Kirkus Reviews QR Code
ROBERT ALTMAN by Mitchell Zuckoff

ROBERT ALTMAN

The Oral Biography

By Mitchell Zuckoff

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-307-26768-9
Publisher: Knopf

The expansive oral biography a great American director.

Zuckoff (Journalism/Univ. of Boston; Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, 2005, etc.) begins with Altman’s childhood in Kansas City, his first two brief marriages and his struggle to become established in Hollywood. Recollections from his sisters and ex-wives paint the director as a hard-living, immensely likable character with grand ambition. During his many years directing television, Altman met his third wife and lifelong companion, Kathryn Reed Altman, whose contributions to this volume are substantial and forthright. Altman directed a wide variety of films in his long career, and each theatrical picture is represented here by at least one substantial passage or archived review. The major works—M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993)—receive their own chapters, which chronicle the beginnings, production and reception of each film. Nearly all of this material is of great interest to movie buffs, but certain passages stand out—the disagreements between Altman and Warren Beatty over McCabe; the production fiasco of Popeye (1980) on the island of Malta; the director’s critical rebirth with The Player, told from the perspective of its star, Tim Robbins. Altman was known as a director beloved by his actors, and an abundance of rhapsodic anecdotes from the likes of Paul Newman, Elliot Gould and Cher reinforce this reputation. Conversely, an often-neglected family and a litany of wronged producers and screenwriters amply represent his cruel side. Due to the sheer number of contributors, several of these accounts, particularly those regarding the director’s financial problems, bear marked similarities that can become tiresome. But Zuckoff’s portrait is multifaceted and fully realized, giving the reader a clear view into Altman’s firebrand persona.

An engrossing, comprehensive book that gives invaluable insight into the life and work of a truly original artist.