Now More than Ever

Tim Robbins in THE PLAYER | New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

“I make gloves, and they sell shoes.”
—Robert Altman on Hollywood


At the end of
The Player, a Hollywood executive, Griffin Mill, has gotten away with murder. He’s got the girl now, too—the one who was dating the man he killed. And, by optioning a pitch for a film that sounds exactly like the nightmare he’s just lived through (from a man who spent most of the film terrorizing and blackmailing him, no less), he’s secured a twisted version of a Hollywood ending.

After he rolls up to their new home in a shiny new convertible, Griffin and his new wife embrace and kiss. He pats her pregnant belly, and they disappear inside the front door as the camera pans up, settling on the top of a palm tree. The music swells. The credits roll. And for the next several minutes, we watch as the branches rustle in the breeze.

Anyone searching for a deeper meaning in The Player’s final image might be at a loss, though director Robert Altman had an unsurprisingly practical reason for choosing it: “I needed something to play out my end titles on and tell you that the movie was over.”

Altman was being coy, of course, but it does speak to a larger overall theme in his career. When asked if he believed Griffin really got a happy ending, he still didn’t mince words: “Personally, I don’t know any happy endings,” he said. “There are ambivalent endings, but to me it’s just a stopping place, not a real ending. People’s lives go on…to me, it’s just a stop on the curve. The river keeps going.”

*

It’s been said before, by pretty much anyone who knows anything about Robert Altman, that not only is The Player a film he was born to make, but one that only he could have made.

Altman knew how to strike a balance between pure entertainment and something that goes just a little bit deeper; how to make the worst of humanity palatable enough that we choose to keep watching. But most importantly, he simply knew how to tell a damn good story—even if it wasn’t the one we thought we wanted to see.

The Player is, above all else, an unrelenting rebuke of Hollywood, wrapped up in wink-and-nod references to the films and stars that have long made the industry such a cultural behemoth. After decades of trying to sidestep industry politics, bending the rules just enough to be able to make the films he wanted to make, Altman had a profound understanding not only of how the system worked, but of how broken and heartbreaking it could be.

*

If Robert Altman were still with us today, he would likely bristle at any discussion of his “Hollywood career.” An iconoclast for several decades, he was never reticent to make his feelings about the industry clear. When he took The Player to Cannes in 1992, he was asked if Hollywood had lost its objectivity. He answered:

“I think Hollywood has always maintained its objectivity, which is greed, and making as much money as they can, and getting rid of all the artists. Of course, they can’t succeed in that. So since they can’t really get rid of us, we keep popping up and going along.”

It wasn’t a criticism he made lightly. He’d spent nearly three decades trying to navigate the Hollywood system, often with frustrating results. After serving in World War II, he found a job directing industrial and educational films for the Calvin Company. Slowly but surely, he chipped away at a more personal and fulfilling career in movies.

A low-budget teen exploitation film called The Delinquents and a co-directing credit on a documentary called The James Dean Story put him on Alfred Hitchcock’s radar. Several guest directing stints on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, along with work on over 20 other TV series (including The Millionaire and Bonanza), helped him carve out a distinctive style—one that often led to frequent tension with the networks, whose standards he delighted in subverting.

He was fired from his first feature film, Countdown, for standing by his directorial vision against the studio’s wishes. His next attempt at feature-length filmmaking, That Cold Day in the Park, was an unmitigated disaster as well: One of its executives reportedly insisted that if he’d known the kind of film Altman would ultimately deliver, he never would have hired him in the first place.

Despite numerous false starts, in 1969, at the age of 34, Robert Altman was given the opportunity to direct M*A*S*H after more than a dozen directors turned it down. The film went on to win the Palme d’Or, and topped the U.S. box office as well, finishing as the third highest grossing movie of 1970. After decades of relentless work, Altman had somehow become an overnight success.

Over the next 37 years, the director would make more than three dozen films. Some, like M*A*S*H and Gosford Park, found box office success. Many others were the product of his independent film company, Lionsgate. During one remarkable run in the ‘70s, he made McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, and 3 Women, establishing himself as a visionary filmmaker, if not always a hitmaker (a fact that never sat particularly well with the studios).

Though his films were often divisive to contemporary critics, few today would argue that he didn’t make a lasting impression on cinema. His use of intersecting plotlines, multiple cameras, slow zooms, overlapping dialogue, and narratives that favored character over a coherent plot created a style so distinctive that it came to be known as “Altmanesque.”

While Altman’s career was noteworthy and distinctive, his relationship with Hollywood was—if nothing else—volatile. In 1980, Robert Evans gave him the opportunity to direct a live action version of Popeye. The shoot didn’t go well, and the film’s release went even worse: Popeye was almost universally panned, and failed to yield the massive box office receipts the studio was expecting. The following year, 20th Century Fox shelved his follow-up film, Health, after it tested poorly with audiences—and Hollywood decided it was done with Robert Altman.

Unable to find financing for any new projects, he sold Lionsgate and left California. Eventually, he found a creative outlet directing plays on and off Broadway and ended up, of all places, in residence at the University of Michigan. While there, he used an undergraduate course he was teaching to film an adaptation of the one man chamber play,  Secret Honor, in just seven days (his students received college credit for their work). His new, pared down model of filmmaking—shoestring budget, flying by the seat of his pants—afforded him the ability to make the kinds of movies he wanted to make, with minimal help from an industry that had shuttered him out. And, as he began to gather critical acclaim once more, Hollywood again came calling.

This time, they offered him The Player.

*

Altman approached his Hollywood comeback, based on a novel by Michael Tolkin, with a seemingly simple approach: “This is a movie about movies, and we’re going to do it the way they do movies.”

And, they did. The film opens on a clapper, announcing its title, and then launches into an eight-minute, single take shot. The camera pans and zooms around a Hollywood backlot, revealing the studio’s smarmy slogan: “Movies, now more than ever!” We meet the major players through a series of walk-and-talk meetings and watch, like voyeurs through a window, as an endless stream of wannabe screenwriters try to pitch their way into the industry by way of Griffin’s office.

This iconic opening sequence has been discussed and dissected ad nauseam, yet it still holds up as a stylistic wonder. However, its narrative function is, in many ways, even more impressive. When one hapless screenwriter pitches a film to Griffin, he describes it as, “Politely politically radical. But it’s funny…And it’s a thriller, too.” Thanks to that pitch, and the others we hear before it (The Graduate: Part II), Altman is able to tell us exactly what kind of movie we’re going to be watching right from the start. He seamlessly establishes not only a clear tone for the film—one that gives us permission to laugh at the preposterous way Hollywood runs—but also lays a foundation for something far more disquieting to blindside us in the next reel.

The Player is very much about Hollywood, but its dark undertones ultimately transform the film into something that walks a fine line between satire and suspense. This blended, sometimes frantic narrative ultimately builds to an overwhelming sense of paranoia and discomfort, both for the film’s protagonist and, in many ways, for the viewer. Altman expertly utilizes all the tricks of a trade he helped revolutionize to make this work. An enormous ensemble of well-known actors—Jack Lemmon, Jeff Goldblum, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins, to name just a few—are employed to play both characters and themselves, lending an air of authenticity that borders on the surreal. The art design, from vintage movie posters and art deco movie theaters to swanky parties in minimalist mansions in the Hollywood Hills, makes the whole thing feel like Hollywood, albeit a much less glamorous and more lived-in version of what we imagine it to be.

Likewise, Altman’s pioneering use of overlapping dialogue feels tailor-made for the large party scenes sprinkled throughout The Player. He places us right in the middle of Hollywood bigwigs making endless small talk, and as Griffin wanders through these crowds, the din of muddled conversation feels increasingly and oppressively cacophonous.

Altman’s camera movements, too, elevate The Player into much more than just a run-of-the-mill studio thriller. Throughout the film, Griffin faces impending doom from all angles: His career is imploding, he’s disengaged from his relationship with his girlfriend and colleague, Bonnie, and on top of the interpersonal chaos, he’s being tormented with threatening postcards from an anonymous, scorned screenwriter.

He mistakenly believes the postcards are coming from one of the many writers he has, in fact, left hanging: David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio). So he tracks down and—perhaps accidentally—murders Kahane, following a tense confrontation. With his career still in limbo and a personal life made even more complicated by falling for Kahane’s artsy girlfriend, June (Greta Scacchi), Griffin has to try to cover up his involvement in the murder. But when the threatening correspondence resumes, he realizes he has another problem: he killed the wrong guy.

As everything starts closing in on him, the camera does, too; in his office, while being interrogated by the studio’s chief of security (Fred Ward); when he’s sitting, panicked and overwhelmed, on the floor at June’s place. At times, the camera pushes in so close that we can see the sweat gathering on his brow and feel his gaze on us as he zones out, trying to calculate a way out of the mess he’s made.

*

For all the tension Altman creates in The Player, his irreverence toward tight narratives and “Hollywood” storytelling eventually wins out over a more traditional (and, maybe, more satisfying) denouement. The film is full of red herrings. The camera pans in on posters that seem to hint at doom to come (Curtains’ “Something is waiting” slogan; Highly Dangerous’ “To have… hold or hate!”). When June snaps a polaroid of Griffin after asking him about his encounter with Kahane, it feels like an interrogation, like she has to begin to see through him. Even a pan over to a framed portrait of Hitchcock—the master of suspense—as Griffin sits down to wait for his stalker, seems to hint at his eventual downfall.

And, in reality, it should. Many of the stories we consume have taught us that good guys eventually catch bad guys; it’s a staple of the Hollywood narrative. Griffin, as much as we can empathize with him—and maybe even root for him to wrest his job back from the hands of the ingratiatingly ambitious Larry Levy—is not a good guy. His growing unease over killing Kahane has more to do with being caught, and what that would mean for the future that he wants, than it does with any sense of guilt over taking another man’s life.

In the end, we realize June doesn’t want to know if he did it, and with the help of a prototypically slimy Hollywood lawyer, Griffin is absolved of his crime on a technicality. It’s anticlimactic at best—but Altman was saving the real Hollywood ending for the film-within-the-film, Habeas Corpus. When Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant) first pitches it to Griffin, he is adamant that the film—about an innocent death row inmate and the district attorney who falls in love with her—have “no stars, just talent,” and, above all, “no fucking Hollywood ending.” But in The Player’s closing moments, we learn that Habeas Corpus now stars Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis, and that (following a lackluster test screening in Canoga Park) the original tear-jerker ending was rewritten so that Willis shoots open a gas chamber door with a shotgun and carries Roberts to safety. It’s a moment so ludicrous, it could only come from Hollywood.

*

The Player takes one last brief Altmanesque detour before Griffin gets his happily ever after. He takes a call on his car phone—yet another pitch from a writer, who turns out to be the man who was after him all along. He wants to sell him a movie about a studio executive who got away with murder, and he wants to call it The Player.

Griffin is all for it, as long as it guarantees he’s off the hook for the real life events that inspired the screenplay. The twist ending seals The Player as an unconventional Hollywood narrative, but it’s not hard to see why Fine Line Features was still willing to release it. It’s brutal in the way it paints Tinseltown executives and wannabes as little more than cutthroat elbow-rubbers.

Still, it doesn’t do much more than reveal and then cleverly comment on something that, especially today, feels like a given. It shows us, playfully, how Hollywood works before shrugging its shoulders and advising us to move along. By skewering its practices, The Player offers Hollywood a chance to call itself out without condemning its inherently flawed structure in any real meaningful way.  Altman seemed to concur, saying that the film was only meant to be a “mild indictment” of the movie industry. As far as he was concerned, the real Hollywood was much worse than anything he could reveal in a movie.

The subtext of what he meant may have been lost on us when The Player was first released, but it certainly isn’t now. Before writing this piece, I googled “Robert Altman #MeToo,” just to make sure I hadn’t missed a horrific footnote in his life that might have tarnished his legacy (if there was, I couldn’t find it). And that, more than anything, is a testament to how much further the curtain has been pulled back lately on the predatory behavior that Altman only begins to hint at in the film.

While The Player looks and sounds very much of its time, the way it distills Hollywood’s darkest instincts feels perhaps more relevant now than it did when it was released. In particular, the way he portrays executives as little more than brazenly power hungry feels disturbingly poignant now. Perhaps the part that is most unnerving, though, is The Player’s insistence that Hollywood always has to negotiate a win for its players when all is said and done. Because Altman, who had been embraced, discarded, and begrudgingly embraced again, knew how hard Hollywood’s players worked to get their way.

This is perhaps the biggest truth that The Player reveals: that we can know, without a doubt, that someone did something wrong, but that too often, their power and privilege and connections will shield them from any kind of real, lasting retribution. As exhausting as it is, thanks to redemptive thinkpieces and carefully orchestrated comebacks, they still might wind up with something that looks like a happily-ever-after.

But then again, Altman always thought there was no such thing, and as strange as that might sound, it’s an oddly comforting prospect. Maybe a real-life Griffin Mill will encounter a reckoning he can’t deal his way out of one day. Maybe we’re done making scathing satire our only weapon against a broken system. Maybe the best thing we can take away from Altman—the best hope, anyway—is that there really are no fucking Hollywood endings.