Robert Altman’s Phantom Oscars

Don’t get me wrong. It was truly moving for me to see one of my life’s true heroes get an honorary Oscar (as ever, the Academy timed it just right so he died the very next year). I, being a tiny, tiny girl inside, got weepy as he graciously accepted this token of esteem with customary humility and class. That being said, let’s not kid ourselves; the Academy, and the moviegoing public, have given Altman the back of their collective hand for four decades, and one ‘you’re about to die so we’re going to throw you a bone because it’d be embarrassing if we didn’t before then’ trophy will not obscure the fact that the most innovative, daring, humanistic, brilliant writer/director in movie history has never won an actual Oscar. Not one. Not for best picture. Not for best director. Ron Howard has one of each. Kevin Costner does too. And don’t get me started on James Cameron. So, being (in addition to a tiny, tiny girl ) a sand-kicking film bully snob, I decided to do a survey of Altman’s career and see if, indeed, films such as Forrest Gump, A Beautiful Mind, Chariots of Fire, Gladiator, and (jesus christ) Titanic are worthy while Altman and his films are not of Oscar gold. Strap yourselves in…

First thing I did was look at Altman’s filmography and jot down his films that I thought should have been legitimate Oscar contenders, coming up with eleven. I was fair, leaving off films such as O.C. and Stiggs (which only Videoport’s Regan and I like) and Secret Honor and Pret a Porter (which, perhaps, only I like), and culling only those films I truly think were worthy of at least Oscar consideration. These eleven, in chronological order, are: MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, Fool for Love, Vincent & Theo, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. Let’s see how my eleven stack up against their annual competition:

1. (1970). MASH vs. Patton

Two war films, both, to some degree, asserting that war is hell and that those waging a war have little concern over how their theoretical battle plans cost needless lives. Patton has George C. Scott…and that’s about it. I love his hammy, astic, ‘chew lighting and crap thunder’ performance, but the movie itself is little more than an identical series of ‘iconoclast vs. beaurocrat’ yelling matches, and its politics are muddled at best. MASH introduces the Altman aesthetic: talented ensemble cast (Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, Roger Bowen, Tom Skerritt), overlapping, naturalistic dialogue, actual, anarchic outrage at the horrors of war, bold, irreverent humor.

Winner: Altman.

2. (1971) McCabe and Mrs. Miller vs. The French Connection

This one isn’t even close. Although a solid policier, and though Hackman is good in anything, The French Connection is an utterly forgettable movie. It’s not its fault that every cop movie and TV series since has copied every element of this flick ad nauseum, but it doesn’t help either. Plus, the whole ‘amoral cop who has to violate civil rights to get the job done’ thing is a repugnant cliche. (Oh, and the ‘revolutionary’ car chase was only added by the producer because Bullit‘s had been so popular). McCabe and Mrs. Miller is as spellbinding an evocation of a time and place as any American film ever created, and Altman’s mastery of actor, dialogue, and editing has never been equaled. Truly one of the greatest films in American history.

Winner (in a walk): Altman

3. (1973) The Long Goodbye vs. The Sting

Puh-leeze. The Sting is snappy and cute, as are Redford and Newman, and I always liked Robert Shaw’s creepy, urbane villainy, but puh-leeze. The Long Goodbye is a dark horse pick, but I’m pickin’ it. Altman’s transposition of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe from the 40s to California’s sun-drenched 70s deepens Chandler’s anithero’s alienation as a moral man in an amoral world, and Elliot Gould was never better than here. His jazzy, improvisational performance is funny and his Marlowe is an anachronistic clown. Until he is not.

Winner: Altman.

4. (1974) Thieves Like Us vs. California Split vs. The Godfather- Part 2

It’s a 2-on-1 handicap match, with Altman’s beautiful evocation of Depression-era America (anchored by touching performances by Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall), and his funny, moving portrait of two inveterate gamblers (played, at the top of their improvisational games, by Elliot Gould and George Segal) tagteaming Francis Ford Coppola’s mob masterpiece. If McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of the best American films in history, Godfather 2 is another.
Winner: in a surprise handicap victory, Coppola.

5. (1975) Nashville vs. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ouch. Some good stuff here. While Altman’s sprawling, enormous, musical portrait of America at its bicentennial is jaw-dropping in its virtuosity and sheer scope, Cuckoo’s Nest has Jack Nicholson channeling Ken Kesey and America’s rebellious, doomed soul. While I love both these films, I think we recognize that Louise Fletcher’s one-note performance as Nurse Ratched was a notorious Oscar mistake, and no amount of Jack (not even here) can overcome the dazzling, top-to-bottom nuance and beauty of Nashville.

Winner: (a toughie): Altman

6. (1985) Fool for Love vs. Out of Africa

Boy, 1985 sucked. A very weak best picture category (The Color Purple? Witness?) makes this overlooked Altman masterpiece a contender. Altman was filming, almost exclusively, low budget adaptations of plays in the 1980s due to Hollywood’s neglect, and, in Fool for Love, he teams up with Sam Shepard to produce a mysterious, mesmerizing American myth. Stack that against the dreary, ponderous, nigh-petrified Out of Africa (with a typically accomplished Meryl Streep trotting out yet another meticulous accent opposite a typically wooden Robert Redford) and the edge, in a truly crappy movie year, goes to the man.

Winner (almost by default): Altman

7. (1990) Vincent & Theo vs. Dances With Wolves

Not typical Altman, this biographical period piece starring the excellent Tim Roth as a haunted Van Gogh has always left me the slightest bit cold; it’s a lovely film, but there always seemed little of Altman himself in it. However…oh my god, did this year’s nominees suck out loud, with one, lone exception (Ghost?! The Godfather- Part 3?! Awakenings?!?!?)…and the prize turd in the punchbowl, Dances With Wolves. Sanctimonious, dreary, simplistic blandness, all capped with the king of bland, Kevin Costner. Seriously, does anyone look back and think they got this one right? I really like Vincent & Theo, and Tim Roth in it especially, but I’m giving this one to the only deserving nominee from 1990.

Winner: Scorcese, for Goodfellas

8. (1992). The Player vs. Unforgiven

Ouch, again. I love both these films. Seen by some as Altman’s definitive ‘f- you’ to Hollywood, The Player is a fiendishly-clever, icily-funny, metatextual tour-de-force. Eastwood’s deconstruction of the myths of and manliness he’d meticulously constructed over his entire career is one of the best things he’s ever done, as actor or director. Ouch.

Winner: Eastwood edges it out


9. (1993) Short Cuts vs. Schindler’s List

Even if Altman’s (again) masterful tapestry of characters and tales culled from the short stories of Raymond Carver had been nominated, there’s no chance it, or any other film, could have won this year. Hollywood loves Spielberg, and usually for the wrong reasons; celebrate the man for his matchless mastery of film technique and exciting storytelling and not for his usually leaden forays into ‘serious drama’. I’m sorry, but worthwhile sentiment does not a great movie make, and while Neeson and Fiennes are good, and death camps and shower rooms are harrowing, Schindler’s List is an overrated film. Short Cuts contains, by my count, ten truly outstanding character performances and is, in a more artistically-meaningful way, a better film.

Winner: Altman

10. (2001) Gosford Park vs. A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind is a terrible movie. Only the insufferable Forrest Gump in recent memory is a less deserving best picture winner. Simplifying the causes and cures of mental illness. Ironing over salient (and true) details of its subject’s life because middle America (and the Academy) might not approve (dude was bi-sexual and sort of a douche). Directed by the most middle-of-the-road and style-less child star ever to sit in the director’s chair. Flavorless, disingenuous, ‘uplifting’ mush, this movie is everything Academy voters love to eat up with a spoon. Gosford Park proves, once again, that no one is better than Altman at juggling huge casts, multiple storylines, and levels of meaning. So, obviously, I’m awarding the Oscar to:

Winner: The Lord of the Rings- The Fellowship of the Ring (See what I did there? Call me predictable, will you?)

So that’s that. In the real world, Altman got two nominations for best picture and NO wins. In Dennis world, he is a solid six-for-eleven. All is right, life is good, and the world makes sense again. Which world would you want to live in?

For more bloggy, pop culture-y goodness, check out Dennis and Justin in Brannigan’s Law!

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Published in: on June 26, 2009 at 12:44 pm  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love this list! Good list, listmaker! Way to list it up, Tiny Lister! Listin’ the night away!

    Seriously, I very much enjoyed this. Sometime you should put an entire day aside and watch every single Altman film in succession and keep a laptop handy while you do so. That would be fun for you to do and fun for us to read.

  2. I know you’re busy but I’ll tell the doctors to loosen the straps on your straitjacket a little bit.

  3. As long as I can type…

  4. who are you because i think i’m in love with you

    • Awww, you. Thanks for the love. Take a look around. Set a spell.

  5. Excellent Altman tribute! Great to find another fan of the much maligned PRET-A-PORTER, a fun, funny film that is light and inconsequential but damn entertaining.

    On a side note, interesting you would criticise A BEAUTIFUL MIND for its simplistic view of mental illness; I feel the same way about CUCKOO’S NEST, which seemed to imply a fishing trip and an all night party was the best way to treat severe mental disorders.

    Still great analysis and good fun to read. Thanks!

  6. Yeah, ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ got a pass from me just because it was so damned exhilarating to watch.
    Even in Mitchell Zuckoff’s new Altman ‘oral history’-style biography, ‘Ready to Wear’ gets the back of everyone’s hand. I think you said it best: “light and inconsequential but damned entertaining’.
    Thanks for reading.

  7. Great post. Long live Altman!

    • Agreed, J-man (or woman.) Thanks for reading.


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