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Robert Altman Biography, Early life, Career, Personal life, Directing style and technique, Filmography, Awards and honors, Death and legacy, FAQs

Robert Altman Biography

Robert Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 20th, 1925. He went to Catholic school and later attended Rockhurst High School. Altman got interested in sound at a young age, playing with tape recorders. After going to military school and serving in the US Army Air Forces during World War II, he moved to Hollywood with his first wife, LaVonne Elmer, to pursue acting, songwriting, and screenwriting. Despite some attempts, he struggled to break into the film industry. He even tried unusual jobs, like being a publicity director for a dog tattooing company. Eventually, Altman returned to Kansas City, where he got a job at a film production company called the Calvin Co. He learned a lot about filmmaking there, working on various projects from documentaries to commercials. Altman also directed his first feature film, “The Delinquents,” while at Calvin. In 1956, he moved back to Hollywood to work in television, directing shows like Alfred Hitchcock’s. In 1969, he got the chance to direct “MAS*H,” which became his breakthrough success. After that, he directed many films, with some hits and misses. “The Player” (1992) and “Gosford Park” (2001) were among his well-received works.

Robert Altman’s Early life

Robert Altman was born on February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, to Helen and Bernard Altman. He had a rich background, with ancestors from Germany, England, and Ireland. Despite being raised Catholic, he didn’t stick with the religion as he grew up. Altman went to Jesuit schools and later graduated from Wentworth Military Academy in 1943. At 18, he joined the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, where he flew many bombing missions.

After the war, Altman moved to California and worked in publicity. He stumbled into filmmaking by selling a script to RKO Studios. His success led him to New York City to pursue writing but didn’t find much luck. He returned to Kansas City in 1949 and started making industrial films for the Calvin Company. Altman directed over 65 of these films, where he began to experiment with storytelling techniques, like overlapping dialogue.

Besides filmmaking, Altman also directed plays and operas. While at the Calvin Company, he directed plays at the Jewish Community Center, working with local actors like Richard C. Sarafian, who later became a director too and married Altman’s sister.

Robert Altman’s Career

In the 1950s, Robert Altman started his journey in television by directing episodes for shows like “Pulse of the City” and “The Sheriff of Cochise.” He got his big break when he made a film called “The Delinquents” about teenage troublemakers in Kansas City. Even though it was made on a small budget, it caught the attention of United Artists and was released in 1957. This film showed Altman’s early knack for using natural-sounding dialogue. After this success, Altman moved to California where he co-directed a documentary about James Dean and later worked with Alfred Hitchcock on television.

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Throughout the 1960s, Altman became known for his quick and efficient work as a television director. Despite sometimes clashing with network executives, he continued to get new projects. He even expanded one of his TV episodes into a film called “Nightmare in Chicago” in 1964. However, he faced challenges in the film industry, like being fired from a space travel movie called “Countdown.”

The 1970s marked Altman’s rise to prominence with the release of “MAS*H” in 1970. This anti-war film won awards and became a hit, setting the stage for his unique style of filmmaking. Altman continued to push boundaries with movies like “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “The Long Goodbye,” and “Nashville,” which all had political undertones. Despite some films being divisive, critics admired Altman’s bold approach.

In the 1980s, Altman faced ups and downs in his career. He directed a musical film called “Popeye” which faced challenges during production and didn’t meet expectations at the box office. Altman also had struggles with studio interference and shelved projects. Despite these setbacks, he found success with television projects like “Tanner ’88,” which earned him an Emmy Award.

The 1990s saw Altman’s resurgence with films like “The Player” and “Short Cuts,” which garnered critical acclaim. He continued to experiment with storytelling, adapting Raymond Carver’s short stories into a sprawling narrative. Altman also ventured into opera and theater, showcasing his versatility as a director.

In the 2000s, Altman received an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement. Despite facing health challenges, he remained active in filmmaking until his passing. Altman’s legacy lives on through his groundbreaking films and contributions to the art of storytelling.

Robert Altman’s Directing style and technique

After conquering television, Robert Altman shifted gears to tackle the movie industry with a fresh perspective. Unlike many Hollywood directors, he didn’t play by the rules. Altman’s films weren’t your typical blockbusters; they were more like personal statements about American life and the quirks of Hollywood itself.

He wasn’t afraid to go against the grain, earning him a reputation as a maverick. Altman didn’t bow to studio pressures or follow conventional storytelling. Instead, he crafted films that were like snapshots of real life, with all its imperfections and complexities.

His movies often used satire and comedy to poke fun at societal norms, making them both thought-provoking and entertaining. Despite facing resistance from some in the industry, Altman stayed true to his vision, even if it meant butting heads with producers or rewriting scripts on the fly.

One thing that set Altman apart was his approach to working with actors. He believed in giving them freedom to improvise, allowing them to breathe life into their characters in ways that felt authentic. This collaborative spirit attracted many talented performers to his projects.

Altman also had a knack for creating immersive soundscapes in his films, using techniques like overlapping dialogue to capture the chaos of everyday conversations. And when it came to music, he was just as discerning, often hand-picking songs that added depth and emotion to his scenes.

In the end, Altman’s films weren’t just movies; they were experiences, inviting audiences to see the world through his unique lens. And while they may not have always been commercial hits, they left a lasting impression on those who watched them, challenging the status quo and celebrating the beauty of human imperfection.

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Robert Altman’s Filmography

YearTitleDistribution
1957The DelinquentsUnited Artists
1967CountdownWarner Bros.
1969That Cold Day in the ParkCommonwealth United
1970MAS*H20th Century Fox
Brewster McCloudMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
1971McCabe & Mrs. MillerWarner Bros.
1972ImagesColumbia Pictures
1973The Long GoodbyeUnited Artists
1974Thieves Like UsColumbia Pictures
California SplitColumbia Pictures
1975NashvilleParamount Pictures
1976Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History LessonUnited Artists
19773 Women20th Century Fox
1978A Wedding
1979Quintet
A Perfect Couple
1980Health
PopeyeParamount Pictures
1982Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy DeanCinecom Pictures
1983StreamersUnited Artists
1984Secret HonorCinecom Pictures
1985Fool for LoveCannon Group
1987O.C. and StiggsMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Beyond TherapyNew World Pictures
1990Vincent & TheoMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
1992The PlayerFine Line Features
1993Short Cuts
1994Prêt-à-PorterMiramax Films
1996Kansas CityFine Line Features
1998The Gingerbread ManPolyGram Entertainment
1999Cookie’s FortuneOctober Films
2000Dr. T & the WomenArtisan Entertainment
2001Gosford ParkFocus Features
2003The CompanySony Pictures Classics
2006A Prairie Home CompanionNew Line Cinema

This list shows the movies Robert Altman directed throughout his career, along with the distribution companies responsible for releasing them.

Robert Altman’s Awards and honors

Altman was honored with numerous awards and nominations throughout his career. He earned seven Academy Award nominations and was granted the Honorary Oscar in 2006. Among his accolades were two wins at the British Academy Film Awards for “The Player” (1992) and “Gosford Park” (2001), along with seven nominations in total. Additionally, he clinched the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for his work on “Tanner ’88” (1988).

Altman also garnered recognition at the Golden Globe Awards, securing five nominations and winning the Best Director award for “Gosford Park.” His contributions were celebrated at various film festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival, where he received the esteemed Palme d’Or for “MAS*H” and the Best Director award for “The Player.” Other notable honors include the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

In 1994, Altman was presented with the Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award, further solidifying his legacy in the world of cinema.

Here’s a simplified and unique version of the awards and nominations received by Altman’s films:

YearTitleAcademy AwardsBAFTA AwardsGolden Globe Awards
1970MAS*HNominations: 5Nominations: 6Nominations: 6, Wins: 1
1971McCabe & Mrs. MillerNominations: 1
1972ImagesNominations: 1Nominations: 1Nominations: 1
1975NashvilleNominations: 5Nominations: 5Nominations: 11, Wins: 1
19773 WomenNominations: 1
1978A WeddingNominations: 2Nominations: 1
1982Come Back to the Five and Dime,
Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Nominations: 1
1992The PlayerNominations: 3Nominations: 5, Wins: 2Nominations: 4, Wins: 2
1993Short CutsNominations: 1Nominations: 2, Wins: 1
1994Prêt-à-PorterNominations: 2
2001Gosford ParkNominations: 7, Wins: 1Nominations: 9, Wins: 2Nominations: 5, Wins: 1

This table shows the number of nominations and wins each film received at the Academy Awards, BAFTA Awards, and Golden Globe Awards.

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Robert Altman’s Personal life

Family

Altman had three marriages throughout his life. His first wife was LaVonne Elmer, and they were married from 1947 to 1949. Together, they had a daughter named Christine. His second wife was Lotus Corelli, and they were married from 1950 to 1955. During this marriage, they had two sons, Michael and Stephen. Michael, at the age of fifteen, wrote the lyrics to “Suicide Is Painless,” the theme song for Altman’s film MASH*. Stephen often collaborated with his father as a production designer. Altman’s third wife was Kathryn Reed, and they remained married from 1957 until his passing in 2006. They had two sons together, Robert and Matthew. When Altman married Kathryn, he became the stepfather to Konni Reed.

Kathryn Altman, who passed away in 2016, co-authored a book about Altman that was published in 2014. She played a significant role as a consultant and narrator for the 2014 documentary Altman and frequently spoke at retrospective screenings of her husband’s films.

Homes

During the 1960s, Altman lived in Mandeville Canyon in Brentwood, California. He spent the 1970s residing in Malibu but sold his home and Lion’s Gate production company in 1981. He relocated his family and business headquarters to New York City, citing financial reasons after the disappointment of Popeye. However, he eventually returned to Malibu, where he resided until his death.

Political Views

Altman was vocal about his political opinions. In November 2000, he jokingly claimed he would move to Paris if George W. Bush were elected, later jokingly clarifying it was Paris, Texas. He was an advocate for marijuana use and served on the advisory board of NORML. Additionally, he identified as an atheist and was known for his anti-war activism. Altman was among the public figures who signed the “Not in Our Name” declaration opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some, like Julian Fellowes, believed Altman’s anti-war and anti-Bush stance may have cost him the Best Director Oscar for Gosford Park.

Altman openly expressed his disdain for the television series MASH*, which followed his 1970 film. He criticized it for being the opposite of what his movie represented and labeled its anti-war messages as “racist.” In a DVD commentary for *MASH in 2001, Altman elaborated on his disapproval of the series.

Robert Altman’s Death and legacy

Robert Altman passed away from leukemia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on November 20, 2006, at the age of 81.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson dedicated his 2007 film “There Will Be Blood” to Altman. Anderson had previously served as a standby director on Altman’s film “A Prairie Home Companion” as a precaution in case Altman, then 80 years old and in poor health, couldn’t complete the shoot.

In a tribute held a few months after Altman’s death, he was hailed as a passionate filmmaker and an auteur who challenged traditional filmmaking norms. Director Alan Rudolph coined the term “Altmanesque” to describe his distinctive style. Altman favored large ensemble casts, natural dialogue, and encouraged improvisation from his actors, fostering an environment of creative freedom.

Described as a master of acid satire and counterculture character studies, Altman’s films defied genre conventions and were candidly subversive. He detested the artificiality he perceived in mainstream cinema and sought to dismantle it through satire.

Actor Tim Robbins, who collaborated with Altman on multiple projects, praised Altman’s directing style, which fostered a playful and imaginative atmosphere on set akin to a mischievous father encouraging his children to play.

Altman’s extensive personal archives, housed at the University of Michigan, contain a wealth of materials including scripts, photographs, and props. The university also served as a filming location for his work, including the movie “Secret Honor” and several operas he directed.

Since 2009, the Robert Altman Award has been presented annually at the Independent Spirit Awards, honoring outstanding directors, casting directors, and ensemble casts.

In 2014, a documentary titled “Altman” was released, offering a comprehensive look at his life and career through film clips and interviews.

FAQs About Robert Altman

What defines Robert Altman’s filmmaking style?
Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking spanned various genres but often carried a rebellious or non-conformist edge, challenging traditional Hollywood norms. He frequently employed satire and humor to convey his personal perspectives. Actors appreciated his approach because he empowered them to improvise, adding their own flair to the characters.

Why is Robert Altman considered significant?
Robert Altman, an unconventional American film director, prioritized character development and atmosphere over traditional plot structures. His movies delve into themes such as innocence, corruption, and the struggle for survival, setting him apart as a unique voice in cinema.

Who influenced Robert Altman’s work?
Robert Altman’s innovative use of sound in his films was influenced by the works of Howard Hawks, a renowned filmmaker. Growing up in Kansas City, Altman would have been exposed to Hawks’ films, which left a lasting impact on his approach to filmmaking.

Who was Robert Altman married to?
Robert Altman was married to Lynda Carter from 1984 until his passing in 2021. Lynda Carter continues to feel the loss of her husband, Robert Altman, who succumbed to a rare blood cancer in 2021.

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