seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ
I've known about Robert Altman for a long time, but I never really studied him or his films in any great depth. I've seen M*A*S*H and The Player a bunch of times, but sadly, I've yet to see Nashville. One of these days... Still, I always figured I knew what defined his films: huge, ensemble casts, lots of actorly improvisation, and overlapping dialogue. It wasn't until I saw M*A*S*H on the big screen for the first time earlier this month, however, that I truly understood what made him such a stand-out director during the 70s.
Peter Biskind's "New Hollywood" book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls describes how Altman butted heads with 20th Century Fox on the film. The studio continued to begrudge the new wave of filmmakers who made cheaper movies faster, and at least in the case of M*A*S*H, raunchier:
[Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown] were looking at the dailies the same time they were watching the rushes from Patton. It was a long way from George C. Scott to [Elliot] Gould and [Donald] Sutherland. M*A*S*H was the anti-Patton. Zanuck and Brown sat in the back of the screening room, looked at each other, and groaned. They were appalled by the fuzzy focus, the raw language, the nudity, and the rivers of gore that flowed through the operating room sequences. "It was the first time you saw guys during an operation covered with blood saying, 'Nurse, get your tits out of the way,'" says [Altman's agent George] Litto. It was the first major studio movie in which "fuck" was used.All the times I had seen the movie had been on video, so when I saw it on the big screen, it was like seeing it for the first time. Suddenly, I could truly see the blood and guts and it was a bit of a shock. I was conscious of Altman's decision to present the reality of war, something that's easy to forget when you see it on TV, which was how the Vietnam war was experienced for millions of Americans at the time. (M*A*S*H is set during the Korean war, but it was seen as a commentary on Vietnam.)
M*A*S*H was adapted for the screen by the formerly blacklisted writer Ring Lardner Jr., who also co-wrote such films as Woman of the Year and Laura. He actually was a member of the Communist Party, unlike many individuals pursued by HUAC in the 50s who weren't, and as a result he was imprisoned for a year and fined, plus, he couldn't get work in Hollywood under his own name for years. Still, once M*A*S*H became a hit, Altman took more than his fair share of credit for the screenplay on account of his improvisational approach. In the end, though, Lardner ended up winning the Oscar for his script.
I remember occasionally watching the long-running spin-off TV series as a kid, though I suspect most of the humor was way over my head. As a result, the final episode wasn't as big a deal for me as it was for the rest of the country.
Co-star Sally Kellerman appeared at the screening at the Loews Jersey City, and she still looks great. She was there to promote her autobiography, and in an on-stage conversation after the film with Loews regular Foster Hirsch, she talked about her career, including how she tried to balance a singing career with her acting, which unfortunately led to her passing up some plum roles in the 70s. She mentioned how some people thought her role of Hot Lips was demeaning, but she disagreed because she got to do all kinds of stuff as the character, like get laid, sit in on poker games with the guys, and be a football cheerleader, which she loved.
Later this week I'll post pictures from the screening on my WSW Facebook page.