Robert Altman, the caustic and irreverent satirical filmmaker behind M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player who made a career out of bucking Hollywood, has died at 81.
The director died on Monday night at a Los Angeles Hospital, Joshua Astrachan, a producer at Altman’s Sandcastle 5 Productions in New York City, 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 film-making has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition."
Elliot Gould, who starred in M*A*S*H, said Altman’s legacy would "nuture and inspire filmmakers and artists for generations to come".
"He was the last great American director in the tradition of John Ford," Gould said. "He was my friend and I’ll always be grateful to him for the experience and opportunities he gave me."
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 & 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.
It won the original-screenplay Oscar, and Altman took the best-director prize at the Golden Globes for Gosford Park.
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 – are 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.
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 Gould was set during the Korean War but was Altman’s thinly veiled attack on US 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.
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.
Altman was written off repeatedly by the Hollywood establishment, and his reputation for arrogance and hard drinking 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.
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.--