Robert Altman, the caustic and irreverent satirist behind M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player, who made a career out of bucking Hollywood management and story conventions, died at a Los Angeles hospital, his Sandcastle 5 production company said on Tuesday. He was 81.
The director died on Monday night, Joshua Astrachan, a producer at Altman’s production company in New York, told the media.
The cause of death wasn’t disclosed. A news release was expected later in the day, Astrachan said.
A five-time Academy Award nominee for best director, most recently for 2001’s Gosford Park, he finally won a lifetime-achievement Oscar in 2006.
”No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have,” Altman said while accepting the award. ”I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entrÃ©e to the world and to the human condition.”
Altman had one of the most distinctive styles among modern filmmakers. He often employed huge ensemble casts, encouraged improvisation and overlapping dialogue and filmed scenes in long, tracking shots that would flit from character to character.
Perpetually in and out of favour with audiences and critics, Altman worked ceaselessly since his anti-war black comedy M*A*S*H established his reputation in 1970, but he would go for years at a time directing obscure movies before roaring back with a hit.
After a string of commercial duds including The Gingerbread Man in 1998, Cookie’s Fortune in 1999 and Dr T and the Women in 2000, Altman took his all-American cynicism to Britain for 2001’s Gosford Park.
A combination murder-mystery and class-war satire set among snobbish socialites and their servants on an English estate in the 1930s, Gosford Park was Altman’s biggest box-office success since M*A*S*H.
Besides best-director, Gosford Park earned six other Oscar nominations, including best picture and best supporting actress for both Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith. It won the original-screenplay Oscar, and Altman took the best-director prize at the Golden Globes.
Altman’s other best-director Oscar nominations came for M*A*S*H, the country music saga Nashville from 1975, the movie-business satire The Player from 1992 and the ensemble character study Short Cuts from 1993. He also earned a best-picture nomination as producer of Nashville.
No director ever got more best-director nominations without winning a regular Oscar, though four other men — Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Clarence Brown and King Vidor — tied with Altman at five.
In May, Altman brought out A Prairie Home Companion, with Garrison Keillor starring as the announcer of a folksy musical show — with the same name as Keillor’s own long-running show — about to be shut down by new owners. Among those in the cast were Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones.
”This film is about death,” Altman said at a May 3 news conference in St Paul, Minnesota, also attended by Keillor and many of the movie’s stars.
He often took on Hollywood genres with a revisionist’s eye, de-romanticising the Western hero in 1971’s McCabe and Mrs Miller and 1976’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, the film-noir gumshoe in 1973’s The Long Goodbye and outlaw gangsters in Thieves Like Us.
M*A*S*H was Altman’s first big success after years of directing television, commercials, industrial films and generally unremarkable feature films. The film starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould was set during the Korean War but was Altman’s thinly veiled attack on United States involvement in Vietnam.
”That was my intention entirely. If you look at that film, there’s no mention of what war it is,” Altman said in an Associated Press interview in 2001, adding that the studio made him put a disclaimer at the beginning to identify the setting as Korea.
”Our mandate was bad taste. If anybody had a joke in the worst taste, it had a better chance of getting into the film, because nothing was in worse taste than that war itself,” Altman said.
The film spawned the long-running TV sitcom starring Alan Alda, a show Altman would refer to with distaste as ”that series.” Unlike the social message of the film, the series was prompted by greed, Altman said.
”They made millions and millions of dollars by bringing an Asian war into Americans’ homes every Sunday night,” Altman said in 2001.
”I thought that was the worst taste.”
Altman never minced words about reproaching Hollywood. After the September 11 attacks, he said Hollywood served as a source of inspiration for the terrorists by making violent action movies that amounted to training films for such attacks.
”Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie,” Altman said.
Altman was written off repeatedly by the Hollywood establishment, and his reputation for arrogance and hard drinking — a habit he eventually gave up — hindered his efforts to raise money for his idiosyncratic films.
While critical of studio executives, Altman held actors in the highest esteem. He joked that on Gosford Park he was there mainly to turn the lights on and off for the performers.
The respect was mutual. Top-name actors would clamour for even bit parts in his films. Altman generally worked on shoe-string budgets, yet he continually landed marquee performers who signed on for a fraction of their normal salaries.
After the mid-1970s, the quality of Altman’s films became increasingly erratic. His 1980 musical Popeye, with Robin Williams, was trashed by critics, and Altman took some time off from film.
The Player and Short Cuts re-established Altman’s reputation and commercial viability. But other 1990s films — including his fashion-industry farce Ready to Wear and Kansas City, his reverie on the 1930s jazz and gangster scene of his hometown — fell flat.
Born on February 20 1925, Altman hung out in his teen years at the jazz clubs of Kansas City, Missouri, where his father was an insurance salesman.
Altman was a bomber pilot in World War II and studied engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia before taking a job making industrial films in Kansas City. He moved into feature films with The Delinquents in 1957, then worked largely in television through the mid 1960s, directing episodes of such series as Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Altman and his wife, Kathryn, had two sons, Robert and Matthew, and he had a daughter, Christine, and two other sons, Michael and Stephen, from two previous marriages.
When he received his honorary Oscar in 2006, Altman revealed he had a heart transplant a decade earlier.
”I didn’t make a big secret out of it, but I thought nobody would hire me again,” he said after the ceremony. ”You know, there’s such a stigma about heart transplants, and there’s a lot of us out there.” — Sapa-AP