THE PLAYER A-
USA (124 mi) 1992 d: Robert Altman
USA (124 mi) 1992 d: Robert Altman
It’s just a satire on the way people behave in the movie studios. There was such a fuss started about it. People started saying, ‘Oh people are afraid you are going to do this and do this.’ So the more afraid they got, the more ideas they gave me. Looking back on this whole picture, it’s a pretty tame satire. It’s no big indictment. Things are much, much worse than this picture seems to say.
— Robert Altman
As if coming out of a long hibernation, Altman’s extremely clever film literally screams Hollywood headlines, making it the most talked about movie in Tinseltown, largely because it’s such a scathing indictment of the brainless and corrupt corporate culture that is the Hollywood movie industry itself. Altman had largely been out of favor with Hollywood since several critically acclaimed studio films of the 70’s actually lost money or had difficulty finding audiences despite near unanimous praise, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973), made even worse by the critical and financial disaster of POPEYE (1980), the final blow that sent the independent-minded director outside the studios in the late 70’s and 80’s working on stage plays, television adaptations, and his own small-budget projects. Altman is in fine form here as he relishes the opportunity to satirize, with a sleazy mix of truth and near slander, the same industry that spawned his own career and do it with an insider’s view, as during the 70’s Altman himself was at the epicenter of the movie industry, the darling child who could do no wrong with a string of hits, while in the 80’s, the door was slammed shut and no one would return his calls, as he was reduced to yesterday’s news and exiled to the role of an outsider. That gave him plenty of autobiographical ammunition to get the subversive tone just right for this Hollywood haymaker, a poisoned pen “fuck you” to the crassness and elitism of the movie industry, which ironically catapulted Altman right back to the top of the A-list directors in Hollywood, where his next film Short Cuts (1993) is a return to director prominence, like in the early 70’s when Altman was able to make exactly the films he wanted to make. While it’s hard to imagine any other industry but Hollywood turning out a product designed to trash the very industry that provided its existence, what’s perhaps most amazing is the movie itself became the most requested picture for private screenings throughout the year by the very studio executives it lambastes.
With an extended opening tracking shot that lasts nearly 8 minutes, paying homage to Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), known for its legendary opening shot which is cleverly mentioned during the scene, the film ironically situates the audience right in the heart of a Hollywood studio lot (the former site of Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios) where we hear Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) as a cinema obsessed security chief tell someone how disgusted he is with the quick MTV edits of today’s movies, “Everything now is cut, cut, cut,” how no one ever attempts to make long tracking shots anymore like the infamous opening of TOUCH OF EVIL that captures the essence of the film in the complexity of the opening shot. It’s not by accident that Altman chose this film, as it also represented a return to Hollywood filmmaking by Welles after a near 30-year absence, an interesting parallel to Altman’s own triumphant return after a decade-long absence. The highly complicated and perfectly choreographed crane shot is interesting for how it weaves in and out of various conversations and sequences, eventually eavesdropping on the business at hand by voyeuristically peeping through windows to hear various movie ideas being pitched, each one with a familiar ring, starring Julia Roberts or Bruce Willis, summarized by combining ideas from one hit movie with another. The funniest, however, is listening to Buck Henry, co-writer of THE GRADUATE (1967), suggest to a young studio executive who wasn’t even born when the infamous film was made, that the time is right for THE GRADUATE II, as all the principles are still alive, where Ben and Elaine (Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross) could be living in Northern California somewhere with an infirmed Mrs. Robinson living in a room upstairs, conjuring up images of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962). It’s here that high paid business executives get paid mammoth salaries to listen to 50,000 pitches for movies every year, where they have to narrow it down to the ten or twelve that the studio actually makes each year. Their instincts to make the right choices determine whether or not they will still have jobs afterwards. It’s a high powered business where someone is always looking out for your office, so like politics, executives like to hold onto their position as it provides them with unfettered power.
Enter powerbroker Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a man in a slick suit who has people at his beck and call, who is constantly in demand, but is too busy for nearly everyone, including his bright attractive subordinate Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson) that he’s having an affair with, stealing her ideas and body without giving it a second thought. Someone, however, is sending him death threat post cards (a job Altman performed himself, apparently with relish), a disgruntled writer supposedly upset at being screwed by the studio (imagine that?), as Griffin apparently promised to get back to him and he never did. So while Griffin is anxiously wondering if someone has already been chosen to replace him, as studio boss Joel Levison (Brion James) has already hired another high-salaried executive, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), with rumors flying fast and furious that Griffin is on his way out, he frantically tries to narrow it down to the most likely candidate, with the problem being he’s pissed off so many writers over the years (probably stealing most of their ideas without ever paying them), that he’s developed a reputation for being a first class sleazebag. Growing progressively paranoid, reaching a state of panic (and perhaps temporary insanity), he decides to confront the most likely suspect and smooth things over by offering him a deal. Initially speaking to the girlfriend by phone, June (Greta Scacchi), eying her through the house windows for the duration of the call, where he practically seduces her, before learning screenwriter David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) always watches movies at the Rialto Theater in Pasadena, where he’s currently watching BICYCLE THIEVES (1948). Walking into the theater with less than 5-minutes remaining might seem a little suspicious, where Kahane grows even more angry and contemptuous of Griffin’s motives after sharing drinks at a nearby Japanese karaoke bar (with a portrait of Hitchcock peering out from the wall), finding him the picture of phoniness and insincerity, and then humiliates him on the street, reminding him that he’s on his way out, as it’s in all the Hollywood papers, so why would he be making any deals? In what may be real, or part of a pitched movie fantasy, Griffin goes berserk and decides to eliminate this distraction with ruthless efficiency, murdering him on the spot, spending the rest of the film covering his tracks, denying culpability, dodging pestering police detectives (including Whoopi Goldberg), keeping Levy at bay, while launching the production of a surefire catastrophe, snatching the most horrible movie idea he could find pitched by agent Dean Stockwell and hack writer Richard E. Grant, like something out of THE PRODUCERS (1967), an execution murder romance gone wrong (insisting upon no name actors! - - for uncompromising authenticity) called Habeas Corpus, handing the project over to Levy as a no-miss blockbuster, hoping the disaster will spell the end his career. And then, to show the extent of his remorse, he hits on the writer’s girlfriend June at the funeral service.
Stylistically, the film is a cynical black comedy and is as funny and playfully entertaining as anything Altman ever made throughout his career, making back its money within the first month of release, where he turns the offices of the studio, which had just been used in the Coen’s BARTON FINK (1991), into a museum-like Hollywood studio tour, making exquisite use of old film noir movie posters where the screaming bold print perfectly matches the mood of the film, while there are also delightful cameos throughout from at least 60 Hollywood stars, none of whom were in the script, but includes 12 Oscar winning actors in the cast, more than any other film in history, including Cher, James Coburn, Louise Fletcher, Whoopi Goldberg, Joel Grey, Anjelica Huston, Jack Lemmon, Marlee Matlin, Tim Robbins, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Rod Steiger, while also including Oscar winning producer-director Sydney Pollack. Of course, the irate writer continues to send post cards, as Griffin killed the wrong man—another prominent Hollywood theme. Outside of the titular character, there is little other character development, as the film centers around the actions and behavior of a single character, who is detestable throughout, without question, not the kind of guy that draws audience sympathy. With all the cameos, Altman does an excellent job blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, where this is a narcissistic culture that often can’t tell the difference, whose mindset is thriving on surface artificiality, rarely probing under the surface, and yet Robbins is no slouch as Griffin, little more than a con artist, fiercely cold-blooded at one moment, deceitful throughout, where every vulnerable moment where any feelings are exposed feels calculated by a guy that plays all the angles. Griffin does nothing by accident, as everything is meticulously planned, like a chess match, where his job is to stay in the game using whatever means are available to him. Part of the film’s interest lies in the way it explores who really runs the movie industry, questioning who is the primary artist, the writer, the director, the actor, or the producer? Griffin is heard sarcastically muttering “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.” It’s a strange culture being dissected, one where screenwriters routinely receive millions for scripts, luring into its lair such famous novelists as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck, William Goldman, Raymond Chandler, Mario Puzo, Truman Capote, Larry McMurtry, Stephen King, or Cormac McCarthy, among others. In the late 1920’s, with the movie industry still in its infancy, newspaper columnist, reporter, playwright, and eventual CITIZEN KANE (1941) screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz moved from New York, the center of American literary activity, to Hollywood. A few months later, he sent this cable to his writer friend Ben Hecht: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Sooner or later, however, it did. From the beginning, motion pictures offered writers easy money for a few weeks’ work holed up in Hollywood somewhere dashing off a screenplay or rewriting someone’s else’s great American novel.
Sex, violence, and a happy ending are the Hollywood paradigm that comes under fire, mercilessly satirized by Altman and Tolkin, lurching into American Psycho (2000) territory, where the protagonist of the novel is truly a murderer, but in the film he surreally fantasizes the murders, while here Griffin is an unrepentant murderer in the novel, as he appears throughout most of the film, but this is a director that not only knows movies, but knows how to make movies, as the protagonist kills a writer, screws his woman, and turns blackmail into a Hollywood script that makes millions, where it’s all part of a grand theatrical spectacle. As part of his master plan of deceit and betrayal, Griffin has his subordinate Bonnie hastily sent out of town while he makes plans for a weekend romance with June in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. People apparently do things like that in Los Angeles. The convoluted plot takes a few twists and turns, all of which are made to resemble life “in the movies.” There must be a hundred movie references in this film, as it’s all anyone ever talks about, where Griffin asks at one point, “Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change? We’re educated people.” Altman loves the idea of creating a fantasy within a fantasy, with everyone basking in the glow of their own self satisfaction, where the happy ending house used near the end with Griffin and a pregnant June, where he rubs her belly exactly as the Robbins character does in his next film, Short Cuts, is Altman’s own. Griffin indicates the formula for a successful Hollywood movie must include “suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, and happy endings,” where Altman includes them all, mockingly delivered with an ironic twist. Habeas Corpus finally sees the light of day in a hilarious climax, considerably watered down from the original concept, with Julia Roberts being marched to the gas chamber in one such interlude, before Bruce Willis, guns blazing, rescues her at the instant before her death, where no one apparently recognizes that the story is a rip-off of Susan Hayward starring in Robert Wise’s I WANT TO LIVE! (1958). This is a wonderful example of a director exploiting one-dimensional characters and an utterly formulaic plot structure where every cliché is milked in order to make an insightful comment on the shallowness of the industry itself. Someone had a helluva good time making this movie, adapted by the novelist Michael Tolkin (who makes an appearance with his brother Stephen, most likely as pitch men), a sardonic love potion to the industry, joined by a cast of thousands, a hilarious valentine to the business Chaplin built, that has been corrupted by the immense sums of money made to create this illusionary world of ourselves, all in the name of entertainment. Altman really gets this one right, as it’s thoroughly enjoyable, even as we relish how despicable the entire movie business has become, an industry where you can literally get away with murder, rotten to the core, built on a foundation of lies, yet still an audience will show up in droves to catch the next opening.