Robert F. Boyle, the eminent Hollywood production designer who created some
of the most memorable scenes and images in cinematic history — Cary Grant
clinging to Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest,” the bird’s-eye view of the
seagull attack in “The Birds,” the colorfully ramshackle shtetl for “Fiddler on
the Roof” — died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 100.
He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and lived in Los Angeles, a son-in-law,
John Biddle, said.
Mr. Boyle worked on more than 80 films as art director or production designer,
synonyms for a job he once defined as “being responsible for the space in which
a film takes place.”
As a young assistant fresh out of architecture school at the University of
Southern California, he worked on the Cecil B. DeMille western “The Plainsman”
(1936) and Fritz Lang’s “You and Me” (1938). Over the next six decades he worked
with a long list of top directors, including Douglas Sirk, Richard Brooks and
At the 2008 Academy Awards, as his list of credits was read aloud, he stepped
onto the stage to tumultuous applause to receive a special Oscar for his life’s
work in art direction.
Mr. Boyle is best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he
produced indelible scenes like the climactic struggle atop the Statue of Liberty
in “Saboteur” and the crop-dusting sequence with Cary Grant in “North by
Northwest,” not to mention the seagull attack in “The Birds.” He was also
Hitchcock’s production designer for “Marnie.”
“It was a meeting of equals: the director who knew exactly what he wanted, and
the art director who knew how to get it done,” Mr. Boyle told Film Comment in
His art direction earned him Academy Award nominations for “North by Northwest”
and “Fiddler on the Roof” as well as for “Gaily, Gaily,” a period comedy set in
early 20th-century Chicago, and “The Shootist,” John Wayne’s last film. He was
also the subject of an Oscar-nominated 2000 documentary by Daniel Raim, “The Man
on Lincoln’s Nose.”
“He was the last of the great art directors,” the director Norman Jewison said
in an interview for this obituary. He worked with Mr. Boyle on “The Russians Are
Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Gaily, Gaily” and
“Fiddler on the Roof.”
“His films have a look, an ambience, a setting that’s very real because of his
scrupulous attention to detail,” Mr. Jewison added. “Every nuance he could bring
to bear to make a film real, he’d do it. He was a real cinematic artist.”
Robert Francis Boyle was born on Oct. 10, 1909, in Los Angeles and grew up on a
ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. His degree in architecture, which he received
in 1933, was of little use during the Depression, so he began working as a bit
player for RKO Pictures. Fascinated by set design, he introduced himself to the
studio’s art director, who directed him to Paramount. There he was hired by the
great art director Hans Dreier, and wound up doing a bit of everything.
“We were illustrators, draftsmen, we would supervise the construction on the
sets,” he told an interviewer for the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1998. “We did almost anything that the art
director thought we ought to do.”
After doing second-unit work on “The Plainsman,” with Gary Cooper, and “Union
Pacific,” both directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” Mr.
Boyle left Paramount to paint in Mexico but soon returned to the United States
and began working for RKO and Universal. One of his first films for Universal
was “The Wolf Man” (1941), with Lon Chaney Jr.
Art directors enjoyed a varied diet in those days. “We might be doing the Bengal
Lancers one day and Ma and Pa Kettle the next and something else the next,” he
told the Merrick Library. “Saboteur” (1942) was his first collaboration with
Hitchcock and the beginning of a series of unforgettably suspenseful cinematic
sequences. For the climactic battle between Robert Cummings and Norman Lloyd,
Mr. Boyle and his team constructed a studio model of the hand and the torch of
the Statue of Liberty. To create the illusion that Mr. Lloyd, the villain, was
falling in an uncontrolled spin from a great height, Mr. Boyle twirled him on a
revolving chair as a crane mounted with a camera swooped upward at dizzying
Mr. Boyle worked with Hitchcock on one more film, “Shadow of a Doubt,” before
serving in the Army Signal Corps in France and Germany as a combat photographer
during World War II. After the war, they resumed their collaboration and he
married Bess Taffel, a contract writer at RKO who was blacklisted during the
McCarthy era. She died in 2000. He is survived by two daughters, Emily Boyle, of
Los Angeles, and Susan Licon, of Toledo, Ore., and three grandchildren.
Mr. Boyle’s touch is evident in the cleverly orchestrated Mount Rushmore
sequence in “North by Northwest,” in which large-format still photographs were
rear-projected using stereopticon slides. He also used studio mock-ups of
sections of the stone heads — “just enough to put the actors on so we could get
down shots, up shots, side shots, whatever we needed,” Mr. Boyle said. For the
famous scene in which a crop-duster strafes Cary Grant on a desolate road, Mr.
Boyle combined location footage with a toy airplane and toy truck on a miniature
field created in the studio.
Mr. Boyle said that the attack sequence in “The Birds” may have been his
trickiest bit of work. To simulate the point of view of the swooping birds
descending on Tippi Hedren in a phone booth, Mr. Boyle and his team climbed a
cliff overlooking an island off Santa Barbara, Calif., and photographed seagulls
as assistants threw fish into the water, encouraging the birds to dive. Only the
telephone booth was real. The town of Bodega Bay, actually a composite of
several towns, was reproduced on mattes.
For “Gaily, Gaily,” Mr. Boyle recreated turn-of-the-century Chicago on a backlot
at Universal, right down to the elevated tracks in the Loop. Notoriously finicky
about locations, he traveled the length and breadth of Eastern Europe for
“Fiddler on the Roof” before settling on a location in what was then Yugoslavia.
For “In Cold Blood,” Mr. Boyle took the opposite tack, using as a set the actual
Kansas farmhouse where the murders took place that provided the material for the
Truman Capote book on which the film was based.
Trickery for its own sake did not interest him. “If it doesn’t have any
meaningful application to the story, it’s never a great shot,” he said.
Mr. Boyle took on projects of every description. He worked on Ma and Pa Kettle
comedies and “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars.” He was the art director for Sam
Fuller on “The Crimson Kimono” and for J. Lee Thompson on “Cape Fear.” He was
the production designer for “The Shootist,” “Private Benjamin” and “Troop
A movie, he said, “starts with the locale, with the environment that people live
in, how they move within that environment.” Sometimes that environment has to be
“I’m all for construction, because we’re dealing with the magic of movies,” he
told Variety in 2008. “And I always feel that if you build it, you build it for
the dream rather than the actuality. We make up our own truth.”
LOS ANGELES — Sydney Pollack, a Hollywood mainstay as director, producer and
sometime actor whose star-laden movies like “The Way We Were,” “Tootsie” and
“Out of Africa” were among the most successful of the 1970s and ’80s, died
Monday at home here. He was 73.
The cause was cancer, said the publicist Leslee Dart, who spoke for his family.
Mr. Pollack’s career defined an era in which big stars (Robert Redford, Barbra
Streisand, Warren Beatty) and the filmmakers who knew how to wrangle them (Barry
Levinson, Mike Nichols) retooled the Hollywood system. Savvy operators, they
played studio against studio, staking their fortunes on pictures that served
commerce without wholly abandoning art.
Hollywood honored Mr. Pollack in return. His movies received multiple Academy
Award nominations, and as a director he won an Oscar for his work on the 1985
film “Out of Africa” as well as nominations for directing “They Shoot Horses,
Don’t They?” (1969) and “Tootsie” (1982).
“Michael Clayton,” of which Mr. Pollack was a producer and a member of the cast,
was nominated for a best picture Oscar earlier this year. He delivered a
trademark performance as an old-bull lawyer who demands dark deeds from a
subordinate, played by George Clooney. (“This is news? This case has reeked from
Day 1!” snaps Mr. Pollack’s Marty Bach.) Most recently, Mr. Pollack portrayed
the father of Patrick Dempsey’s character in “Made of Honor.”
Mr. Pollack became a prolific producer of independent films in the latter part
of his career. With a partner, the filmmaker Anthony Minghella, he ran Mirage
Enterprises, a production company whose films included Mr. Minghella’s “Cold
Mountain” and the documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” released in 2006, the
last film directed by Mr. Pollack.
Mr. Minghella died in March, at the age of 54, of complications from surgery for
Apart from the Gehry documentary, Mr. Pollack never directed a movie without
stars. His first feature, “The Slender Thread,” released by Paramount Pictures
in 1965, starred Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. In his next 19 films — every
one a romance or drama but for the single comedy, “Tootsie” — Mr. Pollack worked
with Burt Lancaster, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Al Pacino, Dustin
Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Nicole Kidman, Ms. Streisand
and others. A frequent collaborator was Robert Redford.
“Sydney’s and my relationship both professionally and personally covers 40
years,” Mr. Redford said in an e-mailed statement. “It’s too personal to express
in a sound bite.”
Sydney Irwin Pollack was born on July 1, 1934, in Lafayette, Ind., and reared in
South Bend. By Mr. Pollack’s own account, in the book “World Film Directors,”
his father, David, a pharmacist, and his mother, the former Rebecca Miller, were
first-generation Russian-Americans who had met at Purdue University.
Mr. Pollack developed a love of drama at South Bend Central High School and,
instead of going to college, went to New York and enrolled at the Neighborhood
Playhouse School of the Theater. He studied there for two years under Sanford
Meisner, who was in charge of its acting department, and remained for five more
as Mr. Meisner’s assistant, teaching acting but also appearing onstage and in
Curly-haired and almost 6 feet 2 inches tall, Mr. Pollack had a notable role in
a 1959 “Playhouse 90” telecast of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” an adaptation of
the Hemingway novel directed by John Frankenheimer. Earlier, Mr. Pollack had
appeared on Broadway with Zero Mostel in “A Stone for Danny Fisher” and with
Katharine Cornell in “The Dark Is Light Enough.” But he said later that he
probably could not have built a career as a leading man.
Instead, Mr. Pollack took the advice of Burt Lancaster, whom he had met while
working with Mr. Frankenheimer, and turned to directing. Mr. Lancaster steered
him to the entertainment mogul Lew Wasserman, and through him Mr. Pollack landed
a directing assignment on the television series “Shotgun Slade.”
After a faltering start, he hit his stride on episodes of “Ben Casey,” “Naked
City,” “The Fugitive” and other shows. In 1966 he won an Emmy for directing an
episode of “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater.”
From the time he made his first full-length feature, “The Slender Thread,” about
a social work student coaxing a woman out of suicide on a help line, Mr. Pollack
had a hit-and-miss relationship with the critics. Writing in The New York Times,
A. H. Weiler deplored that film’s “sudsy waves of bathos.” Mr. Pollack himself
later pronounced it “dreadful.”
But from the beginning of his movie career, he was also perceived as belonging
to a generation whose work broke with the immediate past. In 1965, Charles
Champlin, writing in The Los Angeles Times, compared Mr. Pollack to the director
Elliot Silverstein, whose western spoof, “Cat Ballou,” had been released earlier
that year, and Stuart Rosenberg, soon to be famous for “Cool Hand Luke” (1967).
Mr. Champlin cited all three as artists who had used television rather than B
movies to learn their craft.
Self-critical and never quite at ease with Hollywood, Mr. Pollack voiced a
constant yearning for creative prerogatives more common on the stage. Yet he
dived into the fray. In 1970, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” his bleak fable
of love and death among marathon dancers in the Great Depression, based on a
Horace McCoy novel, received nine Oscar nominations, including the one for
directing. (Gig Young won the best supporting actor award for his performance.)
Two years later, Mr. Pollack made the mountain-man saga “Jeremiah Johnson,” one
of three closely spaced pictures in which he directed Mr. Redford.
The second of those, “The Way We Were,” about ill-fated lovers who meet up later
in life, also starred Ms. Streisand and was a huge hit despite critical
The next, “Three Days of the Condor,” another hit, about a bookish C.I.A. worker
thrust into a mystery, did somewhat better with the critics. “Tense and
involving,” said Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times.
With “Absence of Malice” in 1981, Mr. Pollack entered the realm of public
debate. The film’s story of a newspaper reporter (Sally Field) who is fed a
false story by federal officials trying to squeeze information from a
businessman (Paul Newman) was widely viewed as a corrective to the adulation of
investigative reporters that followed Alan J. Pakula’s hit movie “All the
President’s Men,” with its portrayal of the Watergate scandal.
But only with “Tootsie,” in 1982, did Mr. Pollack become a fully realized
Hollywood player. By then he was represented by Michael S. Ovitz and the rapidly
expanding Creative Artists Agency. So was his leading man, Dustin Hoffman.
As the film — a comedy about a struggling actor who disguises himself as a woman
to get a coveted television part — was being shot for Columbia Pictures, Mr.
Pollack and Mr. Hoffman became embroiled in a semi-public feud, with Mr. Ovitz
running shuttle diplomacy between them.
Mr. Hoffman, who had initiated the project, argued for a more broadly comic
approach. But Mr. Pollack — who played Mr. Hoffman’s agent in the film — was
drawn to the seemingly doomed romance between the cross-dressing Hoffman
character and the actress played by Jessica Lange.
If Mr. Pollack did not prevail on all points, he tipped the film in his own
direction. Meanwhile, the movie came in behind schedule, over budget and
surrounded by bad buzz.
Yet “Tootsie” was also a winner. It took in more than $177 million domestically
and received 10 Oscar nominations, including for best picture. (Ms. Lange took
home the film’s only Oscar, for best supporting actress.)
Backed by Mr. Ovitz, Mr. Pollack expanded his reach in the wake of success. Over
the next several years, he worked closely with both TriStar Pictures, where he
was creative consultant, and Universal, where Mirage, his production company,
set up shop in 1986.
Mr. Pollack reached perhaps his pinnacle with “Out of Africa.” The film, based
on the memoirs of Isak Dinesen, paired Ms. Streep and Mr. Redford in a drama
that reworked one of the director’s favorite themes, that of star-crossed
lovers. It captured Oscars for best picture and best director.
Still, Mr. Pollack remained uneasy about his cinematic skills. “I was never what
I would call a great shooter or visual stylist,” he told an interviewer for
American Cinematographer last year. And he developed a reputation for caution
when it came to directing assignments. Time after time, he expressed interest in
directing projects, only to back away. At one point he was to make “Rain Man,” a
Dustin Hoffman picture ultimately directed by Mr. Levinson; at another, an
adaptation of “The Night Manager” by John le Carré.
That wariness was undoubtedly fed by his experience with “Havana,” a 1990 film
that was to be his last with Mr. Redford. It seemed to please no one, though Mr.
Pollack defended it. “To tell you the truth, if I knew what was wrong, I’d have
fixed it,” Mr. Pollack told The Los Angeles Times in 1993.
“The Firm,” with Tom Cruise, was a hit that year. But “Sabrina” (1995) and
“Random Hearts” (1999), both with Harrison Ford, and “The Interpreter” (2005),
with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, fell short, as Hollywood and its primary
audience increasingly eschewed stars for fantasy and special effects.
Mr. Pollack never stopped acting; in a recent episode of “Entourage,” the HBO
series about Hollywood, he played himself.
Among Mr. Pollack’s survivors are two daughters, Rebecca Pollack and Rachel
Pollack, and his wife, Claire Griswold. The couple married in 1958, while Mr.
Pollack was serving a two-year hitch in the Army. Their only son, Steven, died
at age 34 in a 1993 plane crash in Santa Monica, Calif.
In his later years, Mr. Pollack appeared to relish his role as elder statesman.
At various times he was executive director of the Actors Studio West, chairman
of American Cinematheque and an advocate for artists’ rights.
He increasingly sounded wistful notes about the disappearance of the Hollywood
he knew in his prime. “The middle ground is now gone,” Mr. Pollack said in the
fall 1998 issue of New Perspectives Quarterly. He added, with a nod to a fellow
filmmaker: “It is not impossible to make mainstream films which are really good.
Costa-Gavras once said that accidents can happen.”
By Sydney Pollack
A selected filmography: “The Slender Thread” (1965)
“This Property Is Condemned” (1966)
“The Scalphunters” (1968)
“The Swimmer” (1968) (uncredited)
“Castle Keep” (1969)
“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969)
“Jeremiah Johnson” (1972)
“The Way We Were” (1973)
“The Yakuza” (1974)
“Three Days of the Condor” (1975)
“Bobby Deerfield” (1977)
“The Electric Horseman” (1979)
“Absence of Malice” (1981)
“Out of Africa” (1985)
“The Firm” (1993)
“Random Hearts” (1999)
“The Interpreter” (2005)
“Sketches of Frank Gehry” (2005)
Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director whose chilly canticles of
alienation were cornerstones of international filmmaking in the 1960s, inspiring
intense measures of admiration, denunciation and confusion, died on Monday at
his home in Rome, Italian news media reported today. He was 94. He died on the
same day as Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who died at his home in Sweden
“With Antonioni, not only has one of the greatest living directors been lost,
but also a master of the modern screen,” said the mayor of Rome, Walter
Veltroni. His office said it was making plans for Mr. Antonioni’s body to lie in
state on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Tall, cerebral and resolutely serious, Mr. Antonioni harkens back to a time in
the middle of the last century when cinema-going was an intellectual pursuit,
when purposely opaque passages in famously difficult films spurred long nights
of smoky argument at sidewalk cafes, and when fashionable directors like Mr.
Antonioni, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard were chased down the Cannes
waterfront by camera-wielding cineastes demanding to know what on earth they
meant by their latest outrage.
Mr. Antonioni is probably best known for “Blow-Up,” a 1966 drama set in Swinging
London about a fashion photographer who comes to believe that a photograph he
took of two lovers in a public park also shows, hidden in the background,
evidence of a murder. But his true, lasting contribution to cinema resides in an
earlier trilogy — “L’Avventura” in 1959, “La Notte” in 1960 and “L’Eclisse” in
1962 — which explores the filmmaker’s tormented central vision that people had
become emotionally unglued from one another.
This vision of the apartness of people was expressed near the end of “La Notte,”
when his star Monica Vitti observes, “Each time I have tried to communicate with
someone, love has disappeared.”
In a generation of rule-breakers, Mr. Antonioni was one of the most subversive
and venerated. He challenged moviegoers with an intense focus on intentionally
vague characters and a disdain for such mainstream conventions as plot, pacing
and clarity. He would raise questions and never answer them, have his characters
act in self-destructive ways and fail to explain why, and hold his shots so long
that the actors sometimes slipped out of character.
It was all part of the director’s design. As Mr. Antonioni explained, “The
after-effects of an emotion scene, it had occurred to me, might have meaning,
too, both on the actor and on the psychological advancement of the character.”
Mr. Antonioni broke other conventions, too. Many of his editing cuts, angles and
camera movements were intentionally odd, and he frequently posed his characters
in a highly formalized way. He employed point-of-view shots only rarely, a
practice that helped erect an emotional shield between the audience and his
“What is impressive about Antonioni’s films is not that they are good,” the film
scholar Seymour Chatman wrote. “But that they have been made at all.”
Perhaps the defining moment in Mr. Antonioni’s career came on the night
“LAvventura” was screened at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. Many in the audience
walked out and there were numerous boos, catcalls and whistles. The director and
Monica Vitti thought their careers were over.
But later that night, Roberto Rossellini and a group of other influential
filmmakers and critics drafted a statement which they released the following
morning. “Aware of the exceptional importance of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film,
‘L’Avventura,’ and appalled by the displays of hostility it has aroused, the
undersigned critics and members of the profession are anxious to express their
admiration for the maker of this film,” they wrote.
One of the great legends of iconoclastic filmmaking — how being booed at Cannes
could become a badge of honor — was born.
“L’Avventura” went on to win the festival’s Special Jury Prize and become an
international box-office hit, spurring furious debate. Some found the film
pointless; others read reams of meaning into its languid predicaments. Mr.
Antonioni’s international reputation was made.
The next year, Sight and Sound, the influential British film magazine, polled 70
leading critics from around the world and they not only endorsed “L’Avventura,”
but they also chose it as the second-greatest film ever made, just behind
After burnishing his reputation in the early 1960s, Mr. Antonioni surprised many
by trying to make movies with Hollywood’s backing. He fumbled, saw his audience
and his celebrity dissipate, and came to make fewer and fewer films.
“My subjects are, in a very general sense, autobiographical,” he once wrote.
“The story is first built through discussions with a collaborator. In the case
of “L’Eclisse,” the discussions went on for four months. The writing was then
done, by myself, taking perhaps fifteen days. My scripts are not formal
screenplays, but rather dialogue for the actors and a series of notes to the
director. When shooting begins, there is invariably a great amount of changing.
When I go on the set of a scene, I insist on remaining alone for at least twenty
minutes. I have no preconceived ideas of how the scene should be done, but wait
instead for the ideas to come that will tell me how to begin.”
The world of an Antonioni film “is a world of people alienated from one
another,” wrote Andrew Turner in his book “World Film Directors” (1968). “Their
actions have no meaning or coherence, and even the most fundamental of emotions,
love, seems unsustainable.’
Interviewers also found Mr. Antonioni to be a cool, combative subject. “Even
when he is telling stories about himself, Antonioni’s face remains set in its
habitually serious expression,” Melton S. Davis wrote in a 1964 profile for The
New York Times Magazine. “Precise in manner, conservative in dress and quiet in
speech, he could be taken for a banker or art dealer recounting an unfortunate
But Mr. Antonioni could also be graciously charming. Sometimes, interviewers
said, the director’s shrewd green eyes would soften and his lips would curl into
a smile that some described as ironic, others as chilly.
Michaelangelo Antonioni was born on September 29,1912 into a well-to-do family
of landowners in Ferrara, in northern Italy, a town that he described as a
“marvelous little city on the Paduan plain, antique and silent.” Around the age
of ten, his family remembered, Michelangelo began to design puppets and to build
model sets for them. Later, as a teenager, he became interested in oil painting,
favoring portraits to landscapes.
He attended the University of Bologna and earned a degree in economics and
commerce in 1935. But it was at the university that he also began to write
stories and plays and to direct some of them. He was a founder of the
university’s theatrical troupe and one of the its leading tennis champions. He
also wrote scathing reviews of both American and Italian genre films for the
local paper, and decided to try his own hand at filmmaking.
Mr. Antonioni wanted to make a realistic documentary about the local insane
asylum. The patients helped him set up the equipment. Then, he turned on the
The patients went berserk, he later wrote, “and their faces — which before had
been calm — became convulsed and devastated. And then it was our turn to be
petrified. The cameraman did not even have the strength to stop his machine, nor
was I capable of giving any orders whatever. It was the director of the asylum
who finally cried, “Stop! Lights out!” And in the half-darkened room we could
see a swarm of bodies twisting as if in the last throes of a death agony.”
Mr. Antonioni decided to give up filmmaking.
In 1940, at the age of 27, he moved to Rome to work as a secretary to Count
Vittori Cini. The job didn’t last long. He worked as a bank teller and joined
the staff of Cinema magazine, edited by Benito Mussolini’s son, Vittorio. During
this period, Mr. Antonioni dropped his aversion to filmmaking and took classes
at the Institute of Experimental Filmmaking. His wrote some screenplays,
including “Un Pilota Ritorna” (The Return of the Pilot) in 1942 in collaboration
with another budding director, Roberto Rossellini.
In 1943, Mr. Antonioni returned to Ferrara and found a local merchant willing to
bankroll his first film, a documentary called “Gente del Po” (People of the Po
Valley), about the wretched lives of local fishermen. The German occupying
forces destroyed much of the footage, though a few scraps survived and became a
nine-minute curtain-raiser at the 1947 Venice Film Festival for Alfred
After the war, Mr. Antonioni wrote more film criticism and continued making
short documentaries. All the while he became increasingly skeptical about the
neo-realist movement, which dominated Italian filmmaking, and its relentless
focus on substandard social conditions. He yearned to look beyond such things
and into the hearts of individuals. “His films were about street sweepers, not
street sweeping,” is the way the film critic Robert Haller put it. But no one
would let him make the kind of films he wanted to make.
“For ten years, the movies forced me not to use ideas but empty words,
cleverness, business sense, patience, stratagems,” Mr. Antonioni wrote in an
introduction to a 1963 collection of his screenplays. “I am so scantily blessed
with such gifts that I recall that period as being the most painful one in my
At age 38, Mr. Antonioni found backing for his most ambitious, non-documentary
project, “Cronaca di un Amore” (Story of a Love). Ostensibly about a man and
woman plotting to kill her husband, it turned out to be the earliest example of
Mr. Antonioni’s approach. In the film, the husband dies, but it is unclear
whether he was murdered, committed suicide or died by accident. This whole plot
line vanishes and the film, instead, focuses on the lover’s emotions.
As with later Antonioni films, the settings were stark, the scenes fussily
composed, the shots held a few beats longer than necessary. The film won the
Grand Prix International at the Festival of Punta del Este in 1951.
In 1954, his 12-year marriage to the former Letizia Balboni fell apart. She
later told interviewers that the director had become increasingly remote. “We
lived in silence,” she said. “We reached the point where we communicated with
each other only through the characters he created and about whom he wanted my
advice. He has only one way of expressing himself: His work. What he does is
have his actors live out emotional crises in his films, by proxy living out the
crises in his own life.’
Mr. Antonioni sank into a deep depression. His insomnia worsened. Often he spent
the early morning hours writing screenplays.
In 1955, at the height of this crisis, Mr. Antonioni had his first important
artistic triumph. “Le Amiche” (The Girlfriends)” was about the mundane, loveless
lives of a group of middle-class women in Turin. It won a Silver Lion at the
Venice Film Festival.
Mr. Antonioni began experimenting more with improvisation on the set. “It’s only
when I press my eye against the camera and begin to move the actors that I get
an exact idea of the scene,” he wrote. He used this technique extensively in “Il
Grido (The Outcry)” in 1957, probably the grimmest of his films.
It was while shooting “Il Grido” that Mr. Antonioni met a young stage actress
named Monica Vitti, who would become his greatest and most enduring star, and
his almost constant companion during much of the “60s.
For two years, Mr. Antonioni could not find a producer to back him. Finally, in
1959, he found someone and finished a screenplay that had been burning in the
back of his mind for a long time. But “L’Avventura” almost died before it was
born. Chronically short of money, his producer eventually pulled out of the
project just as Mr. Antonioni and the actors were working on a craggy island
“It had gotten to the point where there was no food,” Mr. Antonioni remembered.
“One crew deserted us. We got hold of another crew and they, too, left. I had
20,000 meters of film and the actors stayed, so I carried the camera on my back
and continued shooting.” Eventually, a new producer appeared.
“L’Avventura” proved to be the turning point in his career and is widely
regarded as Mr. Antonioni’s masterpiece.
As with most of Mr. Antonioni’s films, it focuses on the comfortable, ennervated
lives of well-to-do Italians, in this case a group of friends on a yachting
trip. Without warning, during a visit to a wave-thrashed atoll, one of them, an
emotionally distraught woman named Anna, simply vanishes. Had she drowned
herself because her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), seemed in no hurry to
marry her? Had she hurled herself off a cliff in a fit of ennui? Had she been
swallowed by the shark she claimed to have seen? Or had she fled on another
The small island is searched. It rains. Police arrive. Then, gradually, Sandro
develops an attraction to Anna’s best friend, Claudia (Ms. Vitti). She resists,
then warms to him. Eventually, they stop mentioning Anna at all. The search is
forgotten. Sandro betrays Claudia, for no apparent reason. We never discover
what happened to Anna.
In “L’Avventura,” Mr. Antonioni’s singular technique can be seen in full flower.
“The overwhelming sense of estrangement conveyed by “L’Avventura” is as much a
product of the style of the movie as of its events or dialogue,” Mr. Turner
The director rapidly found backing for his next two films, which further
explored the themes of alienation he introduced in “L’Avventura” and which he
later said were meant to be seen as a trilogy.
In “La Notte” (The Night),” Marcello Mastroianni plays an author with writer’s
block suffering through his loveless marriage to Jeanne Moreau . He meets a
young woman at a party, played by Ms. Vitti, who he believes personifies the
creativity that has abandoned him. The film won the Golden Bear at the 1961
Berlin Film Festival.
“L’Eclisse” (The Eclipse)” most directly addressed the alienating effects of
material wealth, following the love affair of a young woman of simple tastes,
Ms. Vitti again, and a money-hungry stockbroker (Alain Delon).
The film’s ending is much discussed. Abandoning the principal characters, the
film closes with a montage several minutes long composed of 58 shots, most of
them on or near a street corner where the lovers used to meet. Water seeps from
a barrel. The brakes on a bus screech. A fountain is turned off. An airplane
zooms overhead. Finally, with the street corner dark and empty, the camera zooms
in on the white, annihilating glare of a streetlight. The end.
Mr. Antonioni said he intended the ending to show “the eclipse of all feelings,”
and saw it as a coda both to the film and to the entire trilogy. But he also
wanted different people to read different meanings into his work. “There may be
meanings, but they are different for all of us,” he told an interviewer.
In 1964, Mr. Antonioni made his first color film, “Il Deserto Rosso (Red
Desert)” with Richard Harris. It, too, starred Ms. Vitti, as a woman coming
gradually unhinged. To mirror her mental state, the director used color in very
unusual ways, having houses and even trees painted bright colors and then
changing those colors from scene to scene.
By the mid-’60s, Mr. Antonioni was one of the most famous and controversial film
directors in the world; his movies were screened regularly on the global
festival circuit and the auteur was the subject of countless essays and magazine
articles. Inevitably, a Hollywood studio, in this case MGM, came calling. Not so
inevitably, Mr. Antonioni welcomed them, signing a three-picture deal.
“Blow-Up” was his first effort for the studio. Filmed in English, with the
British stars David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in the hip milieu of the
swinging London fashion scene, “Blow-Up” became the director’s biggest hit. It
was also, stylistically, different from his previous films, more conventionally
plotted and faster-paced, though still fundamentally ambiguous.
Following its commercial and critical success, Mr. Antonioni came to America to
make his first big-budget film, and chose the student protest movement as his
subject. “Zabriskie Point” (1970) was the result and it was a disaster.
Though some foreign critics praised the film, it was almost universally panned
in the United States. “To many critics, it seemed as if the director, who had
begun the decade in absolute control of his medium, was ending it in something
approaching total confusion,” Mr. Turner wrote.
“Zabriskie Point” was a box-office flop for MGM, one of the biggest financial
failures of its day. Mr. Antonioni was devastated and, in many ways, his career
never recovered. Certainly, his most fertile creative period was over. He had
made six films in the 1960s, many of them regarded as masterpieces, but would
make only three more films in the ensuing quarter-century.
But Mr. Antonioni recaptured some of his previous critical respect with 1975’s
“The Passenger,” starring Jack Nicholson as a reporter in North Africa who
assumes the identity of a gun-runner. The film closes with a famous, 10-minute
continuous tracking shot in which Mr. Nicholson is seen in his hotel room,
waiting to be killed. The camera pulls out of the room and meanders through the
courtyard. People and objects move in and out of the seamless shot before the
camera comes full circle and re-enters the hotel room to find Mr. Nicholson
dead. “ ‘The Passenger’ leaves no doubt about Antonioni’s mastery,” wrote the
film critic David Thomson, who called it “one of the great films of the ’70s.”
Following “The Passenger,” Mr. Antonioni announced he wanted to take some time
to study new technologies and spent five years doing so, before Ms. Vitti asked
him to return to directing with a 1980 Italian television film called “Il
Mistery di Oberwald” (The Mystery of Oberwald).” Shot on videotape and
transferred to film, it was substantially lighter than his previous works. This,
he said, allowed him to “escape from the difficulty of moral and esthetic
commitment, from the obsessive desire to express oneself.” It was awarded a
silver ribbon for visual effects at the 1980 Venice Film Festival, but made
little international impact.
Mr. Antonioni made his final commercial film, “Identificazione di una donna”
(Identification of a Woman) in 1982, about a man who has affairs with two women
following the death of his wife. It won a Grand Prix at the Cannes festival that
In 1985, while working on a film adaptation of a short story he had written in
1976, Mr. Antonioni suffered a stroke and the project was put aside. He married
the next year for the second time, to the former Enrica Fico, and they lived
quietly in an apartment in Rome. She was at his side when he died, the Italian
news agency ANSA reported. He had no children, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Antonioni worked on an Italian television documentary built around the 1990
World Cup soccer championship, but did not direct again until 1995 when Italian
producers lured him out of retirement to make a film, “Beyond the Clouds,” based
on a book of stories Mr. Antonioni had written. Since his stroke, Mr. Antonioni
had difficulty speaking more than a few words at a time, so much of the work was
done by his wife, Enrica, who energetically interpreted the director’s demands.
The film starred Jeanne Moreau and Jeremy Irons. The reemergence of Mr.
Antonioni spurred the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to present
him with a Lifetime Achievment Award in 1995.
Mr. Antonioni began directing again in his 90s. He collaborated with Steven
Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai, the Hong Kong director, on a trilogy about love and
sexuality called Eros, which was released in 2004. He also made a short film
called Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo.To his champions, like David Thomson, “the
predicament of the world’s greatest living filmmaker unable to work is a fit
subject for one of his mediations.”
For Mr. Thomson, “The enigmas in Antonioni’s work are as subject to time as
monuments are to erosion, and the achievements of some films can offset or
explain the apparent,or early, limits of others. For example, ‘The Passenger’
helped us to see the longing for escape and space in ‘L’Avventura’ and
illuminated the persistence of life at the end of ‘L’EcLisse.I suspect that
Antonioni’s best films will continue to grow and shift, like dunes in the
centuries of desert. In that process, if there are eyes left to look, he will
become a standard for beauty.”
But for others Mr. Antonioni remained not only enigmatic, but also unreachable
to the end.
One interviewer asked him to look back over his life. “In a world without film,
what would you have made?” he was asked.
Mr. Antonioni replied: “Film.”
Christine Hauser and Graham Bowley contributed reporting for this article.
Published: 31 July 2007
By Paul Schrader,
film director and screenwriter of 'Taxi Driver'
I would not have made any of my films or written scripts such as Taxi Driver had
it not been for Ingmar Bergman.
His death, at the age of 89, may not have been a surprise. He was an old man.
But what he has left is a legacy greater than any other director. He made
film-making a serious and introspective enterprise. No one had been able to pull
that off until he showed up. I really wasn't that interested in being a
film-maker, except in the way that Bergman redefined what you could be as a
I think the extraordinary thing that Bergman will be remembered for, other than
his body of work, was that
he probably did more than anyone to make cinema a medium of personal and
introspective value. Movies by nature are, of course, very commercially driven
and very accessible. No one really used cinema as private personal expression in
that way. Bergman showed that you could actually do movies that were personal
introspections and have them seen by general audiences.
For an entire generation, starting in the 1960s, it was a whole new way to see
the very nature of cinema. It is impossible for anyone of my generation not to
have been influenced by Bergman. That is just a matter of fact. He cut too wide
a path down the history of cinema not to influence everybody. I can remember
vividly my first taste of a Bergman film. Through a Glass Darkly, the first of
Bergman's trilogy of films with Winter Light and The Silence, when I was about
17, at our local little cinema in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while I was at
college. It was probably the fourth or fifth serious film I had ever seen and it
just took me unawares. I had no idea that movies could be a serious enterprise.
He has a handful of masterpieces, but the film that stands above all the others
is Persona. He has done a lot of visceral, painful work - even his last film,
Saraband, is extraordinary - but Persona really brings together all his personal
demons, as well as his relationships with women.
It's not like we have lost an ongoing voice. His body of work was completed. So
we are losing one of the saints in the pantheon, which is sad to note, but it is
actually an occasion to appreciate what has been left behind.
Not all his films were great. I'm not a big fan of the family reminiscence stuff
which is Fanny and Alexander. I wasn't knocked out by the early domestic
comedies such as Smiles of a Summer Night. After The Virgin Spring in 1959 and
Through a Glass Darkly in 1961, then it really starts getting interesting.
Persona was the pinnacle of that. Coming as it did in 1966, it was the great
seminal film during the great seminal years of the acme of cinema. Once you got
into that trilogy of Persona, The Hour of the Wolf and The Shame, it's just
incredible. He reinvented himself in 1973 with Scenes from a Marriage, then he
went back to the theme for Saraband, another major piece of work, in 2003.
Time magazine had a wonderful opening line in its review of Saraband. "He's old.
He's old fashioned. He's out of date. How dare Ingmar Bergman make a great
There are a lot of directors who are poets behind a camera. Bergman is more of
the metaphysician behind the camera. Persona was his boldest film - and the
Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who was shooting the films, did a lot of
very interesting work in that film such as over exposures, letting stuff burn
out, the way that light and dark contrasted in ways that were previously
considered unacceptable and breaking some of those rules.
I was a big Bergman fan so I would tend to see each of his films the first day
they were released if I was in a city where they were being shown. I do remember
the anticipation of going to that first show the first day. He obviously played
a role in my choice to be a critic and then to be a film-maker, and in my
decision to take film seriously.
Last of the greats
* Woody Allen: "He was a friend and certainly the finest film director of my
* Richard Attenborough: "The world has lost one of its very greatest
film-makers. He taught us all so much throughout his life."
* Lars von Trier" "I am proud to say he treated me exactly like his other
children - with no interest whatsoever."
* Bille August, Danish director: "He was the last big director left. The three
big ones for me were Kurosawa, Fellini and Bergman. The two others had already
passed and now Ingmar has also left us. He leaves a big vacuum behind. He was
such an incredible, unusually bright person."
Robert Altman, one of the most adventurous and influential American directors of
the late 20th century, a filmmaker whose iconoclastic career spanned more than
five decades but whose stamp was felt most forcefully in one, the 1970s, died
Monday in Los Angeles. He was 81.
His death, at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, was caused by complications of
cancer, his company in New York, Sandcastle 5 Productions, announced. A
spokesman said Mr. Altman had learned that he had cancer 18 months ago but
continued to work, shooting his final film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” which
was released in June, and most recently completing pre-production on a new film
that he intended to begin shooting in February.
Mr. Altman had a heart transplant in the mid-1990s, a fact he publicly revealed
for the first time last March while accepting an honorary Oscar at the Academy
A risk taker with a tendency toward mischief, Mr. Altman put together something
of a late-career comeback capped in 2001 by “Gosford Park,” a multiple Oscar
nominee. But he may be best remembered for a run of masterly films — six in five
years — that propelled him to the forefront of American directors and culminated
in 1975 with what many regard as his greatest film, “Nashville,” a complex,
character-filled drama told against the backdrop of a presidential primary.
They were free-wheeling, genre-bending films that captured the jaded
disillusionment of the ’70s. The best known was “MASH,” the 1970 comedy that was
set in a field hospital during the Korean war but that was clearly aimed at
antiwar sentiments engendered by Vietnam. Its success, both critically and at
the box office, opened the way for Mr. Altman to pursue his ambitions.
In 1971 he took on the western, making “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” with Warren Beatty
and Julie Christie. In 1972, he dramatized a woman’s psychological
disintegration in “Images,” starring Susannah York. In 1973, he tackled the
private-eye genre with a somewhat loopy adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The
Long Goodbye,” with the laid-back Elliott Gould playing Philip Marlowe as a ’70s
retro-hipster. And in 1974 he released two films, exploring gambling addiction
in “California Split” and riffing on the Dust Bowl gangster saga with “Thieves
Unlike most directors whose flames burned brightest in the early 1970s — and
frequently flickered out — Mr. Altman did not come to Hollywood from critical
journals and newfangled film schools. He had had a long career in industrial
films and television. In an era that celebrated fresh voices steeped in film
history — young directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and
Martin Scorsese — Mr. Altman was like their bohemian uncle, matching the young
rebels in their skeptical disdain for the staid conventions of mainstream
filmmaking and the establishment that supported it.
Most of his actors adored him and praised his improvisational style. In his
prime, he was celebrated for his ground-breaking use of multilayer soundtracks.
An Altman film might offer a babble of voices competing for attention in
crowded, smoky scenes. It was a kind of improvisation that offered a fresh
verisimilitude to tired, stagey Hollywood genres.
But Mr. Altman was also famous in Hollywood for his battles with everyone from
studio executives to his collaborators, leaving more burned bridges than the
Luftwaffe. He also suffered through periods of bad reviews and empty seats but
always seemed to regain his stride, as he did in the early ’90s, when he made
“The Player” and “Short Cuts.” Even when he fell out of popular favor, however,
many younger filmmakers continued to admire him as an uncompromising artist who
held to his vision in the face of business pressures and who was unjustly
overlooked by a film establishment grown fat on special effects and feel-good
He was often referred to as a cult director, and it rankled him. “What is a
cult?” Mr. Altman said. “It just means not enough people to make a minority.”
The storyline had to do with a group of boozy, oversexed Army doctors in a
front-line hospital, specifically a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Fifteen
directors had already turned the job down. But at 45, Mr. Altman signed on, and
the movie, “MASH,” became his breakthrough.
Audiences particularly connected with the authority-bashing attitude of the
film’s irreverent doctors, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Mr.
“The heroes are always on the side of decency and sanity; that’s why they’re
contemptuous of the bureaucracy,” the critic Pauline Kael wrote in The New
Yorker. “They are heroes because they are competent and sane and gallant, and in
this insane situation their gallantry takes the form of scabrous comedy.”
The villains are not the Communist enemy but marble-hearted military bureaucrats
personified by the pious Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and the hypocritical Hot
Lips Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for best picture
and one for Mr. Altman’s direction. It also won the Golden Palm, the top award
at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, and the best picture of the year award of the
National Society of Film Critics.
But “MASH” was denied the best-picture Oscar; that award went to “Patton.” In
later years Mr. Altman received four more Academy Award nominations for best
director and two for producing best-picture nominees, “Nashville” and “Gosford
Park.” The only Oscar he received, however, was the honorary one in March.
Mr. Altman was angry that the lone Oscar given to “MASH” went to Ring Lardner
Jr., who got sole screen credit for the script. Mr. Altman openly disparaged Mr.
Lardner’s work, touching off one of his many feuds. Later, when Mr. Altman
seemed unable to duplicate the mix of critical and box-office success that
“MASH” had achieved, he grew almost disdainful of the film.
“ ‘MASH’ was a pretty good movie,” Mr. Altman said in an interview. “It wasn’t
what 20th Century- Fox thought it was going to be. They almost, when they saw
it, cut all the blood out. I fought with my life for that. The picture speaks
for itself. It became popular because of the timing. Consequently, it’s
considered important, but it’s no better or more important than any of the other
films I’ve made.”
Mr. Altman’s interest in film genres was candidly subversive. He wanted to
explode them to expose what he saw as their phoniness. He decided to make
“McCabe & Mr. Miller” for just that reason. “I got interested in the project
because I don’t like westerns,” Mr. Altman said. “So I pictured a story with
every western cliché in it.”
His intention, he said, was to drain the glamour from the West and show it as it
really was — filthy, vermin-infested, whisky-soaked and ruled by thugs with
guns. His hero, McCabe (Mr. Beatty), was a dimwitted dreamer who let his
cockiness and his love for a drug-addicted prostitute (Ms. Christie) undo him.
“These events took place,” Mr. Altman said, of westerns in general, “but not in
the way you’ve been told. I wanted to look at it through a different window, you
might say, but I still wanted to keep the poetry in the ballad.” “Nashville”
interweaved the stories of 24 characters — country-western stars, housewives,
boozers, political operators, oddball drifters — who move in and out of one
another’s lives in the closing days of a fictional presidential primary. Mr.
Altman returned to this multi-character approach several times (in “A Wedding,”
“Health,” “Short Cuts,” “Prêt-à-Porter” and “Kansas City”), but never again to
such devastating effect.
“Nashville is a radical, evolutionary leap,” Ms. Kael wrote in The New Yorker.
“Altman has already accustomed us to actors who don’t look as if they’re acting;
he’s attuned us to the comic subtleties of a multiple-track sound system that
makes the sound more live than it ever was before; and he’s evolved an organic
style of moviemaking that tells a story without the clanking of plot. Now he
dissolves the frame, so that we feel the continuity between what’s on the screen
and life off-camera.”
Mr. Altman’s career stalled after “Nashville,” although he continued to attract
top actors. Paul Newman starred in “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” in 1976, Sissy
Spacek in “3 Women” in 1977 and Mr. Newman again in “Quintet” in 1979. But
critical opinion turned against Mr. Altman in the late ’70s, and his films fared
worse and worse at the box office.
The crushing blow came in 1980, when Mr. Altman directed Robin Williams in a
lavish musical based on the “Popeye” cartoon. Though it eventually achieved
modest commercial success, the movie was considered a dud because it made less
money than had been expected and drew almost universal scorn from the critics.
Mr. Altman retained his critical champions, including Ms. Kael and Vincent Canby
of The New York Times, who in 1982 called Mr. Altman one of “our greatest living
directors.” But the tide had turned against him.
In “Fore My Eyes,” a 1980 collection of film essays, Stanley Kauffmann spoke for
other critics when he derided what he saw as the director’s middle-brow
pretensions. “He’s the film equivalent of the advertising-agency art director
who haunts the galleries to keep his eye fresh,” he wrote.
If Mr. Altman never fully regained his critical pre-eminence, he came close,
recapturing much of his luster in the final years of his life. And he always
kept in the game.
He remade his career in the early ’80s with a string of films based on stage
dramas: Ed Graczyk’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” in
1982, David Rabe’s “Streamers” in 1983 and Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in
1985. He also did some fresh work for television, a medium he had reviled when
he left it two decades earlier.
In 1988, he directed a strong television adaptation of “The Caine Mutiny
Court-Martial,” a stage play by Herman Wouk based on his novel “The Caine
Mutiny.” The Altman version restored the class conflict and anti-Semitism that
had been excised from the 1954 Hollywood treatment starring Humphrey Bogart.
The ’90s brought an even more satisfying resurgence for Mr. Altman. It began
with a pair of critical film successes: “The Player,” an acerbic satire based on
the Michael Tolkin novel about a ruthless Hollywood executive, and “Short Cuts,”
an episodic, character-filled drama based on the short stories of Raymond
Carver. The films earned him his third and fourth Oscar nominations for best
Then, in 2001, came “Gosford Park,” an elaborate murder mystery with an ensemble
cast that capped his comeback.
Mr. Altman’s last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” based on Garrison Keillor’s
long-running radio show, was released in June and starred Meryl Streep and Kevin
Kline in another ensemble cast. Writing in The Times, A.O. Scott called the film
a minor Altman work “but a treasure all the same.” “I seem to have become like
one of those old standards, in musical terms,” Mr. Altman said in a 1993
interview. “Always around. Lauren Bacall said to me, ‘You just don’t quit, do
you?’ Guess not.”
Son of a Salesman
Robert Bernard Altman was born on Feb. 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Mo., to Helen
and B.C. Altman, a prosperous insurance salesman for the Kansas City Life
Insurance Company. Mr. Altman’s grandfather, the developer Frank G. Altman, had
built the Altman Building, a five-story retail mecca in downtown Kansas City.
(It was razed in 1974.)
Young Robert attended Catholic schools and the Wentworth Military Academy in
Lexington, Mo., before enlisting in the Air Force in 1945. He eventually became
a co-pilot on a B-24. It was during this period that he invented what he called
“Identi-code,” a method for tattooing numbers on household pets to help identify
them if they were lost or stolen; he even talked President Harry S. Truman into
having one of his dogs tattooed.
After the Air Force, Mr. Altman went to work with the Calvin Company, a film
company in Kansas City, making training films, advertisements and documentaries
for industrial clients. In 1947 he married LaVonne Elmer, but they divorced two
years later after they had a daughter, Christine. He married Lotus Corelli in
1950, and they divorced in 1955; they had two sons, Michael (who wrote lyrics to
“Suicide Is Painless,” the “MASH” theme song, when he was just 14) and Stephen,
a film production designer who frequently worked with his father.
Mr. Altman began to set his sights on Hollywood while still working in Kansas
City. His first screen credit came for helping write “Bodyguard,” (1948) a B
movie about a hard-boiled detective.
It was not until 1955 that he actually headed for Hollywood; he had gotten a
call offering him a job directing an episode of the television series “Alfred
Over the next decade, he directed dozens of episodes of “Maverick,” “Lawman,”
“Peter Gunn,” “Bonanza,” “Hawaiian Eye,” “Route 66,” “Combat!” and “Kraft
It was while on the set of the TV series “Whirlybirds” that Mr. Altman met his
third wife, Kathryn Reed. They married in 1957 and had two sons, Robert and
Matthew. Mr. Altman’s wife and children survive him, as does a stepdaughter,
Connie Corriere, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Although Mr.
Altman interrupted his early Kansas City work to crank out a teen exploitation
movie called “The Delinquents” (1957), it was not until 1968 that he moved up to
directing major actors in a Hollywood feature. The film, “Countdown,” starring
James Caan and Robert Duvall, was a critically praised drama about the first
flight to the moon. He followed that up in 1969 with “That Cold Day in the
Park,” a psychological thriller starring Sandy Dennis as a woman driven mad by
her sex urges.
In 1970, he made what is perhaps his strangest film, “Brewster McCloud,” about a
nerdish youth who wanted to build his own flying machine and whiz around the
Then came “MASH.”
In later years he gathered around him a company of favored performers, among
them Mr. Gould, Lily Tomlin, Shelley Duvall, Bert Remsen and Keith Carradine.
Many of his sets were celebrated for their party atmosphere, which often came
through on the screen. He thought that creating a casual mood helped him expand
the boundaries of filmmaking.
To achieve his vision, Mr. Altman was willing to battle studio executives over
the financing of his films and ultimate creative control.
“Robert Altman is an artist and a gambler,” his longtime assistant director,
Alan Rudolph, wrote in a 1994 tribute in Film Comment. “Pursuing artistic vision
on film in America can sometimes put everything you own at risk.”
When a studio refused to distribute Mr. Rudolph’s first film, “Welcome to L.A.,”
Mr. Altman responded by forming his own independent distribution company, Lion’s
Gate, for the sole purpose of releasing the film. It was a harbinger of the
independent film companies of the ’80s and ’90s.
“There’s a big resistance to me,” Mr. Altman told The Washington Post in 1990.
“They say, ‘Oh, he’s going to double-cross us somewhere.’ When I explain what I
want to do, they can’t see it, because I’m trying to deliver something that they
haven’t seen before. And they don’t realize that that’s the very reason they
should buy it.”
Mr. Altman acknowledged that his career had suffered as a consequence of his own
behavior — his hard drinking, procrastination and irascibility, his problem with
authority. He also had a long history of bitter relations with screenwriters.
Many complained that he injected himself into the rewriting process and took
credit for work he did not do.
But many actors said they loved working with Mr. Altman because of the leeway he
gave them in interpreting the script and in improvising in their scenes. “For
somebody like me who likes to hang out with my pals and goof off and take the
path of least resistance,” Sally Kellerman said, “he’s wonderful that way.”
Mr. Altman said giving actors freedom could draw things out of them that they
did not know were there. “I look for actors where there’s something going on
there, behind that mask,” Mr. Altman said. “Tim Robbins fascinated me. This John
Cusack guy: I always see something going on in there and I don’t know what it
He never mellowed in his view of the movie business.
“The people who get into this business are fast-buck operators, carnival people,
always have been,” Mr. Altman said in a 1993 interview. “They don’t try to make
good movies now; they’re trying to make successful movies. The marketing people
run it now. You don’t really see too many smart people running the studios,
running the video companies. They’re all making big money, but they’re not
looking for, they don’t have a vested interest in, the shelf life of a movie.
There’s no overview. No one says, ‘Forty years from now, who’s going to want to
see this.’ No visionaries.”
A few weeks ago, emerging from a weekday afternoon showing of Robert Altman’s
“California Split,” a fellow moviegoer and I — complete strangers momentarily
colliding, like something out of an Altman movie — stopped in the lobby to
puzzle over the film’s ending. In this 1974 picture, George Segal, playing a
magazine writer whose obsessive gambling has nearly wrecked his life, has just
completed an epic, bank-breaking lucky streak at the poker and craps tables of a
Nevada casino. His happier, usually luckier partner, played by Elliott Gould,
figures that this is the start of something big. But as the morning light seeps
in through the windows of an empty bar away from the betting floor, it’s clear
that for the other man, the ride is over. In the wake of a great, improbable,
mind-blowing triumph, his response is to shrug and walk away.
Why does he do it? Is this really the conclusion toward which everything else —
the scheming and conniving, the boozing and excuse-making — was leading? Has the
character, at some point in the frenzy of his streak, undergone a psychological
change? We’ve been rooting for him, against the odds, to pull off something like
this, but has he, all the while, been rooting against himself? Or was he
addicted to losing, a malady that winning has miraculously cured? These
hypotheses all make sense, but they also bring you up short. The movie ends not
with a sigh of satisfaction, but with a gasp. What just happened?
The films of Mr. Altman, who died Monday at 81, often end on a similar note, or
rather on a dissonant, troubling chord, with a moment that is at once grand and
deflating. His crowded, complicated climaxes tend to gather up loose ends and
then fling them in the air. You get the big, rousing spectacle: the naked
supermodels on parade in “Ready to Wear”; the concert and the gunfire in
But you also get doubt, equivocation, a sly, principled refusal of the neat and
tidy rituals of closure. At the end of “The Player,” we are glad to see the hero
drive off into the California sunshine, even as we know that he has gotten away
with murder. When murder or other mysteries are at issue — as in “Gosford Park”
or “The Long Goodbye” — the solution to the crime is pretty much beside the
In narrative art, nothing is more artificial than an ending — life, after all,
does go on — and Mr. Altman’s endings often serve two purposes. They bring the
artifice to a dazzling pitch of virtuosity while exposing it as a glorious sham.
They revel in plenitude, in throngs and spectacles, but there is a throb of
emptiness, of incompletion, in the midst of the frenzy.
Mr. Altman thrived on the shapelessness and confusion of experience, and he came
closer than any other American filmmaker to replicating it without allowing his
films to succumb to chaos. His movies buzz with the dangerous thrill of
collaboration — the circling cameras, the improvising actors, the jumping,
swirling sound design — even as they seem to arise from a great loneliness, a
natural state that reasserts itself once the picture is over. A makeshift tribe
gathers to produce a film, or to watch one, and then disperses when the shared
experience has run its course. Everyone is gone, and the only antidote to this
letdown is another film.
And Mr. Altman made a lot of them, and now there won’t be any more. Life goes
on, but every life must end. Robert Altman’s exit, while hardly unexpected — he
had undergone a heart transplant sometime in the 1990s — is nonetheless jolting
to his admirers. We had grown accustomed to his stamina and his refusal to fade
away even when the whims of the film industry seemed to turn against him.
Fans of a certain age will remember the succession of films from the 1970s —
from “M*A*S*H” to “A Wedding,” passing through “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,”
“Nashville,” and “3 Women” — that seemed at once to come out of nowhere and to
reveal the central truths of their place and time. Those of us who came a bit
later will recall encountering those movies on scratchy prints in revival houses
or college cafeterias, and marveling at their energy and strangeness.
It was especially sweet, in the early 1990s, to witness Mr. Altman’s return from
the wilderness — not that he had ever stopped making movies. But he seemed, for
much of the ’80s, to be living in a kind of internal exile, filming brilliant
adaptations of plays like “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy
Dean,” “Streamers” and “Secret Honor” and almost surreptitiously turning out a
masterpiece, “Tanner ’88,” for HBO. (The prescience of that series, written by
Garry Trudeau, is astonishing: it seems to foretell both the rise of Bill
Clinton and the current vogue for infusing fiction with documentary techniques.)
But Mr. Altman’s luck turned, and he made at least three more movies — “The
Player,” “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park” — that rank alongside, or perhaps
surpass, the milestones of the ’70s.
I’m not inclined, at the moment, to single out monuments. The pleasures of minor
Altman — the sweet, shaggy-dog lyricism of “A Prairie Home Companion,” the
generous, curious spirit of “The Company,” the gallantry of “Dr. T and the
Women” — are not to be underestimated, and to fix a canon would be to miss some
of the playful, seat-of-the-pants spirit of the films themselves. I cannot
imagine growing tired of Mr. Altman, or failing to be surprised by his movies.
At the moment, signs of his influence are everywhere: in the overlapping
dialogue and interlocking scenes of a television show like “The Wire,” for
example, or in the multiple narratives drawn together around a theme or a
location, in films like “Babel,” “Bobby,” “Crash” and “Fast Food Nation.” And in
the last year of his life, the Hollywood establishment, which had often treated
Mr. Altman like a crazy old uncle, hailed him as a patriarch, presenting an
honorary Academy Award as compensation for the half-dozen he should already have
had. He accepted it with his usual wry, brusque grace, after allowing himself to
be upstaged by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, whose tribute — one talking over
the other, no sentences finished or thoughts completed, all of it perfectly
timed — was funnier and more moving than any Oscar moment had any right to be.
And then, a few months later, he released “A Prairie Home Companion,” a
contemplation of last things that would be his last movie. It is tempting to
declare it Mr. Altman’s valediction — especially now that his production
company, Sandcastle 5 Productions, has said that he was suffering from cancer
for the past 18 months. But if this movie was a last gathering of the troupe,
after which the lights dim forever, and the audience disperses, it was also just
another movie in a career like no other, and when it was over — in the ending I
like to imagine — American cinema’s greatest gambler shrugged his shoulders and