envied Altman his freedom and his good notices and his steadily developing legend but who couldn’t understand his movies or his working methods and who wanted to believe that he was nuts? (In the end, Segal can’t be what he admires and envies Gould for being — he can’t let go of his anxieties and just experience the rush — and he has to skulk off, leaving behind Gould, who thought they were friends because they just liked having fun together.) It’s actually hard to imagine that any movie director who ever got a picture finished was as anxiety-free as Gould here, but I still do suspect that he’s playing the director’s real dream image of himself: the man with the right priorities, even if nobody sees his movies; the gambler who may win or lose in the end but who’s learned to just enjoy the experience for what it is.

SHELLEY DUVALL (1949-   ) Consider this: In 1970, Altman put the young non-actress in a small (and, truth be told, unflattering) role in Brewster McCloud; he’d use her in seven more movies through the next decade, ending with her sublime performance as Olive Oyl in Popeye. During that same stretch, Duvall did some TV (most memorably as the lead in the PBS short-story film Bernice Bobs Her Hair, but the only other movie role she had throughout the seventies, until Stanley Kubrick cast her in The Shining, was a cameo-sized role in Annie Hall. Duvall’s biggest roles for Altman were in Thieves Like Us and 3 Women, which, whatever else you might say about them, were not the kind of pictures that get people in Hollywood to start regarding you as a movie star. Yet in 1977, Duvall was asked to host Saturday Night Live, at a time when that job still boasted a lot of hip cachet. Maybe people were a little reluctant to hire her because of a sense that she was Altman’s creation. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t admire the brushwork.

Kael once wrote that she looked like a Modigliani, but there are a lot of people you could probably say that about. What was amazing about Duvall was her ability to look like a Modigliani and a gawky, geeky Texas girl at the same time, and make you fall in love with that geek. She didn’t have the sexual aura that a lot of young actresses have, but there was something romantic about her. She could be just painfully touching, as in McCabe and Thieves, but she was perfectly willing to be grotesque, as a thoughtlessly insensitive, free-spirited nutcase cluelessly teasing the tightly-wound nutcase in Nashville. (“I just wanted to see your fiddle.”) She may be at her best when she brings the two sides of herself together in 3 Women: Millie Lammoreaux is the odd woman out of all Duvall’s characters, an eccentric who does not accept her individuality as the others do but who yearns to see herself as “normal,” and who becomes tragic as she tries to get the shallowest people she can find to agree with her that she’s one of them, not one of the freaks. In Popeye, she actually exults in her oddness, to the point that she actually makes a convincing case for Olive Oyl as a style icon. That movie was hell to shoot, though, and speculation is that between its production difficulties and whatever kind of ice-water bath it must have been to have worked for Kubrick after all these years in Altman’s protective care, some of her desire to perform may have died. She spent several years in the 1980s focusing on her children’s TV productions for Showtime, such as Faerie Tale Theater. But she still turns up sometimes, in the oddest circumstances — sometimes in something with a title like Tale of the Mummy or Big Monster on Campus, but sometimes in an offbeat gem like Home Fries or working for a pixilated filmmaker like Guy Maddin (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs). Basically, the word “treasurable” could have been coined just for her.

KEITH CARRADINE (1949-   ) He made his debut in McCabe as the tall drink of water who looks so menacing until he opens his mouth and you see that big toothy smile, the mouth of a kid who always looks about to say “Gawrsh!” When he leaves the whorehouse the next morning — with Shelley Duvall, lit up like a Christmas tree, waving as he goes and smiling ear to ear as she calls out, “’Bye, cowboy!” — you can believe that nobody ever enjoyed that place more. And then, in a scene that illustrates the ugliness of pointless murder in such a way that I’m ashamed of myself for having sullied it with such a tired phrase, he’s lain to rest in a frozen river by the pestilent little snot whose subsequent demise in that film is an occasion for ringing church bells. Maybe even Altman couldn’t quite believe what he’d done, because he resurrected him and reunited him with Duvall in the Depression love story Thieves Like Us, a true sign of a remorseful and benevolent god. All the sweetness he conveyed in those movies was on display in curdled form in Nashville, where his fish-eyed yet sexually irresistible music star demonstrated how much damage a pestilent tall snot can do without picking up a gun. That performance turned him into an icon of a folkie-accented satyr for some, and the image got a thorough workout after Altman handed him off to his former second unit director, Alan Rudolph. Rudolph starred him a number of pictures (starting with Welcome to L.A. , which Altman produced); Choose Me is the easiest to take. Of his many excellent performances for other directors, his work as Wild Bill Hickok on the first season of the HBO series “Deadwood” stands out — a believable, human depiction of a man who is going to be talked about after he’s gone.

Carradine’s brother, David, has a funny, uncredited bit in a jail cell in The Long Goodbye. Oddly enough, that movie originally came out around the same time as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, in which David turns up just long enough to get shot in the men’s room by his and Keith’s other brother, Robert. For a few weeks there in 1973, if you wanted to see a movie, you couldn’t go wrong seeing anything that had a scene that Caine from Kung Fu did on his lunch break.

GERALDINE CHAPLIN (1944-   ) The daughter of Charlie Chaplin and Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, and the schizoid qualities you might guess at resulting from a union like that are right there in her face and her acting. She has a crystalline loveliness and great comic talent joined to an emotional directness that recalls the stars of silent films, and even when she’s funny in Nashville and Buffalo Bill , you’re aware of her essential fragility in a way that makes you want to protect her. Like Keith Carradine, she crossed over into Alan Rudolph’s universe, and unexpectedly enough it was he who, in the starring role in Remember My Name (also produced by Altman), gave her the chance to show that the appearance of delicate vulnerability could be a mask for a pretty tough cookie.

HENRY GIBSON (1935-   ) If you want to know the difference between facile stunt casting and tapping unlikely people for the possibilities you see in them, look no further than The Long Goodbye, with star baseball tattletale Jim Bouton as the slippery buddyboy Terry Lennox, tabloid mistress Nina Van Pallandt as the tainted blonde Eileen Wade, and of course, Mark Rydell, erstwhile future director of On Golden Pond, as Marty Augustine, who knows that things go better with Coke. (And as magnificent as Sterling Hayden is as the washed-out novelist Roger Wade, I’ll always wonder what it would have been like if Altman had been able to make the picture with his old pal from his days directing “Bonanza” episodes, Dan Blocker, who died shortly after he’d been cast.) But the piece de resistance is Henry Gibson, the meek little guy with the flower from “Laugh-In,” as Roger Wade’s living nightmare, Dr. Verringer, who, armed with a mantra (“Write the check, Roger”) that has all the power and good cheer of “I’m afraid it’s inoperable,” has no problem bitch-slapping his man mountain of a “client” in front of half of Los Angeles. The deadpan that Gibson has often used to uproarious and sometimes endearing effect in his comedy roles is an ice sculpture here; from the first sight of him it’s debatable whether he’s human, but it only takes a few minutes more for you to conclude that whatever the hell he is, you don’t want to fuck with it. Gibson was both funny and formidable as Haven Hamilton, the most venerable of the faux-country stars of Nashville, a petty tyrant who’s convinced that, like so many slit-eyed mealy-mouthed bastards, that he’s single-handedly protecting traditional American values from the barbaric hordes by sheer force of his meanness. Yet to see him in his last scene, holding his bloody arm after he’s been shot yet refusing help as he moves around the stage, demanding that somebody help the people who really need help and trying, in his clumsy way, to encourage the crowd to hold it together (“This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville!”), is to be reminded that they don’t even make ogres the way they used to.

JOHN SCHUCK (1940-   ) Schuck was all over TV when I was a kid, playing the bumbling-but-lovable sidekick to Rock Hudson on “McMillan and Wife” and starring in the short-lived but faintly infamous robot-cop sitcom “Holmes and Yo-Yo.” A few years earlier, he’d played Painless, the dentist who turns suicidal after a bout of impotence, in M*A*S*H, and then had small roles in Brewster McCloud (where he basically played the same role he’d wind up playing on “McMillan”) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In all this work, and a lot more besides, he was affable, bearish, mild-mannered, and likable. The high point of his career came in Thieves Like Us, where he blew the barn doors off their hinges as Chickamaw, the bullying yet hapless convict who breaks out of prison and spends all his time as a free man either in places that seem less inviting than the chain gang or that, thanks to the sheer negative force of his personality, soon will. The role offered Schuck a chance at something wholly different from the kind of act he had spend, and would go on to spend, most of his life doing, and he delivered the kind of performance that just about blots out the career that it’s a part of.

HARRY BELAFONTE (1925-   ) In the 1973 comedy Uptown Saturday Night, Belafonte did an amiable spoof of Brando’s performance as Don Corleone. Leave it to Altman to decide that, twenty-three years later, the man was ready to do it for real. Altman had already employed him as one of the self-parodying celebrity drop-ins in The Player when he approached him about playing the saturnine mob boss Seldom Seen (a shadowy figure of whom it’s said, “He’s a big talker, though — Seldom Seen been often heard.”) in Kansas City. According to Belafonte’s account, he turned the role down flat as being outside his range and a violation of his “image,” and Altman seemed to accept that, until, seeming to turn the conversation to other matters, he asked, “Tell me something, Belafonte — who is it that started this rumor that you’re an actor?” To tell the truth, based on most of Belafonte’s previous film work, it was kind of a fair question. But, goaded to step up to the plate, Belafonte delivered a sizzling turn that just about incinerates the movie he’s in. Seldom Seen has said his piece.

LILY TOMLIN (1939-   ) Touching and down-to-earth as the gospel-singing mother in Nashville, tart and funny as Meryl Streep’s sister and singing partner in A Prairie Home Companion, and in between, in Short Cuts, where she’s paired with Tom Waits, we have one of the strongest, truest depictions of frustrated, conflicted, middle-aged working-class love ever captured on celluloid. With the possible exception of her work in Short Cuts, Tomlin’s best movie performance is probably in Robert Benton’s The Late Show, which Altman produced.

SANDY DENNIS (1937-1992) She starred in one of Altman’s first mature independent features, 1969’s That Cold Day in the Park, made just before he found his style with M*A*S*H. They reunited in 1982’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which inaugurated a new phase in Altman’s career where he abandoned his improvisational style in favor of filming plays. Ed Graczyck’s play is a long way from being the best, or even among the best, theater works that Altman tackled during this period, yet in this strange, dreamy movie, Dennis gives a peerless demonstration of how to accept a text on its own terms and lose yourself in it emotionally while rigorously shaping a character. A sometime overactor who was generally more gifted in comedy than in heavy dramatics, she gives a powerful, scorched-earth performance here. The movie is notable for also featuring career-best performances from two of Dennis’s co-stars: Karen Black, who’d previously worked with Altman in Nashville, and an untrained theatrical novice who Altman brought into the project, name of Cher. Do you see what I mean with that stuff about him being a gambler?

CAROL BURNETT (1933-   ) Like Altman and Paul Newman, a natural, obvious dream combination. Like Altman and Paul Newman, they wound up not making a single good movie together. Yet Burnett’s best moments in A Wedding and H.E.A.L.T.H. are isolated nuggets of gold, little injections of perfect lyrical slapstick that can make you weep for all the time they didn’t spend working together. Burnett also appeared with Amy Madigan in one of the director’s filmed-plays-for-cable-TV, The Laundromat, but the suds in that one drag the production down like ball bearings.

PAMELA REED (1949-   ) Altman’s campaign-trail miniseries “Tanner ’88” is a clover field populated by actors who have, deservedly, gone on to higher-profile things (Cynthia Nixon, all freshness and caramel-cola pop as the candidate’s eager wonk of a daughter), who have, at least, kept working (Matt Malloy, once the wild-eyed media theorist cameraman and now every casting director’s favorite bloodless white executive type), and people — such as Ilana Levine, who played the cuddlesome space cadet Andrea Spinelli — whose failure to be treated as name-above-the-title figures is simple proof that Los Angeles should be burned to the ground tonight and the ground sewn with salt. As T. J. Cavanaugh, Tanner’s fire-breathing campaign director, Reed strode through the proceedings with the steady gait, steely gaze, and check-this-shit-out charisma that had by then already established her as one of the most irreplaceable faces of American movies in the 1980s, from her wild-ass Belle Starr in The Long Riders and her practical-minded second wife to Melvin Dummar in Melvin & Howard through her good-natured-but-outta-here Trudy Cooper in The Right Stuff, and let us not forget the knee-weakening sight of her cooing “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” in the underappreciated comedy The Best of Times. She recently brought T. J. back in the sequel “Tanner on Tanner,” and she’s gotten a little thicker in the neck but you still wouldn’t want to cross her. Taking your eyes off her continues to not even be an option.

BARBARA HARRIS (1937-   ) Because you never know when your opening is going to arrive. Or that the person who steps into it while you’re still standing there clearing your throat doesn’t deserve it more. And it don’t worry me.

WARREN BEATTY (1937-   ) With all due respect to the very intelligent and gifted star and producer of Bonnie & Clyde and Shampoo, there is Mr. Beatty’s career, all the rest of it, and then off to the side, in his own realm, is John McCabe, the man who never shot anybody, the man who had poetry in him that he had sense enough not to try to put down on paper, the man who couldn’t make her understand how much it hurt to look at her, and the man who inadvertently created a town out of a molehill of shit, a town that quietly came together out there in the middle of nowhere until its occupants were able to work together and save themselves while their founder, a man who for all his bluster wanted to just stay alive as openly and as nakedly as any movie hero has ever wanted to just stay alive, was sitting upright dead in the snow, having finally shot somebody. It takes all kinds, and there are probably some people, probably many of them, who can contemplate his story and feel no cause to weep. I’m happy for them, but it would probably be for the best if they and I didn’t take any long car trips together.

MICHAEL MURPHY (1938-   ) Oddly enough, Altman’s longest-running professional association seems to be with this straight-laced-seeming fellow; they did TV shows together before Altman began his movie career in earnest, Murphy was in both Countdown and That Cold Day in the Park before Altman found his voice as a moviemaker, and since then Murphy has appeared in M*A*S*H, McCabe, Brewster McCloud, Nashville, Kansas City, and Altman’s TV production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. In the sixties and early seventies, Murphy’s chiseled, WASPy good lucks and faint air of dogged blandness made him seem not quite of the times, and Altman almost seemed to delight in casting him as authority figures who might seem sinister if they could only get someone to take their authority seriously — a by-the-book soldier no one will listen to, an ineffectual blue-eyed supercop (who, just before he dies, loses one of his blue-tinted contact lenses), the company man who John McCabe mishandles, a weary flack pounding the pavement on behalf of Hal Phillip Walker. It’s almost as if Altman suspected in his bones that somewhere down the line, he might need a guy who could play a self-consciously “Kennedyesque” politician with a self-disengage button, and figured he’d better do what he could to keep this guy from getting frustrated enough to go back to grad school. Murphy’s Jack Tanner in “Tanner ’88” and “Tanner on Tanner” is a plum role for a certain kind of actor, and Murphy tore into the opportunity, letting his glee show in such moments as Tanner doing his imitation of Ronald Reagan walking to his helicopter and feigning an inability to hear the reporters screaming over the sound of the rotor blades, or losing his temper during a mock Democratic candidates debate with his staff. (“Oh, fuck you, Jesse!”) He helped to make the series something you don’t expect to see from a maverick like Altman, and something that a more conventional, compromised director would probably not have either the imagination or the balls to conceive of: a sympathetic, layered depiction of the inner complications of an empty suit.