Robert Altman: The Oral Biography Hardcover – 15 Nov 2009
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"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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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