Robert Altman, a remembrance

Julie_christie With Robert Altman’s death on Monday, the airwaves and internet are filling with recollections.  Mine is slender and I offer it as a "bit part" in the larger drama. 

I was a chauffeur for Julie Christie during the filming of McCabe and Mrs. Miller in Vancouver in 1970. Julie was entitled by contract to a chauffeur and a limo.  She asked instead for an ordinary sedan and a film student. What she got was me and a Volkswagen.  The alternative mood of the 60s had found its way to Hollywood and it flourished on this particular film set.

(I know this is the biggest, stupidest Hollywood cliche: using a celebrity’s first name to indicate that you have a personal relationship with them.  But I spend several hundred hours with "Ms. Christie" without ever once calling her that.  It seems wrong to start now.)

The alternative mood gave me liberties that have vanished from the present Hollywood.  I didn’t wear a uniform or a cap. I was allowed "upstairs."  I was integrated into the Christie-Beatty household.  (Julie lived with Warren Beatty at the time in a Arthur Erickson home not far from Horseshoe Bay.  I remembered it as a series of wood and glass rectangles tacked to a stone incline as it ran down to the water.)  Shaggy, clueless, good natured, eager, I must have been a little like a Labrador, welcome just so long as everything small and precious was kept well clear. 

Occasionally, Robert Altman would come to visit.  I was allowed to "stick around."  From time to time, my opinion would be solicited.  There was some question as to how the movie should end.  It was clear that McCabe would die.  But at who’s hand?   Beatty thought the character should be killed by corporate thugs.  (This is indeed how the film ends.)  I thought this was a little predictable, a little "Hollywood" at a time when traditional narratives were being challenged, not least by Altman, that Mongolian horseman who had just swept off the plains. 

My suggestion, timid but persistent, was that McCabe should die at the hand of Mr. Elliot (Corey Fischer), the spooky Protestant preacher who occupied a wooden church at far edge of the village.  Poor, stumbling McCabe feared the power of the corporation that wished to buy his saloon.  He had thought not at all of the more ancient, less scrutable menace of the vestigial church at the end of the road.  So close to gold, so far from God. 

Altman was open to a suggestion of this kind.  In truth, he was open to suggestions of any kind.  Beatty much less so.  I think he looked on Altman’s "open source" approach with alarm.  I can’t say I blame him.  Some part of Beatty’s career hung in the balance, in a way did not for chauffeurs, kitchen staff and carpenters.  We may have been pretending this was an egalitarian universe, but in fact Beatty was risking much more than the rest of us.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller formed in the filming.  Occasionally, I would run bits of dialog from Altman’s trailer to Julie’s trailer.  She would have to memorize it for the following day.  So it wasn’t a few big creative decisions that were still to be decided.  In fact lots of little creative decisions were being each day.  This was exhilarating for some, but not all. 

Beatty and Altman were often at odds.  Beatty, enriched and empowered by Bonnie and Clyde (1967), could claim to being "new regime," but it was not entirely clear that he understood the counter culture in any thoroughgoing way.  He seemed to think that McCabe and Mrs. Miller was plenty odd enough in narrative.  (His character was not very bright, not very heroic, and a bit of dolt.)  Surely, he seemed to argue, this was quite enough "departure."  Surely, this was enough to be new Hollywood.   

Altman wasn’t merely out to satisfy the new agenda.  He was keen to see what could be done to and for filmmaking with these new freedoms in place.  This is to say he embraced the counter intuitive and the anti-generic not for their own sake, but because something interesting might issue therefore.  We could hear in the dailies that he was using sounds in new ways.  He was pleased when the lab came back with strange, muted colors on the screen.  It was discovered that the film stock in question had been deteriorating in the can, and Hollywood was scoured for more with the same date stamp.  Minor characters were set free to explore character and some extraordinary results were forthcoming.  Now the question was how to make a place for them.  (The actor who does a minor drunk ballet was especially admired.  So was the actor who offers the line "My friend wouldn’t pay five dollars to find out something that wasn’t true.")  [If someone can identify these actors by name, please let me know.]

The debate between Beatty and Altman grew more intense after a screening of Brewster McLoud (1970).  We gathered in a rented auditorium in West Vancouver.  The reaction was sheer astonishment.  Most of people were thinking (without necessarily thinking about it very hard) that McCabe and Mrs. Miller might be a kind of Mash set in the 19th century of the American Northwest, funny, ascerbic, revealing, and of course new regime.  But Brewster McLoud struck most people in the room as being just plain weird, and it was clear from the look on most people’s faces as they left the auditorium that they were now harboring extreme doubts.  Who was this guy and what kind of picture did he mean to make in McCabe and Mrs. Miller?  As I remember it, people left the auditorium as if no longer certain of their footing. 

It was a quiet contest.  Until he saw the first complete edit, I think Beatty never raised his voice.  He was all gentle persuasion and self confident charm.  Clearly, here was a man who never doubted his powers of persuasion, and you could see in the way women treated him, that in his domain he had never had to.  He was accustomed to charming the Hollywood media into a stupor of grateful admiration.  I remember sitting on a grey sofa, looking out over a grey ocean, his right hand working the touch pad of his telephone, the way only accountants could work an adding machine.  He was working the phones, and the calls were mostly to members of the Democratic machine. 

There was something confiding about the way he talked to Altman, as if the two of them were not making a film, but planning a particularly cunning piece of politics.  Altman, for his part, was not so much confiding as bluff.  He too spoke as if it was perfectly obvious both parties had the best of all possible intentions, enjoyed one another company extraordinarily, and shared an unmistakable community of interest.  Of course, everything was going to work out splendidly.  He and Beatty were merely clearing up the smallest of executional details. 

I remember thinking that his eyes glittered with insecurity.  (Not that nasty, "don’t cross me" insecurity, but the "what is this universe and what might it do to me next" insecurity.)  But when I suggested this in passing, everyone, Julie, her friend, Alfie, and her hairdresser, Barry, exclaimed that this was manifestly the most ridiculous, the most unreliable reading of human character on record.  And they could be right. 

Finally, it was, I thought, a contest between an actor who was managing his career with all due caution, and an artist who genuinely wanted to see what was possible in the new regime.  It is worth remember that these are the recollections of a Labrador.  I regarded Beatty then as a man who might someday inflict emotional injury on my employer, and I can tell you he did this more than once.  (I was asked to say more for a recent biography on Beatty but Julie would not give me clearance to do so.)   My dislike of Beatty has perhaps encouraged me to mistake the man I have compared him to.  But, for what it’s worth, this is what I remember about the filmmaker called Robert Altman.   May he rest in peace. 

References

Honeycutt, Kirk.  2006.  Director made chaos flow.  The Hollywood Reporter East.  November 22, 2006. p. 1.   

Kilday, Gregg.  2006.  Robert Altman, 81, dies: Helmer challenged conventions. The Hollywood Reporter east.  November 22, 2006, p. 1.

3 thoughts on “Robert Altman, a remembrance”

  1. What a warm and complimentary story for Altman, I think he would be pleased. As for Warren, Carly would be happy.

  2. I don’t understand why you give Julie Christie veto power over your speaking to a Beatty biographer when you say so much about him here.

    Talk or don’t talk (or tell the biographer you’re saving your best stuff for your own book) but don’t tease us.

    Nice thoughts about Altman. Erratic as hell but when he was firing on all cylinders his movies were terrific.

  3. I just discovered your wonderful blog (via a link from Metacool). You’ve got some provocative things to say.

    I very much enjoyed your remembrance of Altman and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. That must have been a great time and experience.

    I also wrote about Altman the day after he died. But without the close personal knowledge you had. I wrote it as a movie fan. [Check it out: http://blog.creativethink.com/weblog/2006/11/mccabe_and_mrs_.html ]

    Best wishes to you.

    Roger von Oech

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