Movies, Now More than Ever: Robert Altman’s The Player at 30

As multiverses and IP dominate the box office, we look back to Altman’s biting satire on the unoriginality of Hollywood.


Joe Flockhart

Seemingly out of nowhere, ‘multiverses’ have become all the rage in American mainstream cinema, and director/writer duo Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once is the latest film to embrace the idea – the only one not to extensively refer to or be based on existing IP.

With a production budget of about $25m, focusing on a middle-aged Chinese-American lead character and condensing all its lore-building and character development to a single film that does not demand its audience get up to speed by watching countless previous instalments, it’s far more daring than any of the other interdimensional flicks that have dominated the box office in recent months.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has revolutionised the Hollywood franchise model with its use of multi-film story arcs, diligently-hidden ‘Easter eggs’ and doing something previously thought impossible: finding a surefire way to make casual audiences stay to the end of the credits. Action films are especially concerned with the need to somehow ‘go bigger’ with sequels, but this is only sustainable for a finite period of time.

More than 25 films after the first chapter, (2008’s Iron Man) Marvel managed to find yet another way to achieve this spectacle – in the third instalment of the third iteration of Spider-Man this side of the millennium – by crossing it over with previous versions. Watching the film as someone whose interest in Marvel films begins and ends with Sam’s Raimi trilogy, I was reminded of the great Tony Soprano quote: “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

Remakes, sequels and otherwise derivative works are nothing new, however. Thankfully, neither are dissenting voices.

The Player, Robert Altman’s ‘comeback’ film from 1992, is an intelligent send-up of corporate Hollywood culture, from the behaviour of clueless and arrogant executives to the constant reverting to old ideas. Many have called it prescient, but in reality the problems are perennial. It centres on Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a studio executive who kills David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), a writer he believes is sending him death threats. Though the plot appears to be concerned with the investigation into the murder, ultimately the story is secondary to the film’s intentionally showy cinematic craft and cynical cultural commentary.

The film opens with a single-take tracking shot that lasts about eight minutes, backed by Thomas Newman’s clattering, paranoid score. The frame flits between an array of characters involved with the studio through this short period in real-time and crucially stays outside the building, stressing the apparently unbreakable barrier between the audience and studio suits. Somebody references the famous tracking scene through 1950s Soho at the start of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners, though this is lost on his colleague who is unfamiliar with said “English film”.

We see a man propose a sequel to The Graduate, set many years later; a quick bit of Googling confirms that this is actually Buck Henry, the writer of the original, whose involvement in The Player was his way of acknowledging and making fun of contemporary speculation about a potential sequel. The long tracking shot is histrionic and mocks the idea that pulling off a difficult shot somehow makes a film ‘better’, even if it’s otherwise incongruous with the rest of the film. Did the 10-second shot of Melanie Griffith’s Concorde landing, only possible to shoot in a single window of 30 seconds every year, do much to help The Bonfire of the Vanities?

Much of the film’s satire comes from the film pitches various screenwriters put forward. Richard E Grant’s character, Tom, pitches his idea for a film, Habeas Corpus, which involves an African-American woman going to prison, found guilty of a crime she did not commit. Crucially, there is no happy ending and she never appears to get justice within the confines of the script.

He asserts that his passion for the project comes from it being based on a regular occurrence which sadly continues to happen in America, but it isn’t met with a very keen reception by his superiors because of its devotion to realism and lack of a happy ending. Griffin, knowing that the concept would be a recipe for commercial disaster, convinces his colleague Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), whose fast rise through the industry threatens Griffin’s position, to spearhead the project, hoping that he’ll be forced to leave the project, allowing Griffin to take the reins, change it to be more commercially appealing, and enjoy the glory that would come with doing so.

Towards the end, Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis play the leads in a film-within-a-film that Griffin has commissioned. Earlier on in The Player, they are each mentioned in studio meetings as potential leads for films being developed, but the suggestion is always ridiculed and dismissed. Ironically, they have ended up in Habeas Corpus, which by this point has strayed so far from Tom’s idea that a black lead is nowhere to be seen and a happy ending has been added on – Willis storms into a prison, deus ex machina, to rescue Roberts.

A genuinely subversive and challenging film has been completely sanitised and ultimately compromised because the studio believes that these changes will make it more palatable to a wider audience. Griffin has apparently saved the film in a commercial sense, but the purpose of the story is now completely defeated. Regardless, Griffin is now on very good terms with his colleagues at the studio.

While The Player does not explore the rampant sexual harassment that plagues Hollywood and the wider entertainment industry (Altman soon admitted he had been far too kind in his portrayal of studio corporate types), it’s an important piece of work because it explores the challenges innate to an art form which requires a lot of funding to even exist. Hollywood is an industry. Each studio is a company. They don’t make pictures to be didactic or artistically challenging – their objective is to turn a profit.

Its commentary on sex is limited, but still undeniably daring. When Griffin and his murder victim’s widow June (Greta Scacchi) have sex, it is shot in such a way that you cannot see below their shoulders. Scacchi insisted on not being shot nude, and her refusal is in keeping with the film’s general approach, which is frustrating the casual mainstream viewer and subverting Hollywood’s most tired tropes. Additionally, all of the 65 celebrity cameos are fleeting, and many aren’t even mentioned by name or speak beyond a single line. In scenes of great congregation, such as parties, Altman uses multiple microphones to create overlapping dialogue – meaning that you will miss out on certain strands of dialogue, much like at a real party.

The Player has an apparently happy ending – if you divorce it from context, for it is not a just one. Griffin comes home to a beaming June, who is pregnant, and the pair walk into their beautiful house together, elated. Griffin has got away with his crime, Larry Levy is still unaware of Griffin’s plan and actually likes him, and the pair have just commissioned a script whose plot mimics Griffin’s murder.

Thirty years on, The Player hasn’t lost any of its bite. Satire is built on exaggeration, but if the film were made today, would anything be far off the current state of affairs? Aloof executives, flaccid attempts at reviving well-worn IP, and silly slogans like ‘Movies, Now More than Ever’ haven’t gone away. ‘Multiverses’ seem to be the natural progression in attempting to wring new life out of tired franchises and maximise appeal and have already become a predictable formula. Thankfully, Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once seeks to do something original with this concept.

Published 12 May 2022

Tags: Robert Altman Susan Sarandon Tim Robbins

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