Honoring Altman

At The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz collects contributions to the Robert Altman Blog-a-thon Weekend, honoring the lifetime-achievement-Oscar recipient. I shan’t participate with new writing, but offer this appreciation of the director’s The Player excerpted from a longer essay:

As the shallow movie-studio executive Griffin Mill, [Tim] Robbins could have easily been lost among the dozens of cameos, Michael Tolkin’s tight, smart script, and Altman’s referential, winking direction, including the impressive eight-minute tracking shot that opens the film.

And even if Tim doesn’t get trumped by those things, his role threatens to alienate the actor from the audience. He embodies all the terrible traits we’ve come to hate in execs of any sort: He’s a liar; he’s self-centered; he looks down on nearly everybody; he cheats on his girlfriend with an exotic beauty named Good Dog’s Water (or somesuch); and he even kills a lowly writer. Worst of all, he gets away with every bit of it.

Yet the movie works, not just as Altman’s gentle fuck-you to Hollywood but as both a thriller and a human drama. The biggest testament to Robbins’ work comes at the movie’s end, when I found myself happy that Griffin got the woman, kept his job, and saved the day.

How did that happen?

For all Mill’s faults, the script and Robbins give the audience access to his core. The badass is scared — initially that he’ll lose his job, and then, after drowning poor Vincent D’Onofrio, that he’ll be caught. And Mill is unnerved by the lurking creep with big hair, a natural reaction to being stalked by Lyle Lovett (who, in a great moment of self-deprecation, quotes Tod Browning’s Freaks).

The fear is explicit in the script, but Robbins can take sole credit for making a connection with the audience. He is believably afraid. This point of contact is essential if the audience is to have anything beyond a knowing amusement with the film. And past being good at being scared, Robbins balances Mill’s arrogance with his fear. And once we can relate to Griffin, we begin to appreciate his balls (not literally, of course), his resourcefulness, and his — let’s be honest — courage under much pressure.

Robbins must make the audience believe that such a slick, deliberate, and conniving person can lose control, and then regain it — just as we’d like to imagine ourselves doing. He succeeds wonderfully.

But while Tim’s performance is integral to the success of the work as a thriller, The Player is first and foremost a parody of a thriller. Robbins is crucial, but the net effect belongs to the script and direction. This is Altman’s movie, not Tim’s.

Blog-A-Thons are great, and since I didn’t participate in this one, I thought I’d invite all of you over to my place for my own. Check it:



Thanks for the heads-up. The permalink for the Blog-A-Thon announcement is:


I plan on participating, probably with something on Marnie and perhaps with something on Vertigo.

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