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Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

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Robert Altman-visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend-comes roaring to life in this rollicking oral biography. After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with M*A*S*H. He reinv Robert Altman-visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend-comes roaring to life in this rollicking oral biography. After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with M*A*S*H. He reinvented American filmmaking, and went on to produce such masterpieces as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. In Robert Altman, Mitchell Zuckoff has woven together Altman's final interviews; an incredible cast of voices including Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, among scores of others; and contemporary reviews and news accounts into a riveting tale of an extraordinary life.


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Robert Altman-visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend-comes roaring to life in this rollicking oral biography. After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with M*A*S*H. He reinv Robert Altman-visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend-comes roaring to life in this rollicking oral biography. After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with M*A*S*H. He reinvented American filmmaking, and went on to produce such masterpieces as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. In Robert Altman, Mitchell Zuckoff has woven together Altman's final interviews; an incredible cast of voices including Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, among scores of others; and contemporary reviews and news accounts into a riveting tale of an extraordinary life.

30 review for Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Carol Taylor

    Writing this oral biography of Robert Altman was an amazing achievement for my favorite nonfiction author, Mitchell Zuckoff. I have the book but I decided to listen to the audiobook and use the book for clarification and to see the photos. Mitchell interviewed many actors who worked with Altman over the years along with relatives, friends, producers, film critics, etc. The list was exhaustive. He worked closely with Altman himself until he died. Altman's wife was very involved in the interviews Writing this oral biography of Robert Altman was an amazing achievement for my favorite nonfiction author, Mitchell Zuckoff. I have the book but I decided to listen to the audiobook and use the book for clarification and to see the photos. Mitchell interviewed many actors who worked with Altman over the years along with relatives, friends, producers, film critics, etc. The list was exhaustive. He worked closely with Altman himself until he died. Altman's wife was very involved in the interviews and her perspective was always interesting and at times very funny. If you're a fan of Altman's films, you will find this interesting. As Zuckoff says - books have been written about each of Altman's films and this book certainly doesn't go into that much depth. However, if you'd like to hear some of the backstories about certain films - why he chose them, how he picked the actors, problems during filming or during the release, how the actors view the films now, etc., this book will certainly entertain you. In the audiobook version you do hear the voices of many actors and family members. I thought this made listening more enjoyable. If you've never seen a Bob Altman film, skip this book and see some of his movies!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    A very good book in terms of getting even more insight into Altman the man. Incidentally (or not???), he was a serious weed smoker but now I know he toked into his old age. Pot brownies at the Oscars.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Smiley McGrouchpants Jr.

    This is good! I only read most of it, but I really, really liked it!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Bill Wallace

    I started a watch/rewatch of Altman's films a few weeks back and wanted to read a good biography and retrospective of his work. What better way to tell Altman's story than through cascading dialog by a teeming host of people who knew and worked with him? The story that comes through here is the same one reflected in his eclectic and eccentric career - a dedication to a way of making a movie and telling a story that is genuinely unique. I don't love everything the man directed but I respect his v I started a watch/rewatch of Altman's films a few weeks back and wanted to read a good biography and retrospective of his work. What better way to tell Altman's story than through cascading dialog by a teeming host of people who knew and worked with him? The story that comes through here is the same one reflected in his eclectic and eccentric career - a dedication to a way of making a movie and telling a story that is genuinely unique. I don't love everything the man directed but I respect his vision a lot and, almost daily, wish we had a movie industry today as supportive of intelligent filmmaking as the film business of the 70s and 80s was. Sadly, you can see the change in tastes over the course of Altman's career as it's reflected here. To hear his voice and those of his associates lamenting that no one could get funds to make grown-up movies after Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark is like a distant echo of a trend so deep we may never escape it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jack Herbert Christal Gattanella

    Bob: "The minute I say what a movie I've made is *about*, I've narrowed everyone else's view of it. If I say what it means to me, its range to some event is limited to the viewer from that point on." Paul Newman: "He was an original. Being an original means that you're standing out there on thin ice sometimes. But at least he was out there skating while everybody else was waiting for cold weather." Q&A: Q: If you were to die and come back as a persdon or thing, what do you think it would be?" A: "I Bob: "The minute I say what a movie I've made is *about*, I've narrowed everyone else's view of it. If I say what it means to me, its range to some event is limited to the viewer from that point on." Paul Newman: "He was an original. Being an original means that you're standing out there on thin ice sometimes. But at least he was out there skating while everybody else was waiting for cold weather." Q&A: Q: If you were to die and come back as a persdon or thing, what do you think it would be?" A: "I'm immortal." What can I come away with after reading this monumental story of a life like Altman's? Well, simply, he was one of the most tenacious artists of the 20th century. And somehow he was able to navigate a system and work consistently that, by all accounts, could have kicked him out in the *late 1970s* much less the 80's when he was in the "wilderness." It is exhaustively detailed and the interviews are illuminating. This is a man who was seen to be uncompromising and perhaps difficult, but there were too many contradictions to pin him down so easily. One page you may see a man who has a ferocious temper and (to put it mildly) not suffer fools kindly, or even just someone who doesn't know their shit (or a studio exec, yeah, definitely one of those). The next you see someone who is like a big lovable bear of a man, who was happy to make films and lived by the Kurosawa maxim: "It is wonderful to create." It's fascinating for me on a film buff-type level simply to understand just how long it took for him to get his big break - while he did make a couple of low budget B movies in the mid 1950s, he was mostly relegated to TV until 1968, and really made his commercial breakthrough at 44 with MASH. I'd think a lot of other directors might just be happy to stay a carpetbagger in TV (not to mention a very different time when a TV director didn't or couldn't have much personality to bring to a piece of filmmaking). But I didn't realize, or haven't seen simply out of not seeking them out, that on this early industrials and then the TV shows, he was already developing his tastes and style and craft. And he always thought he had it in him, which is inspiring: the confidence Altman had at the worst of times is what gets an artist through, and for all of the uh, you know, drinking, gambling, etc, family issues, he was always plugging away. And eventually it paid off... AND YET, I also didn't comprehend just how much he was able to, how can I say it, get away with in the 70's. MASH basically bought him 10 years in Hollywood - including a five picture deal with FOX (thanks to Alan Ladd Jr, ironically the guy who stood up for George Lucas with Star Wars, the kind of movie that heralded in the unkind-to-auteurs 1980s that Altman suffered through), and none of those movies maded money (indeed one of them, HealtH, isn't available on video so I've not seen it) - and basically none of the movies he made after MASH (until, oddly enough, Popeye) made any money. Yet he could get the stuff done he wanted, he had some wild and unruly but amazing collaborations with a variety of writers and actors, not least of which Warren Beatty, Joan Tewksbury, and Paul Newman, and changed how a film could be made - or, really, how it could be *percieved* to be made. Follow the script to the letter? Why? Make something else up if YOU think it works better. Often, that led to magical moments of cinema. Other times... well, I haven't watched Quintent in a while... And another irony that I found fascinating: Popeye, really his first major studio production in many years, was seen as a failure/disappointment in the industry and managed to kind of blackball him for another decade (with the exception of OC and Stiggs, which... frankly, I might've liked a little more on that, it was said he was unhappy making it, and I can't imagine he EVER revisited it, and yet he also said in one of those sweeping remarks: "I love all my films, they're my children", so... did he love that little bastard OC and Stiggs too? I dunno)... but the FOX films, they didn't really hurt him as much. The giant percieved-not-even-really-a-failure costs more, it seems, than the little money-losses. I loved reading this book, despite taking a while with it; I think the early part, his early years right before Countdown, I put the book down for some dumb reason or another, maybe because I was getting impatient with it (Not a fault of the author who got the interviews, but with myself really). But once I got into the sections of Countdown and That Cold Day in the Park, I devoured this in a week. I love getting lots of insight into process but also how being prepared enough gets one to be open enough to let things, anything, happen, and to be intuitive and trusting and loving (yes, loving) enough of actors as creators to bring their work to the table. At the same time, it's also absorbing as a personal saga, of how he stayed married for all those years to Kathryn and the very real and honest problems he had as a father (or lack thereof), as an artist who saw his art as more paramount than his family. Further along with this are tumultuous sections about an affair with Faye Dunaway (who never appeared in his films fyi), and the producer Scotty Bushnell, who is more or less a "Bad Guy" (or "Bad Woman") in this story as the close producer Altman wouldn't let go - also that she wouldn't leave). So, as an Altman fan before, this was further illuminating, but I'd think if you're just getting into his work this has a great structure and just so many voices to keep one interested - and keep one wanting to check out more/most/all of his works. And what helps is there are other critical voices as well - movie review excerpts, for example, but other random interviews and things like bits from DVD commentaries, and archive interview bits - so it's not all just Altman family or friends or actors or writers. You come away from this understanding all the more why he was important as a filmmaker, groundbreaking, the kind that can be tried to be repeated or mimicked but is hard/impossible to do, but also how he was as a man, and there's no easy way to pin him down on that. He could be cruel, a bastard, but also kind and generous and warm. He managed to not fuck up his career too bad on drugs (drink seemed worse for him that pot), and he stuck to his guns creatively and professionally - I had no idea, for example, he turned down *5 million* to direct MASH 2, as he was pissed off about the TV series, but also how many other films he planned to make sequels of (I.e. Nashville 2, Short Cuts 2) - and I agree when he refutes the whole "Comeback" notion from the 90's... since he had really never left! A couple of other tidbits: - I'm surprised the book didn't have maybe just a couple of sections or a page on the fact that Altman was on the top board of NORML, which is the national weed organization. Kind of a big deal, I'd think, that he smoked enough and was enough of an advocate to reach that position - or how that even happened. - Kevin Spacey is a fucking asshole and I hope he burns in hell (even if I didn't know about *EVERYTHING ELSE* this book would make me think that). - Beyond Therapy has zero written about it. Good, it sucks. - The story behind making TANNER '88 I wish had a little more detail, personal preference, but what is here is fascinating. - The 93 Oscars ceremony story was a hoot. I'd get baked too if I knew I'd not be winning. "Yeah! Go Clint!"

  6. 4 out of 5

    Quinn da Matta

    Loved every minute of this. Insightful, intriguing, and inspiring.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Robert Vaughan

    One of the best oral biographies I've ever read. Whether you are an Altman fan or not, one cannot argue the distinguished mark this talented director left through his cinematic scope. A Hollywood outsider who worked with the most talented people (think Meryl Streep, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, and it really goes on and on and on), and also mostly an independent film-maker, reading through Altman's life is also remembering the many changes through mine- where I lived when "Short Cuts" prem One of the best oral biographies I've ever read. Whether you are an Altman fan or not, one cannot argue the distinguished mark this talented director left through his cinematic scope. A Hollywood outsider who worked with the most talented people (think Meryl Streep, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, and it really goes on and on and on), and also mostly an independent film-maker, reading through Altman's life is also remembering the many changes through mine- where I lived when "Short Cuts" premiered, who I broke off with when, after seeing "Nashville," we couldn't settle our differences about the film. How seeing "Gosford Park" was such a marker in forbearance for how much a success "Downton Abbey" would become, a decade or so later. I took notes all the way through this lovely book, and found myself thanking Bob Altman over and over for his contribution to the arts- his trust in actors and in the moment, his love of what was unexpected, the way his wife, Kathryn, loved him, gave him the backdrop and belief in his work that allowed him to leave so many cherished American films, that say so much about America, without setting forth to do so.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tom Schulte

    This "Oral Biography" features narrated quotes by Altman, his family, collaborators, and co-workers. Altman's own words are largely drawn from interviews done close to the end of his life and are not read by himself, as is the case with other quotes it sounds like. Some distinctive voices speaking their own words stand out, among them actors Tim Robbins and Bob Balaban. This book makes me want to see many Altman films I missed (Fool For Love, Thieves Like Us, Brewster McCloud, etc.) and re-see o This "Oral Biography" features narrated quotes by Altman, his family, collaborators, and co-workers. Altman's own words are largely drawn from interviews done close to the end of his life and are not read by himself, as is the case with other quotes it sounds like. Some distinctive voices speaking their own words stand out, among them actors Tim Robbins and Bob Balaban. This book makes me want to see many Altman films I missed (Fool For Love, Thieves Like Us, Brewster McCloud, etc.) and re-see ones I already knew (Popeye, MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, etc.) The book strongly underscores that adoration actors had for him and this seemed to arise from the freedom he allowed them, encouraging improvisation. Going off the script purposefully like that damaged his relationship with studios and backers. Hard drinking and obsessive work habits damaged his relationship with family and friends.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    Superb oral biography of a true American original. I'll be honest: before picking up this book, I'd only seen a handful of Altman's films, but after only a couple of chapters, I knew I'd want to see more of them soon. I highly recommend the audiobook version, which makes the oral biography aspect of the book come to life. Superb oral biography of a true American original. I'll be honest: before picking up this book, I'd only seen a handful of Altman's films, but after only a couple of chapters, I knew I'd want to see more of them soon. I highly recommend the audiobook version, which makes the oral biography aspect of the book come to life.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    I have a fondness for episodic backstories when it comes to film biographies. I count among my favorites King Cohn by Bob Thomas and The Wit and Wisdom of Hollywood by Max Wilk. This work has the same feel, using interviews from family, friends, actors, actresses and Altman himself to give us a glimpse of his journey.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Corey

    A fascinating biography, told appropriately in a chorus of voices, eminently readable. It's a fitting tribute to a brilliant director, maybe the best America has produced. A fascinating biography, told appropriately in a chorus of voices, eminently readable. It's a fitting tribute to a brilliant director, maybe the best America has produced.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Zach Morgan

    One of the best biographies I have read and the oral format was an incredible achievement. What a complex man Bob was.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Brenden Gallagher

    Robert Altman was a genius. And he was an asshole. While these claims may appear subjective, after you listen to the entirety of Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography" you are left with the reality that eventually subjective opinion becomes objective fact if enough people share that opinion. And pretty much everyone that Altman ever met would agree on both counts. I am grateful that Mr. Zuckoff doesn't have the same need to endlessly wrestle with the idea that Altman was a great a Robert Altman was a genius. And he was an asshole. While these claims may appear subjective, after you listen to the entirety of Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography" you are left with the reality that eventually subjective opinion becomes objective fact if enough people share that opinion. And pretty much everyone that Altman ever met would agree on both counts. I am grateful that Mr. Zuckoff doesn't have the same need to endlessly wrestle with the idea that Altman was a great artist and not necessarily a great guy. So many people on Twitter do this as an unpaid full-time job, and it quickly becomes exhausting. For the most part, Zuckoff cordons off Altman's work and personal life, giving each their due time but being careful not to muddy the waters too much. And when one impacts the other, he analyzes the car crash and moves on. Robert Altman was a bad father, a mediocre husband, and a fair-weather friend, but on-set he was something between a master and a god. Every actor loved working for him. His crews would die for him. And it seems that everyone involved in his filmmaking process enjoyed themselves except for most of the writers and, about half the time, the financiers. Altman is beloved by champions of the auteur theory in part because he didn't think much of writers. While so many directors claim that their finished films depart from the script when the time comes to take credit for a successful film, Altman was one of the few in history who actually tended to leave the script behind in the making of his films. Sometimes, as in the case of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "The Long Goodbye," the film that was made improved on the script-as-blueprint, but it was often the case that when Altman left behind his map, he got lost. But, with Altman, the goodness of each individual film is not the point. He was an original and he did it differently than anyone who has come before or since. As such, he is worthy of study and admiration because his directorial style was one that used a totally different equation to get the right answers. And as such, it might be worth it for any director to take a peek at his notes. I am personally conflicted about Altman because, as I do, he loved actors, but, he didn't have much use for writers. And well, that's how I make my money. But, to admire someone, you don't have to like them. And no matter what you think of his opinions, I don't know how you can watch a film like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and not be curious how something so good and so unique came to be. The fashionable obsession with the morality of our artists has always been a ridiculous artifact of post-Trump liberalism, and its day will come to an end. You don't have to look much further than Robert Altman. You don't have to like him. He wouldn't have cared one way or another. But, you have to admit he knew a thing or two about making movies. Even if he could be a real son of a bitch about it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    A very good book written through the many voices of people who lived and worked with Altman. The chronological approach works well, the portrait that emerges is that of a conflicted man with the temperament of a rascal and the ability to direct actors in a new and generous way. The choice of creating a complex, multifaceted portrait through many, sometimes contradictory points of view, is great and does Altman justice. The many details about Altman's approach to filmmaking are fascinating and wil A very good book written through the many voices of people who lived and worked with Altman. The chronological approach works well, the portrait that emerges is that of a conflicted man with the temperament of a rascal and the ability to direct actors in a new and generous way. The choice of creating a complex, multifaceted portrait through many, sometimes contradictory points of view, is great and does Altman justice. The many details about Altman's approach to filmmaking are fascinating and will likely be of interest to filmmakers, photographers and even writers. BEWARE: despite its positioning as an "oral" biography, this book is best READ, not listened to in the audio version (which I did, but it was a mistake). The book may be based on recorded interviews BUT these interviews are not what you'll hear: in most cases you'll hear actors--not the original interviewees--READING the transcripts of the interviews, sometimes with wholly unconvincing British of French accents depending on who is meant to be "speaking". This creates a very disturbing feeling as you listen on: while the grammar is oral, the words are clearly read, not spoken. It's a disaster. Presumably retrieving and using the original interviews was not possible, but the result is that you should probably READ this book, as the experience of listening to it may be, as it was for me, unnerving.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Listened to as an audio book - which I highly recommend - since it should really be listened to, as opposed to read. The oral narrative is read by the people who provided it. So we have the voices of Elliot Gould, Michael Murphy, Tom Skerritt, Julianne Moore, and countless others including Altman's family members. It's also told in much the same manner as Altman's films - allowing the participants to relate their experiences with Altman and personal take on the man without any censorship or editi Listened to as an audio book - which I highly recommend - since it should really be listened to, as opposed to read. The oral narrative is read by the people who provided it. So we have the voices of Elliot Gould, Michael Murphy, Tom Skerritt, Julianne Moore, and countless others including Altman's family members. It's also told in much the same manner as Altman's films - allowing the participants to relate their experiences with Altman and personal take on the man without any censorship or editing really involved. As a result, we get a multi-faceted picture of Altman from those who adored him, and those who despised him. Along with a multi-faceted take on the films he made, the process involved, and how individual actors and filmmakers related to it. It's a must for any Altman fan, and even those who aren't - or anyone interested in the craft of film making.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Hogfather

    Mitchell Zuckoff's biography of Robert Altman is one of the first biographies that I've read which takes into account one of the main problems that arises in most biographies. Generally, a person's sins are magnified simply by being put in print, distorting the truth of their personage. Zuckoff's biography abandons the preconceived notion that exact balance is honesty and in doing so probably gives us the most honest portrait of the man that we'll ever get. I don't think that this is a perfect b Mitchell Zuckoff's biography of Robert Altman is one of the first biographies that I've read which takes into account one of the main problems that arises in most biographies. Generally, a person's sins are magnified simply by being put in print, distorting the truth of their personage. Zuckoff's biography abandons the preconceived notion that exact balance is honesty and in doing so probably gives us the most honest portrait of the man that we'll ever get. I don't think that this is a perfect book; I would have liked to hear more about smaller, less successful projects like Tanner on Tanner or O.C. and Stiggs. But even if it's not a perfect guide to Altman's work, it certainly helps us to understand the man.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Brian Joynt

    Good series of recollections from friends and family of Robert Altman, with commentary on the filmmaker's life and artistry. This isn't the definitive biography Altman deserves or was planning at the time of his death, but it does shed some light on certain important events and films, focusing mainly on his attitude and style as a director, as well as his generosity and compassion for working with actors. The book glosses over a few films I would've liked to hear more detail on, and totally omit Good series of recollections from friends and family of Robert Altman, with commentary on the filmmaker's life and artistry. This isn't the definitive biography Altman deserves or was planning at the time of his death, but it does shed some light on certain important events and films, focusing mainly on his attitude and style as a director, as well as his generosity and compassion for working with actors. The book glosses over a few films I would've liked to hear more detail on, and totally omits others, like Images. Still, this is probably an essential tome for Robert Altman fans. Recommended.

  18. 4 out of 5

    LorenzoT

    Very interesting book, very interesting life... Well written, well done...

  19. 5 out of 5

    David Cervantes

    Great look at Altman's life and work, as told by friends, family, and people in the film industry. Great look at Altman's life and work, as told by friends, family, and people in the film industry.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nick Huinker

    I’m a sucker for both Altman and oral histories. tore through this

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy Leavens

    This guy would be a hoot to be on a set with. Full of fun anecdotes. At 70 years old, he and his wife snuck pot brownies into the Oscars in 92.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Edward

    Only read this biography if you're a fan of Robert Altman's movies (MASH, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, NASHVILLE, THE PLAYER, GOSFORD PARK, PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION and many others) and want to know about the man behind these excellent (in my opinion) movies. The man lived for his work; he was never more alive than when he was directing films, in his eccentric way. Otherwise, he was far from perfect - he philandered, neglected his children, drank too much, smoked too much pot (although he claimed that Only read this biography if you're a fan of Robert Altman's movies (MASH, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, NASHVILLE, THE PLAYER, GOSFORD PARK, PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION and many others) and want to know about the man behind these excellent (in my opinion) movies. The man lived for his work; he was never more alive than when he was directing films, in his eccentric way. Otherwise, he was far from perfect - he philandered, neglected his children, drank too much, smoked too much pot (although he claimed that helped his creativity) and could be frustrating to work with. But his work was where he excelled. He was thoroughly anti-authoritarian, liked to ignore established rules, and that extended to well-planned and scripted movie efforts that the film industry usually promotes. His method of working was to encourage his actors to improvise, and even if their efforts didn't always work, he could make use their failures in surprising ways. What emerged was often inspired creativity, not just on the his part, but on the part of actors who, through collaborative efforts that he encouraged, made his creative vision even better. This process didn't mean he lacked a general vision of where he wanted his films to go, it was just that he was always open to new ways of enhancing his vision. Needless to say, he was often at odds with producers who provided the money for his films. Moviemaking is a business, after all, and the bottom line is profit, not artistic license given to a director who could not guarantee in advance that he was going follow a script or a developed story line. In fact, he was never particularly interested in a strong narrative structure, or in building character. He compared himself to an impressionistic painter, dabbing in his own personal touches, often at the last minute, and changing the expected product His first big success was the MASH (l970) an artistic as well as financial breakthrough (the film, not the tv series in which he had no interest), and following upon that he was a marketable commodity and got financing for his next few film. The problem was that he had as many financial duds as successes, so for long stretches, he had trouble finding backing for his projects. As one of the interviewees, Anne Rapp, a screenwriter (the book is made up of dozens of oral interviews in which actors, writers, producers, friends, family members, and technical people talk about their memories of Altman - he died at age 81 in 2006) commented, "I always told Bob he's like a farmer. When it's the season you plant and you water and you harvest. If you have a great crop it doesn't mean you don't plant the next season. And if you get hailed out one year, you don't spend the next year licking your wounds. You get back out there and plant the ;next season. A good farmer and a good artist just keep turning out the work." Altman never looked back - he always thought the film he was working on was the best thing he'd ever done. He once said that to compare the movies he made would be like comparing your children - they're all different, and you don't assess "best" and "worst". Finally, a comment by producer Bob Balaban about one of his last movies, GOSFORD PARK, that applies as well to most of his films. "Robert liked large noisy groups of people. And that's how he liked to live. And he liked them in his movies and in a way all of Bob's movies were like one long movie, and that was in some ways like his life. They didn't come to a lot of conclusions at the end. Sometimes, it was very hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys - there's not a lot of black and white clashing around. It's all pretty complicated. And he loved large groups of people." The strength, I'd say, in Altman's films is that as he looks at people, especially ordinary people, the more he sees - their foibles, their quirkiness, their unpredictable and surprising actions. He loves multiple stories, often shooting simultaneously with three or four cameras and using overlapping soundtracks, the effect being, as one critic put it, of bringing the viewer into the film almost as a collaborator himself. There's so much going on, he has to decide what he really wants to concentrate on. After reading this book, I want to look at all of Altman's films again, most of which are available through Netflix.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    Hard to think of a director in Hollywood who’s made more of an impact but got less credit than Bob Altman. After all, his movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player were never really considered to be box-office blockbusters. Nor was Altman ever honored with an Oscar for producing or directing, although his films received many nominations throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90s. No, Robert Altman was an outcast, a scalawag; a rapscallion of film directors. That’s what makes his story so great. In “Robe Hard to think of a director in Hollywood who’s made more of an impact but got less credit than Bob Altman. After all, his movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player were never really considered to be box-office blockbusters. Nor was Altman ever honored with an Oscar for producing or directing, although his films received many nominations throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90s. No, Robert Altman was an outcast, a scalawag; a rapscallion of film directors. That’s what makes his story so great. In “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography,” author Mitchell Zuckoff captures it all. From Altman’s early days kicking around Kansas City (a place he would later base a feature film on) to his war years, to his roguish romantic escapades to his eventual landing in California (working for among others, the legendary Alfred Hitchcock) Zuckoff’s assemblage of the autuer’s story covers all the bases. As colorful as the oral history is of the director’s early dating and family life, his military service and his career beginnings in both industrial films and, once in Hollywood, television (‘Combat,’ Whirlybirds,’ etc.) the best portions are reserved for his relationships with the actors he loved and the studio bosses he loathed. When actors would add a line to the dialog, most films expected a visit from the studio brass. When Altman’s actors wanted to add a line, he encouraged them to do more. (M*A*S*H’s Sally Kellerman (‘Hot Lips’), practically wrote her way into the whole movie from what was originally slated as a naked shower scene.) In the final analysis, Altman was the master of the ensemble film; his indelible mark comes from the inner workings of the casts he assembled, not necessarily from the stories themselves. As Zuckoff points out in Altman’s own words, he would be the first to admit it. Along the way, the book regales the reader with stories from all the front line players (as in ‘The Player’) in Altman’s great body of work. Legendary players like Paul Newman, Tim Robbins, Cher (remember her red dress at the black and white ball?) Jimmy Caan, Bobby Duvall, Elliot Gould, Patricia Neal, Bob Evans, Richard Zanuck, Meryl Streep, Harry Belafonte, Lily Tomlin, Beatty, Becall and others weigh in and reminisce about their (rather detailed) recollections of Bob’s past. The one thing that rises above it all, is that Altman loved the actors; always exhorting them to mix it up, speak over each other words, act like in real life. So while he may not have been Hollywood’s most successful director, in many ways, he was perhaps its most authentic. After his passing in 2008 (and after having finally received an honorary Oscar from the Academy in 2006) Altman needed a book – not on his work, but on the man himself. It is fitting that this oral biography is comprised of much of the same ensemble players that created the Altman oeuvre itself. Well done. Fade.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Blog on Books

    Hard to think of a director in Hollywood who’s made more of an impact but got less credit than Bob Altman. After all, his movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player were never really considered to be box-office blockbusters. Nor was Altman ever honored with a single Oscar for producing or directing, although his films received many nominations throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90s. No, Robert Altman was an outcast, a scalawag; a rapscallion of film directors. That’s what makes his story so great. In Hard to think of a director in Hollywood who’s made more of an impact but got less credit than Bob Altman. After all, his movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player were never really considered to be box-office blockbusters. Nor was Altman ever honored with a single Oscar for producing or directing, although his films received many nominations throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90s. No, Robert Altman was an outcast, a scalawag; a rapscallion of film directors. That’s what makes his story so great. In “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography,” author Mitchell Zuckoff captures it all. From Altman’s early days kicking around Kansas City (a place on which he would later base the feature film of the same name) to his war years, his roguish romantic escapades, his eventual landing in California (working for, among others, the legendary Alfred Hitchcock) Zuckoff’s assemblage of the autuer’s story covers all the bases. As colorful as the oral history is of the director’s early dating and family life, his military service and his career beginnings in both industrial films and, once in Hollywood, television, (‘Combat,’ Whirlybirds,’ etc.) the best portions are reserved for his relationships with the actors he loved and the studio bosses he loathed. When actors would add a line to the dialog, most film sets expected a visit from the studio brass. When Altman’s actors wanted to add a line, he openly encouraged them to do more. (M*A*S*H’s Sally Kellerman (‘Hot Lips’) practically wrote her way into the whole movie from what was originally slated as a naked shower scene.) In the final analysis, Altman was the master of the ensemble film; his indelible mark comes from the inner workings of the casts he assembled, not necessarily from the stories themselves. As Zuckoff points out in Altman’s own words, he would be the first to admit it. Along the way, the book regales the reader with stories from all the front line players (as in ‘The Player’) in Altman’s great body of work. Legends like Paul Newman, Bob Evans, Cher (remember her red dress at the black and white ball?) Jimmy Caan, Bobby Duvall, Elliot Gould, Patricia Neal, Richard Zanuck, Meryl Streep, Harry Belafonte, Lily Tomlin, Tim Robbins, Beatty, Becall and others weigh in and reminisce about their (rather detailed) recollections of Bob’s past. The one thing that rises above it all, is that Altman worshiped the actors; always exhorting them to mix it up, speak over each other words, act like in real life. So while he may not have been Hollywood’s most successful director, in many ways, he was perhaps its most authentic.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Tom Choi

    This is a comprehensive biography of Robert Altman, recounted orally through incisive reminiscences from family, friends, former friends, and the occasional enemy/detractors. As was the man and his movies, the stories that are collected here about his life are often imbued with hilarity, hi jinx, and warmth. This book places the story of the man behind the lens alongside in-depth accounts of the stories surrounding Altman's every single artistic endeavor. And as an oral biography, this is a swif This is a comprehensive biography of Robert Altman, recounted orally through incisive reminiscences from family, friends, former friends, and the occasional enemy/detractors. As was the man and his movies, the stories that are collected here about his life are often imbued with hilarity, hi jinx, and warmth. This book places the story of the man behind the lens alongside in-depth accounts of the stories surrounding Altman's every single artistic endeavor. And as an oral biography, this is a swift read (I finished it in two days). Here are some highlights: Robert Altman was a prodigious drinker and pot-smoker, smoking all the way up to his death at the age of 81. He once started a business that tattooed identification numbers on dogs; in fact, he tattooed the dog of the then president Truman; the business went asunder before he could make a lucrative sale to the ASPCA when his partner ran off to Europe with their savings. Apparently, Kevin Spacey is a real dick; someone refers to him as the "Norman Bates of show business". Altman hated studio executives, critics, and screenwriters, in that order. Robert Altman's liked to gamble (like a Dostoevsky character and not like a professional nit-picker); played backgammon (and always lost); and watched a lot of sports on TV (he liked all sports). Every screening of the dailies (the practice of reviewing of what was shot by the crew at the end of each shooting day) was a lavish bacchanal affair. The actress Neve Campbell was in awe of this man who smoked so much pot and could do so much in his old age. A decorated co-pilot who served in the Pacific during WWII, he returned home from the war with nothing on him but his clothes and shortly after he pawned his medals. For McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the crew built a real working town and the studio hands slept overnight in the various sets, some set up tee pees. A Prairie Home Companion, which was Altman's last movie, was shot in 9 brisk days; the director did not know what the film was about until the wrap (it's about Death). Robert Altman almost never picked up the tab. Richard Nixon wrote Robert Altman a warm letter describing his admiration for his work for fear of Altman's plans to make a movie about his life. The film that he planned to make right up to his death was called, "Hands on a Hard Body," was gonna be about the industry behind the giveaway gimmicks where the last person left with their hands on a car wins the car. The following actors were slated to appear: Chris Rock, the "Rock," Jack White of the White Stripes, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Buscemi, Salma Hayek, Billy Bob Thornton, Hilary Swank and more. It would've been a great movie...

  26. 4 out of 5

    Nanette Bulebosh

    Zuckoff, in an interview on WBUR's "Here and Now," described Altman as a maverick who, despite several professional setbacks, refused to compromise his idiosyncratic vision and desire to tell stories far differently than most film directors. I loved Gosford Park, M*A*S*H, and (just recently) A Prairie Home Companion, Altman's last movie. As a director, he is especially deft with ensemble acting. Gosford Park succeeds in part because of the comfortable and intimate banter between the characters, Zuckoff, in an interview on WBUR's "Here and Now," described Altman as a maverick who, despite several professional setbacks, refused to compromise his idiosyncratic vision and desire to tell stories far differently than most film directors. I loved Gosford Park, M*A*S*H, and (just recently) A Prairie Home Companion, Altman's last movie. As a director, he is especially deft with ensemble acting. Gosford Park succeeds in part because of the comfortable and intimate banter between the characters, both the servants and the wealthy weekend guests the former have to care for. PHC is also great. I love how the actors talk over each other, something quite common in real life but rarely seen in film. The characters played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin come off belieably as Midwestern sisters(from Oshkosh, WI!), despite the fact that they look and act nothing alike, because of the intimacy and easy comfort they have for each other. Altman, who died in 2007, seemed to relish in this intimacy. By all accounts he actively encouraged his actors to improvise and experiment. He was the qunitesssential actor's director. Thus, who wouldn't be interested in learning more about this man? For me, however, this particular book was not the ideal path doing that. "Oral biography" turns out to be quite a limiting term. We get no indepth objective story-telling or analysis. No narrative from Zuckoff at all, in fact. All we get are fond memories and quotations from loved ones and the many people who worked with him. The book is a series of individual monologues from famous and non-so-famous people. It's not at all what I'm used to seeing in a biography. Not that the author pretends to do anything else. He's upfront about his method. And clearly he spent a great deal of time tracking down all these people and hearing their stories. I'm sure he came up with some great questions and methods for getting people to open up. He also spent a lot of time with Mr. Altman, who supported the project, himself. It's just not the kind of biography I was looking for. It may work very well for others.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maryann MJS1228

    If you've seen even one Robert Altman movie you know that this is a man who would want his story told as an oral history. Altman's use of overlapping dialogue forced the audience to choose which voice to listen to in a cacophony of sound. Mitchell Zuckoff invited a multitude of voices telling about the Robert Altman they knew allowing readers to sift through the stories to find the man himself. It helps that those speaking are an articulate, amusing bunch unafraid to tell embarrassing stories in If you've seen even one Robert Altman movie you know that this is a man who would want his story told as an oral history. Altman's use of overlapping dialogue forced the audience to choose which voice to listen to in a cacophony of sound. Mitchell Zuckoff invited a multitude of voices telling about the Robert Altman they knew allowing readers to sift through the stories to find the man himself. It helps that those speaking are an articulate, amusing bunch unafraid to tell embarrassing stories in which they feature or to call Kevin Spacey the "Norman Bates of Show Business", for instance. No amount of wit would make the first half dozen chapters fly by, however. It's admirable that Zuckoff wants to document the whole of Altman's life but I would have been satisfied with fewer stories of Bob's adventures at summer camp. Once Altman starts making movies Zuckoff's pacing spot on, mixing details about the financing of MASH with choice gossip like Altman's affair with Faye Dunaway. I'm still in awe of that revelation - wouldn't have pegged those two in a million years. The picture that emerges is of a well-loved if not entirely likable man. Zuckoff shows why so many actors were devoted to Altman but he also shows that Altman was just another nasty, loud-mouthed drunk on occasion. One minute you find yourself fascinated by the loyalty Altman engendered, the next you're appalled at the loyalty he insisted upon. Like so many artists Altman put his work above any human relationship and that can be hard to take in large doses. This isn't a critical assessment of Altman's work or an interpretation of his films. It's Altman's life story and critical to that is the story of his work so there are plenty of details about how nearly all of his films were made. Whether you're a fan or not (I'm merely a sometime fan of his work), this is a very enjoyable book, not unlike spending a three-day long bender with the man himself, but without the hangover. Recommended for film and biography fans. [bold] Note that this is a true oral biography with very little connective narrative.[/bold]

  28. 5 out of 5

    Simon

    A joyful, raucous but not uncritical biography of the iconoclastic film director Robert Altman. As befitting a director known for his character-crammed ensemble pieces and overlapping dialogue, the book is told oral history style with a host of actors, colleagues, and family members chiming in with memories and thoughts on a man they all seemed to have loved even when he was driving them crazy. Altman's sets were an actor's dream, he almost demanded a constant flow of ideas and collaboration. At A joyful, raucous but not uncritical biography of the iconoclastic film director Robert Altman. As befitting a director known for his character-crammed ensemble pieces and overlapping dialogue, the book is told oral history style with a host of actors, colleagues, and family members chiming in with memories and thoughts on a man they all seemed to have loved even when he was driving them crazy. Altman's sets were an actor's dream, he almost demanded a constant flow of ideas and collaboration. At the same time his inattention to his family and prodigious consumption of alcohol and pot made his personal life genuinely chaotic as compared to the orchestrated mayhem of his films. Altman didn't become a well known director until he was in his 40s; his resentment of studios and occasional public diatribes against them contributed to his inability to work and financial stress after a string of flops in the late '70s and early '80s. Even when Altman was personally reeling or struggling financially he seems never to have lost thejy he took in the work and the extended families he created on set. At a time when movies are more formulaic than ever, Robert Altman: An Oral Biography is a celebration of a artist who may be gone but whose films will serve as an inspiration for budding cinematic rebels.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Carl Garcia

    Cobbled together from anecdotes, tangents, and conflicting accounts, making it a perfectly Altmanesque portrait of the man himself. Does it's best not to shy from his ugly facets, although, given that this is strictly pulled together from the accounts of friends and family who wanted to talk about him, there's a lot of rationalizing going on. Would've really liked to see more detail about the 80s (or more accurately, that whole stretch from Quintet through Vincent & Theo), but that's an order for Cobbled together from anecdotes, tangents, and conflicting accounts, making it a perfectly Altmanesque portrait of the man himself. Does it's best not to shy from his ugly facets, although, given that this is strictly pulled together from the accounts of friends and family who wanted to talk about him, there's a lot of rationalizing going on. Would've really liked to see more detail about the 80s (or more accurately, that whole stretch from Quintet through Vincent & Theo), but that's an order for some seriously deep and messy cuts deserving of their own book. Be prepared for some serious blue balls when you read about the project Altman had in prepro when he died!

  30. 4 out of 5

    Richard Kramer

    I remember an interview Altman gave years ago where he said "I'm a fool". This is not the kind of thing great directors usually say about themselves. But Altman was not your usual great director. The book is its own Altman movie, which is to say that the life was, too. Mitchell Zuckoff has edited it and done the sound mix in a way Altman would have loved. Altman comes off as a mix of Falstaff and Don Quixote and John McCabe. He is fat, maddening, benighted, noble, inspiring. And, as McCabe mutter I remember an interview Altman gave years ago where he said "I'm a fool". This is not the kind of thing great directors usually say about themselves. But Altman was not your usual great director. The book is its own Altman movie, which is to say that the life was, too. Mitchell Zuckoff has edited it and done the sound mix in a way Altman would have loved. Altman comes off as a mix of Falstaff and Don Quixote and John McCabe. He is fat, maddening, benighted, noble, inspiring. And, as McCabe mutters to himself in MCCABE AND MRS MILLER, he has "poetry in him." So does the book.

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