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Robert Altman: The Oral Biography Hardcover – 15 Nov 2009

5.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1 edition (15 Nov. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307267687
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307267689
  • Product Dimensions: 16.7 x 4.3 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,068,105 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Scrupulously intelligent and entertaining. . . . Noisy, funny, slightly ill considered, a bit chaotic, and wholly believeable. In short, Altmanesque." --"The New York Times Book Review"
"[Zuckoff] uses a light editorial hand, allowing a wide range of contributors to have their say. . . . A comprehensive, 360-degree look at a complicated subject." --"Wall Street Journal"
"[There are] many surprising and revealing comments that Zuckoff has assembled in his fittingly rambling book. . . . Life is complicated, often messy--as Altman showed us--and his life, as seen in Zuckoff's book, was no exception." --"San Francisco Chronicle"
"A brilliantly researched, near-cinematic evocation. . . . Altman never gave up creating his cinematic portraits of people on the margins--con artists, prostitutes, gamblers, theives, clowns, movie executives--if only to shed light on the falsity behind his country's seemingly indefatigable, desperate pursuit of success." --"The New Yorker"
"[Zuckoff] doesn't try to resolve the many contradictions surrounding Altman's life and work, but lets them stand awkwardly beside one another for the reader to sort out. . . . As a form, the oral biography is well suited to a director who loved the sound of noisy conversation." --"The New York Review of Books"
"Splendidly well-assembled. . . . Altman made amazing films, which Zuckoff's far-reaching interviews illuminate, and by all the included accounts, he led an amazing life." --"The Morning News"
"Like Altman's signature soundtracks, this babel of transcripts offers a panoramic portrait." --"Chicago Sun-Times"
"[A] marvelous, epic, tapestry-like life-scape of Robert Altman. . . . Witness by witness, Zuckoff constructs an exemplary and cautionary American life, and with the funny, tragic, and compelling tales they tell, he has made something like a print version of the Last Great Robert Altman movie." --"Directors Guild Quarterly"
"A positively 'Altmanesque' treatment. . . . [Altman] made a great Western, a great anti-war movie, a great period piece, a great detective picture, a great ballet movie and "the" how-Hollywood-works movie. And Zuckoff . . . is an apt choice to corner an old fast-talker like Altman. Put this oral biography on your book list." --"Orlando Sentinel"
"A fun read, more like a cocktail-party remembrance than a scholarly study. . . . Recollections of movies that strike a chord are so entertaining you'll think about adding them to your Netflix queue to see them again." --"Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"
"Zuckoff's biography is like his subject's movies, filled with a multiplicity of voices and averse to defining 'meaning.' Yet in the end, readers understand Altman's stubborn vision, his refusal to compromise with commerce, and his hard-earned, eccentric genius." --"The Boston Globe"
"I just now put ["Robert Altman"] down feeling heartbroken but happily and deeply inspired. . . . Wonderful." --Wes Anderson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor of journalism at Boston University. He is the author of three previous books, most recently "Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of A Financial Legend." As a reporter with "The Boston Globe," he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and the recipient of numerous national writing awards. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating study of a fascinating man, compiled using the voices of those who knew him best.

There have been few directors with his vision and integrity and his presence will be sorely missed.

Ignore the one star review, which is a review of customer service and not of this book. Buy this book now, it is marvelous.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a superb look back at the life and times of a cinematic great, told by family, friends, actors, enemies, and in his own words. It doesn't flinch from showing his flaws so it's certainly no hagiography, but Altman emerges as a very driven man for whom the work was everything. And what a legacy of astonishing iconoclastic work he left behind. The word gets bandied about too much but he really was a genius.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.4 out of 5 stars 12 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I can't say enough good things about this book 5 Mar. 2010
By Michael Beane - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a big Altman fan and a big fan of the oral biography form, it's not surprising that this book had me at hello. What an enjoyable read! Even the early life, slow sledding in most biographies, is vibrant and entertaining. Robert Altman is remembered in vivid detail by those who knew him, loved him, worked with him, sometimes didn't like him. In some cases the witnesses who comprise this book (including Altman himself -- the project started out as an authorized biography) disagree in their memories, or perhaps in what they choose to say. In a way it's like an Altman movie -- a cacophony of voices, sometimes talking over each other, full of images. And very funny. This is no eat-your-peas biography. When is the last time you didn't want to put a biography down or found yourself rationing the remaining pages to prolong it? He was a complex character, that is for sure. This book captures him as well as could reasonably be hoped for.

One striking thing is how many of the actors and (especially) actresses say essentially the same thing: the reason they are so grateful to him is he trusted them and let them spread their wings. He said let it go, trust yourself, and I won't let you be embarrassed. He didn't, and they delivered many of the shining moments in his movies. There is one great scene where a young Matthew Modine keeps wanting to go over his big scene with Altman, talk it through, and Altman kept putting him off. Then before Modine knew it the scene had been shot. Afterward Altman put a hand on his shoulder and said look, kid, you're the actor; if it was my interpretation of your character I wanted I would have cast myself. After a while word got around and a who's who of star actors were in Altman movies, sometimes at scale rates. In a sense it is a book about the movies and in another sense it isn't really about movies at all. He was a fascinating person. As one of the witnesses says (ex brother in law?), Bob was a flame who attracted many moths.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Altman and others on Altman 15 Dec. 2009
By Sherringford Clark - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography" is a very comprehensive look at the man. It actually makes a lot of sense to do an oral biography of Altman, as his films often presented an amalgam of voices, just as this book sets out to do.

While Altman receives the well-rounded treatment, with one person (David Pinker) expressing almost wholly negative views of the man, there are several drawbacks to the oral biography form. For one, the content is wholly dependent on the people who agree to be interviewed. Consequently, there seem to be some gaps in the narrative of Altman's life and some movies seem to be discussed rather cursorily, eg, "3 Women."

On the whole, though, this work does an excellent job of presenting Altman the man and artist, warts and all, and you walk away with a strong impression of his special brand of genius. But, like many Altman works, it is kind of a mess as well, but a glorious one. In fact, I think this is about the best biography we're going to get of Altman, and I think he would be very pleased with it.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Robert Altman - The Oral Biography - Mitchell Zuckoff (Knopf) 22 July 2010
By BlogOnBooks - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Hard to think of a director in Hollywood who's made more of an impact but got less credit than Bob Altman. After all, his movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player were never really considered to be box-office blockbusters. Nor was Altman ever honored with an Oscar for producing or directing, although his films received many nominations throughout the 70's, 80's and 90s.

No, Robert Altman was an outcast, a scalawag; a rapscallion of film directors.

That's what makes his story so great.

In "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography," author Mitchell Zuckoff captures it all. From Altman's early days kicking around Kansas City (a place he would later base a feature film on) to his war years, to his roguish romantic escapades to his eventual landing in California (working for among others, the legendary Alfred Hitchcock) Zuckoff's assemblage of the autuer's story covers all the bases.

As colorful as the oral history is of the director's early dating and family life, his military service and his career beginnings in both industrial films and, once in Hollywood, television (`Combat,' Whirlybirds,' etc.) the best portions are reserved for his relationships with the actors he loved and the studio bosses he loathed. When actors would add a line to the dialog, most films expected a visit from the studio brass. When Altman's actors wanted to add a line, he encouraged them to do more. (M*A*S*H's Sally Kellerman (`Hot Lips'), practically wrote her way into the whole movie from what was originally slated as a naked shower scene.) In the final analysis, Altman was the master of the ensemble film; his indelible mark comes from the inner workings of the casts he assembled, not necessarily from the stories themselves. As Zuckoff points out in Altman's own words, he would be the first to admit it.

Along the way, the book regales the reader with stories from all the front line players (as in `The Player') in Altman's great body of work. Legendary players like Paul Newman, Tim Robbins, Cher (remember her red dress at the black and white ball?) Jimmy Caan, Bobby Duvall, Elliot Gould, Patricia Neal, Bob Evans, Richard Zanuck, Meryl Streep, Harry Belafonte, Lily Tomlin, Beatty, Becall and others weigh in and reminisce about their (rather detailed) recollections of Bob's past. The one thing that rises above it all, is that Altman loved the actors; always exhorting them to mix it up, speak over each other words, act like in real life. So while he may not have been Hollywood's most successful director, in many ways, he was perhaps its most authentic.

After his passing in 2008 (and after having finally received an honorary Oscar from the Academy in 2006) Altman needed a book - not on his work, but on the man himself. It is fitting that this oral biography is comprised of much of the same ensemble players that created the Altman oeuvre itself. Well done. Fade.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Overlapping Voices 30 Jan. 2010
By MJS - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
If you've seen even one Robert Altman movie you know that this is a man who would want his story told as an oral history. Altman's use of overlapping dialogue forced the audience to choose which voice to listen to in a cacophony of sound. Mitchell Zuckoff invited a multitude of voices telling about the Robert Altman they knew allowing readers to sift through the stories to find the man himself.

It helps that those speaking are an articulate, amusing bunch unafraid to tell embarrassing stories in which they feature or to call Kevin Spacey the "Norman Bates of Show Business", for instance. No amount of wit would make the first half dozen chapters fly by, however. It's admirable that Zuckoff wants to document the whole of Altman's life but I would have been satisfied with fewer stories of Bob's adventures at summer camp. Once Altman starts making movies Zuckoff's pacing spot on, mixing details about the financing of MASH with choice gossip like Altman's affair with Faye Dunaway. I'm still in awe of that revelation - wouldn't have pegged those two in a million years.

The picture that emerges is of a well-loved if not entirely likable man. Zuckoff shows why so many actors were devoted to Altman but he also shows that Altman was just another nasty, loud-mouthed drunk on occasion. One minute you find yourself fascinated by the loyalty Altman engendered, the next you're appalled at the loyalty he insisted upon. Like so many artists Altman put his work above any human relationship and that can be hard to take in large doses.

This isn't a critical assessment of Altman's work or an interpretation of his films. It's Altman's life story and critical to that is the story of his work so there are plenty of details about how nearly all of his films were made. Whether you're a fan or not (I'm merely a sometime fan of his work), this is a very enjoyable book, not unlike spending a three-day long bender with the man himself, but without the hangover.

Recommended for film and biography fans. Note that this is a true oral biography with very little connective narrative.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tough guy, great book 20 Oct. 2009
By M. Bromberg - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"Altman: The Oral Biography" resembles one of Altman's own films in its crowded, overlapping, conversational style and layered points of view, a tale-telling device that enhances Altman's own public and private image -- the book's press release uses words "eccentric" and "rollicking," but it would be difficult not to see that many of his associates thought of Altman as a meticulous craftsman with a mercurial temper, to put it mildly.

The unexpected commercial success of "M*A*S*H" made the 46-year-old director appear like an industry newcomer, but he already had years of series television work ("Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Bonanza," "Route 66," "Maverick"). He abandoned linear storytelling -- television's hourlong episode with the tidy ending -- for movies that seemed more like a vision of real life: confounding, with seemingly wandering plots and often morally ambiguous characters.

Although he was nominated five times by the Motion Picture Academy for best director, Altman never won -- a testament, perhaps, to his lifelong skirmishes with Hollywood. It's a distinction he shares with Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. Finally, mellowing at 81, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award, which he accepted with some grace considering his well-known battles. Zuckoff interviews Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Paul Newman, Julie Christie, Elliott Gould, Martin Scorsese, Robin Williams, and many others in his book, who speak frankly and with great affection.

Altman's films may have been shrouded with what Jack Warner called "fog on the lake" -- constantly-shifting dialogue and the ricochet of half-heard conversation -- but his movies are more about character than clarity. "Altman: The Oral Biography" is a fair and unblinking portrait of a director who carefully crafted his image as a tough guy, and the book offers as much clarity as those who remember him will allow. The rest is left up to the moviegoer.

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