His style of filmmaking was unique among directors, in that his subjects covered most genres, but with a "subversive" twist that typically relies on satire and humor to express his personal vision. Altman developed a reputation for being "anti-Hollywood" and non-conformist in both his themes and directing style. However, actors especially enjoyed working under his direction because he encouraged them to improvise, thereby inspiring their own creativity.
He preferred large ensemble casts for his films, and developed a multitrack recording technique which produced overlapping dialogue from multiple actors. This produced a more natural, more dynamic, and more complex experience for the viewer. He also used highly mobile camera work and zoom lenses to enhance the activity taking place on the screen. Critic Pauline Kael, writing about his directing style, said that Altman could "make film fireworks out of next to nothing."
In 2006, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Altman's body of work with an Academy Honorary Award. He never won a competitive Oscar despite seven nominations. His films MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975) have been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Altman is one of the few filmmakers whose films have won the Golden Bear at Berlin, the Golden Lion at Venice, and the Golden Palm at Cannes.
Altman was born on February 20, 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Helen (née Matthews), a Mayflower descendant from Nebraska, and Bernard Clement Altman, a wealthy insurance salesman and amateur gambler, who came from an upper-class family. Altman's ancestry was German, English and Irish; his paternal grandfather, Frank Altman, Sr., anglicized the spelling of the family name from "Altmann" to "Altman". Altman had a Catholic upbringing, but he did not continue to follow or practice the religion as an adult, although he has been referred to as "a sort of Catholic" and a Catholic director. He was educated at Jesuit schools, including Rockhurst High School, in Kansas City. He graduated from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri in 1943.
In 1943 Altman joined the United States Army Air Forces at the age of 18. During World War II, Altman flew more than 50 bombing missions as a crewman on a B-24 Liberator with the 307th Bomb Group in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies.
Upon his discharge in 1946, Altman moved to California. He worked in publicity for a company that had invented a tattooing machine to identify dogs. He entered filmmaking on a whim, selling a script to RKO for the 1948 picture Bodyguard, which he co-wrote with George W. George. Altman's immediate success encouraged him to move to New York City, where he attempted to forge a career as a writer. Having enjoyed little success, in 1949 he returned to Kansas City, where he accepted a job as a director and writer of industrial films for the Calvin Company. In February 2012, an early Calvin film directed by Altman, Modern Football (1951), was found by filmmaker Gary Huggins.
Altman directed some 65 industrial films and documentaries before being hired by a local businessman in 1956 to write and direct a feature film in Kansas City on juvenile delinquency. The film, titled The Delinquents, made for $60,000, was purchased by United Artists for $150,000, and released in 1957. While primitive, this teen exploitation film contained the foundations of Altman's later work in its use of casual, naturalistic dialogue. With its success, Altman moved from Kansas City to California for the last time. He co-directed The James Dean Story (1957), a documentary rushed into theaters to capitalize on the actor's recent death and marketed to his emerging cult following.
Altman's first forays into TV directing were on the DuMont drama series Pulse of the City (1953–1954), and an episode of the 1956 western series The Sheriff of Cochise. After Alfred Hitchcock saw Altman's early features The Delinquents and The James Dean Story, he hired him as a director for his CBS anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After just two episodes, Altman resigned due to differences with a producer, but this exposure enabled him to forge a successful TV career. Over the next decade Altman worked prolifically in television (and almost exclusively in series dramas) directing multiple episodes of Whirlybirds, The Millionaire, U.S. Marshal, The Troubleshooters, The Roaring 20s, Bonanza, Bus Stop, Kraft Mystery Theater, Combat!, and Kraft Suspense Theatre, as well as single episodes of several other notable series including Hawaiian Eye, Maverick, Lawman, Surfside 6, Peter Gunn, and Route 66.
Through this early work on industrial films and TV series, Altman experimented with narrative technique and developed his characteristic use of overlapping dialogue. He also learned to work quickly and efficiently on a limited budget. During his TV period, though frequently fired for refusing to conform to network mandates, as well as insisting on expressing political subtexts and antiwar sentiments during the Vietnam years, Altman always was able to gain assignments. In 1964, the producers decided to expand "Once Upon a Savage Night", one of his episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre, for theatrical release under the name, Nightmare in Chicago.
Two years later, Altman was hired to direct the low-budget space travel feature Countdown, but was fired within days of the project's conclusion because he had refused to edit the film to a manageable length. He did not direct another film until That Cold Day in the Park (1969), which was a critical and box-office disaster.
In 1969, Altman was offered the script for MASH, an adaptation of a little-known Korean War-era novel satirizing life in the armed services; more than a dozen other filmmakers had passed on it. Altman had been hesitant to take the production, and the shoot was so tumultuous that Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland tried to have Altman fired over his unorthodox filming methods. Nevertheless, MASH was widely hailed as an immediate classic upon its 1970 release. It won the Palme d'Or at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival and netted five Academy Award nominations. It was Altman's highest-grossing film, released during a time of increasing anti-war sentiment in the United States. The Academy Film Archive preserved MASH in 2000.
Now recognized as a major talent, Altman notched critical successes with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a Western known for its gritty portrayal of the American frontier; The Long Goodbye (1973), a controversial adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel (scripted by Leigh Brackett) now ranked as a seminal influence on the neo-noir subgenre; Thieves Like Us (1974), an adaptation of the Edward Anderson novel previously filmed by Nicholas Ray as They Live by Night (1949); California Split (1974), a gambling comedy-drama; and Nashville (1975), which had a strong political theme set against the world of country music. The stars of the film wrote their own songs; Keith Carradine won an Academy Award for the song "I'm Easy". Although his films were often met with divisive notices, many of the prominent film critics of the era (including Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert) remained steadfastly loyal to his oeuvre throughout the decade.
Audiences took some time to appreciate his films, and he did not want to have to satisfy studio officials. In 1970, following the release of MASH, he founded Lion's Gate Films to have independent production freedom. Altman's company is not to be confused with the current Lionsgate, a Canada/U.S. entertainment company. The films he made through his company included Brewster McCloud, A Wedding, 3 Women, and Quintet.
In 1980, he directed the musical film Popeye. Produced by Robert Evans and written by Jules Feiffer, the film was based on the comic strip/cartoon of the same name and starred the comedian Robin Williams in his film debut. Designed as a vehicle to increase Altman's commercial clout following a series of critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful low-budget films in the late 1970s (including 3 Women, A Wedding and Quintet), the production (filmed on location in Malta) was beleaguered by heavy drug and alcohol use among most of the cast and crew, including the director; Altman reportedly clashed with Evans, Williams (who threatened to leave the film) and songwriter Harry Nilsson (who departed midway through the shoot, leaving Van Dyke Parks to finish the orchestrations). Though the film grossed $60 million worldwide on a $20 million budget and was the second highest-grossing film Altman had directed to that point, it was far from the gross the studios had expected and was considered a box office disappointment.
In 1981, the director sold Lion's Gate to producer Jonathan Taplin after his political satire Health shot in 1979 was still shelved in 1980 by longtime distributor 20th Century Fox following tepid test screenings in the wake of the departure of his avowed partisan Alan Ladd, Jr. from the studio. Unable to secure major financing in the post-New Hollywood blockbuster era because of his long-established mercurial reputation and the particularly tumultuous events surrounding the production of Popeye, Altman began to "direct literate dramatic properties on shoestring budgets for stage, home video, television, and limited theatrical release," including the acclaimed Secret Honor and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, an adaptation of a play that Altman had directed on Broadway. An abortive return to Hollywood filmmaking, the buddy film O.C. and Stiggs was shelved by MGM for nearly two years and received a belated limited commercial release in 1987. He also garnered a good deal of acclaim for his TV "mockumentary" Tanner '88, based on a presidential campaign, for which he earned a Primetime Emmy Award and regained critical favor. Still, widespread popularity with audiences continued to elude him. Altman also co-wrote John Anderson's 1983 hit single "Black Sheep".
In 1990 Altman directed Vincent & Theo, a biographical picture about the famous painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) that was intended as a television miniseries for broadcast in the United Kingdom. A theatrical version of the film was a modest success in the US; Altman had reclaimed his darling status with critics, at least.
He then revitalized his career with The Player (1992), a satire of Hollywood. Co-produced by the influential David Brown (The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon), the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director. While he did not win the Oscar, he was awarded Best Director by the Cannes Film Festival, BAFTA, and the New York Film Critics Circle.
Altman then directed Short Cuts (1993), an ambitious adaptation of several short stories by Raymond Carver, which portrayed the lives of various citizens of Los Angeles over the course of several days. The film's large cast and intertwining of many different storylines were similar to his large-cast films of the 1970s; he won the Golden Lion at the 1993 Venice International Film Festival and another Oscar nomination for Best Director. In 1996, Altman directed Kansas City, expressing his love of 1930s jazz through a complicated kidnapping story. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999.
Altman directed Gosford Park (2001), and his portrayal of a large-cast, British country house mystery was included on many critics' lists of the ten best films of that year. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Julian Fellowes) plus six more nominations, including two for Altman, as Best Director and Best Picture.
Working with independent studios such as the now-shuttered Fine Line, Artisan (which was absorbed into today's Lionsgate), and USA Films (now Focus Features), gave Altman the edge in making the kinds of films he always wanted to make without studio interference. A film version of Garrison Keillor's public radio series A Prairie Home Companion was released in June 2006. Altman was still developing new projects up until his death, including a film based on Hands on a Hard Body: The Documentary (1997).
In 2006, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Altman an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement. During his acceptance speech, he revealed that he had received a heart transplant approximately ten or eleven years earlier. The director then quipped that perhaps the Academy had acted prematurely in recognizing the body of his work, as he felt like he might have four more decades of life ahead of him.
In the 1960s, Altman lived for years in Mandeville Canyon in Brentwood, California. He resided in Malibu throughout the 1970s, but sold that home and the Lion's Gate production company in 1981. "I had no choice", he told the New York Times. "Nobody was answering the phone" after the flop of Popeye. He moved his family and business headquarters to New York City, but eventually moved back to Malibu, where he lived until his death. Altman despised the phenomenally popular television series MASH which followed his popular 1970 film, citing it as being the antithesis of what his movie was about, and citing its anti-war messages as being "racist." He stated very clearly in the 2001 DVD commentary of MASH his disapproval and the reasons why for the series.
In November 2000, he claimed that he would move to Paris if George W. Bush were elected, but joked that he had meant Paris, Texas when it came to pass. He noted that "the state would be better off if he (Bush) is out of it." Altman was an outspoken marijuana user, and served as a member of the NORML advisory board. He was also an atheist and an anti-war activist. He was one of numerous notable public figures, including the linguist Noam Chomsky and the actress Susan Sarandon, who signed the "Not in Our Name" declaration opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Julian Fellowes believes that Altman's anti-war and anti-Bush stance cost him the Best Director Oscar for Gosford Park.
Altman died on November 20, 2006, at age 81 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood. According to his production company in New York, Sandcastle 5 Productions, he died of complications from leukemia.
Altman was survived by his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman; six children or step-children: Christine Westphal, Michael Altman, Stephen Altman (his production designer of choice for many films), Konni Reed Corriere, Robert Reed Altman, and Matthew Altman; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. The Altmans had married in 1959. Kathryn Altman, who died in 2016, co-authored a book about Altman that was published in 2014. She had served as a consultant and narrator for the 2014 documentary Altman, and had spoken at many retrospective screenings of her husband's films.
The film director Paul Thomas Anderson dedicated his 2007 film There Will Be Blood to Altman. Anderson had worked as a standby director on A Prairie Home Companion for insurance purposes, in the event the ailing 80-year-old Altman was unable to finish shooting.
During a celebration tribute to Altman a few months after his death, he was described as a "passionate filmmaker" and auteur who rejected convention, creating what director Alan Rudolph called an "Altmanesque" style of films. He preferred large casts of actors, natural overlapping conversations, and encouraged his actors to improvise and express their innate creativity, but without fear of failing. Lily Tomlin compared him to "a great benign patriarch who was always looking out for you as an actor," adding that "you're not afraid to take chances with him."
Many of his films are described as "acid satires and counterculture character studies that redefined and reinvigorated modern cinema." Although his films spanned most film genres, such as Westerns, musicals, war films, or comedies, he was considered "anti-genre," and his films were "candidly subversive." He was known to hate the "phoniness" he saw in most mainstream films, and "he wanted to explode them" through satire.
Actor Tim Robbins, who starred in a number of Altman's films, describes some of the unique aspects of his directing method:
He created a unique and wonderful world on his sets, . . . where the mischievous dad unleashed the "children actors" to play. Where your imagination was encouraged, nurtured, laughed at, embraced and Altman-ized. A sweet anarchy that many of us hadn't felt since the schoolyard, unleashed by Bob's wild heart.
Altman's personal archives are located at the University of Michigan, which include about 900 boxes of personal papers, scripts, legal, business and financial records, photographs, props and related material. Altman had filmed Secret Honor at the university, as well as directed several operas there.
Since 2009, the Robert Altman Award is awarded to the director, casting director, and ensemble cast of films at the yearly Independent Spirit Awards.
In 2014, a feature-length documentary film, Altman, was released, which looks at his life and work with film clips and interviews.
Following his successful career in television, Altman began his new career in the movie industry when he was in middle-age. He understood the creative limits imposed by the television genre, and now set out to direct and write films which would express his personal visions about American society and Hollywood. His films would later be described as "auteuristic attacks" and "idiosyncratic variations" of traditional films, typically using subtle comedy or satire as a way of expressing his observations.
His films were typically related to political, ideological, and personal subjects, and Altman was known for "refusing to compromise his own artistic vision." He has been described as "anti-Hollywood," often ignoring the social pressures that affected others in the industry, which made it more difficult for him to get many of his films seen. However, he still felt that his independence as a filmmaker did him little harm overall:
I don't think there's a filmmaker alive, or who ever lived, who's had a better shake than I've had. I've never been without a project and it's always been a project of my own choosing. So I don't know how much better it could be. I have not become a mogul, I don't build castles and I don't have a vast personal fortune, but I have been able to do what I've wanted to do and I've done it a lot.
"Altman was a genuine movie maverick," states author Ian Freer, because he went against the commercial conformity of the movie industry: "He was the scourge of the film establishment, and his work generally cast an astute, scathing eye over the breadth of American culture, often exploding genres and character archetypes; Altman was fascinated by people with imperfections, people as they really are, not as the movies would have you believe." Director Alan Rudolph, during a special tribute to Altman, refers to his moviemaking style as "Altmanesque."
With his independent style of directing, he developed a bad reputation among screenwriters and those on the business side of films. He admits, "I have a bad reputation with writers, developed over the years: 'Oh, he doesn't do what you write, blah blah blah.' . . . . Ring Lardner was very pissed off with me," for not following his script. Nor did Altman get along well with studio heads, once punching an executive in the nose and knocking him into a swimming pool because he insisted he cut six minutes from a film he was working on.
His reputation among actors is quite different, however. With them, his independence sometimes extended to his choice of actors, often going against consensus. Cher, for instance, credits him for launching her career with both the stage play and film, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982). "Without Bob I would have never had a film career. Everyone told him not to cast me. Everyone. . . . Nobody would give me a break. I am convinced that Bob was the only one who was brave enough to do it." Others, like Julianne Moore, describes working with him:
You know, all this talk about Bob being this kind of irascible, difficult kind of person? Well, he was never that way with an actor or with a creative person that I saw. Never, never, never. He saved all that for the money people.
However, director Robert Dornhelm states, Altman "looked at film as a pure, artistic venue." With Short Cuts (1993), for instance, the distributor "begged him" to cut a few minutes from the length, to keep it commercially viable: "Bob just thought the Antichrist was trying to destroy his art. They were well-meaning people who wanted him to get what he deserved, which was a big commercial hit. But when it came down to the art or the money, he was with the art."
Sally Kellerman, noting Altman's willful attitude, still looks back with regret at giving up a chance to act in one of his films:
I had just finished filming Last of the Red Hot Lovers when Bob called me one day at home. "Sally, do you want to be in my picture after next?" he asked. "Only if it's a good part," I said. He hung up on me.
Bob was as stubborn and arrogant as I was at the time, but the sad thing is that I cheated myself out of working with someone I loved so much, someone who made acting both fun and easy and who trusted his actors. Bob loved actors. Stars would line up to work for nothing for Bob Altman.
Unlike directors whose work fits within various film genres, such as Westerns, musicals, war films, or comedies, Altman's work has been defined as more "anti-genre" by various critics. This is partly due to the satirical and comedy nature of many of his films. Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin, compared the humor in his films to her father's films:
They're funny in the right way. Funny in a critical way—of what the world is and the world we live in. They were both geniuses in their way. They alter your experience of reality. They have their world and they have their humor. That humor is so rare.
Altman made it clear that he did not like "storytelling" in his films, contrary to the way most television and mainstream movies are made. According to Altman biographer Mitchell Zuckoff, "he disliked the word 'story,' believing that a plot should be secondary to an exploration of pure (or, even better, impure) human behavior." Zuckoff describes the purposes underlying many of Altman's films: "He loved the chaotic nature of real life, with conflicting perspectives, surprising twists, unexplained actions, and ambiguous endings. He especially loved many voices, sometimes arguing, sometimes agreeing, ideally overlapping, a cocktail party or a street scene captured as he experienced it. Julianne Moore, after seeing some of his movies, credits Altman's style of directing for her decision to become a film actress, rather than a stage actress:
I felt it really strongly. And I thought, "I don't know who this guy is, but that's what I want to do. I want to do that kind of work." From then on I'd see his films whenever I could, and he was always my absolute favorite director, for what he said thematically and emotionally and how he felt about people.
Film author Charles Derry writes that Altman's films "characteristically contain perceptive observations, telling exchanges, and moments of crystal clear revelation of human folly." Because Altman was an astute observer of society and "especially interested in people," notes Derry, many of his film characters had "that sloppy imperfection associated with human beings as they are, with life as it is lived." As a result, his films are often an indirect critique of American society.
For many of Altman's films, the satirical content is evident: MASH (1970), for example, is a satirical black comedy set during the Korean War; McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) is a satire on Westerns; author Matthew Kennedy states that Nashville (1975) is a "brilliant satire of America immediately prior to the Bicentennial"; A Wedding (1978) is a satire on American marriage rituals and hypocrisy; Altman himself said that The Player (1992) was "a very mild satire" about the Hollywood film industry, and Vincent Canby agreed, stating that "as a satire, The Player tickles. It doesn't draw blood." However, the satire of his films sometimes led to their failure at the box office if their satirical nature was not understood by the distributor. Altman blames the box office failure of The Long Goodbye (1973), a detective story, on the erroneous marketing of the film as a thriller:
When the picture opened, it was a big, big flop. . . I went to David Picker and said, "You can't do this. No wonder the fucking picture is failing. It's giving the wrong impression. You make it look like a thriller and it's not, it's a satire.
Similarly, Altman also blames the failure of O.C. & Stiggs on its being marketed as a typical "teenage movie," rather than what he filmed it as, a "satire of a teenage movie," he said.
Altman favored stories expressing the interrelationships among several characters, being more interested in character motivation than in intricate plots. He therefore tended to sketch out only a basic plot for the film, referring to the screenplay as a "blueprint" for action. By encouraging his actors to improvise dialogue, Altman thus became known as an "actor's director," a reputation that attracted many notable actors to work as part of his large casts. Performers enjoy working with Altman in part because "he provides them with the freedom to develop their characters and often alter the script through improvisation and collaboration," notes Derry. Richard Baskin says that "Bob was rather extraordinary in his way of letting people do what they did. He trusted you to do what you did and therefore you would kill for him."
Geraldine Chaplin, who acted in Nashville, recalls one of her first rehearsal sessions:
He said, "Have you brought your scripts?" We said yes. He said, "Well, throw them away. You don't need them. You need to know who you are and where you are and who you're with." . . . It was like being onstage with a full house every second. All the circus acts you had inside your body you'd do just for him.
Altman regularly let his actors develop a character through improvisation during rehearsal or sometimes during the actual filming. Such improvisation was uncommon in film due to the high cost of movie production which requires careful planning, precise scripts, and rehearsal, before costly film was exposed. Nevertheless, Altman preferred to use improvisation as a tool for helping his actors develop their character. Altman said that "once we start shooting it's a very set thing. Improvisation is misunderstood. We don't just turn people loose." Although he tried to avoid dictating an actor's every move, preferring to let them be in control:
When I cast a film, most of my creative work is done. I have to be there to turn the switch on and give them encouragement as a father figure, but they do all the work. . . . All I'm trying to do is make it easy on the actor, because once you start to shoot, the actor is the artist. . . . I have to give them confidence and see that they have a certain amount of protection so they can be creative. . . . I let them do what they became actors for in the first place: to create.
Carol Burnett remembers Altman admitting that many of the ideas in his films came from the actors. "You never hear a director say that. That was truly an astonishing thing," she said. Others, such as Jennifer Jason Leigh, became creatively driven:
He would inspire you out of sheer necessity to come up with stuff that you didn't know you were capable of, that you didn't know you had in you. He was so genuinely mischievous and so damn funny.
He liked working with many of the same performers for other films, including Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall and Michael Murphy. Krin Gabbard adds that Altman enjoyed using actors "who flourish as improvisers," such as Elliott Gould, who starred in three of his films, MASH, The Long Goodbye and California Split. Gould recalls that when filming MASH, his first acting job with Altman, he and costar Donald Sutherland didn't think Altman knew what he was doing. He wrote years later, "I think that in hindsight, Donald and I were two elitist, arrogant actors who really weren't getting Altman's genius." Others in the cast immediately appreciated Altman's directing style. René Auberjonois explains:
We thought that's the way movies were. That they were that joyous an experience. If you had any kind of career, you quickly saw that most directors don't really trust actors, don't really want to see actors acting. That was the difference with Bob Altman. He loved actors and wanted to see acting.
Unlike television and traditional films, Altman also avoided "conventional storytelling," and would opt for showing the "busy confusion of real life," observes Albert Lindauer. Among the various techniques to achieve this effect, his films often include "a profusion of sounds and images, by huge casts or crazy characters, multiple plots or no plots at all, . . . and a reliance on improvisation." A few months before he died, Altman tried to summarize the motives behind his filmmaking style:
I equate this work more with painting than with theater or literature. Stories don't interest me. Basically, I'm more interested in behavior. I don't direct, I watch. I have to be thrilled if I expect the audience to be thrilled. Because what I really want to see from an actor is something I've never seen before, so I can't tell them what it is. I try to encourage actors not to take turns. To deal with conversation as conversation. I mean, that's what the job is, I think. It's to make a comfort area so that an actor can go beyond what he thought he could do.
Altman was one of the few filmmakers who "paid full attention to the possibilities of sound" when filming. He tried to replicate natural conversational sounds, even with large casts, by wiring hidden microphones to actors, then recording them talking over each other with multiple soundtracks. During the filming, he wore a headset to ensure that important dialogue could be heard, without emphasizing it. This produced a "dense audio experience" for viewers, allowing them to hear multiple scraps of dialogue, as if they were listening in on various private conversations. Altman recognized that although large casts hurt a film commercially, "I like to see a lot of stuff going on."
Altman first used overlapping soundtracks in MASH (1970), a sound technique which movie author Michael Barson describes as "a breathtaking innovation at the time." He developed it, Altman said, to force viewers to pay attention and become engaged in the film as if they were an active participant. According to some critics, one of the more extreme uses of the technique is in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), also considered among his finest films.
However, overlapping dialogue among large groups of actors adds complexity to Altman's films, and they were often criticized as appearing haphazard or disconnected on first viewing. Some of his critics, however, changed their mind after seeing them again. British film critic, David Thomson, gave Nashville (1975) a bad review after watching it the first time, but later wrote, "But going back to Nashville and some of the earlier films, . . . made me reflect: It remains enigmatic how organized or purposeful Nashville is. . . . The mosaic, or mix, permits a freedom and a human idiosyncrasy that Renoir might have admired." During the making of the film, the actors were inspired, and co-star Ronee Blakley was convinced of the film's ultimate success:
Yes, I did think it was going to be great, all the work was so good, every actor was inspired, and Altman's team was intensely competent, and he was that rare kind of genius who knows what works and what doesn't at the moment it is happening.
Thomson later recognized those aspects as being part of Altman's style, beginning with MASH (1970): "MASH began to develop the crucial Altman style of overlapping, blurred sound and images so slippery with zoom that there was no sense of composition. That is what makes Nashville so absorbing." Altman explained that to him such overlapping dialogue in his films was closer to reality, especially with large groups: "If you've got fourteen people at a dinner table, it seems to me it's pretty unlikely that only two of them are going to be talking." Pauline Kael writes that Altman, "the master of large ensembles, loose action, and overlapping voices, demonstrates that . . . he can make film fireworks out of next to nothing."
The many actors with whom Altman worked include:
Altman's distinctive style of directing carried over into his preferences for camerawork. Among them was his use of widescreen compositions, intended to capture the many people or activities taking place on screen at the same time. For some films, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he created a powerful visual atmosphere with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, such as scenes using fluid camerawork, zoom lenses, and a smoky effect using special fog filters. Director Stanley Kubrick told Altman that "the camerawork was wonderful," and asked, "How did you do it?"
In Nashville, Altman used sets with noticeable colors of reds, whites and blues. For The Long Goodbye, he insisted that Zsigmond keep the camera mobile by mounting it to moving objects. Zsigmond states that Altman "wanted to do something different" in this film, and told him he "wanted the camera to move—all the time. Up. down. In and out. Side to side." Cinematographer Roger Deakins, discussing his use of zoom lenses, commented, "I would find it quite exciting to shoot a film with a zoom lens if it was that observational, roving kind of look that Robert Altman was known for. He'd put the camera on a jib arm and float across the scene and pick out these shots as he went along – quite a nice way of working."
Zsigmond also recalls that working with Altman was fun:
We rather enjoyed doing things "improv." Altman is a great improviser. During the first few days of the shoot, he would "create" different approaches on a moment's notice. He would show me how he wanted the camera to move—always move. Which was fun. The actors loved it, and I was always challenged to find ways to shoot what Altman came up with.
Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography in McCabe and Mrs. Miller received a nomination by the British Academy Film Awards.
When using music in his films, Altman was known to be highly selective, often choosing music that he personally liked. Director Paul Thomas Anderson, who worked with him, notes that "Altman's use of music is always important, adding, "Bob loved his music, didn't he? My God, he loved his music". Since he was a "great fan" of Leonard Cohen's music, for example, saying he would "just get stoned and play that stuff" all the time he used three of his songs in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and another for the final scene in A Wedding (1978).
For Nashville (1975), Altman had numerous new country music songs written by his cast to create a realistic atmosphere. He incorporated a "hauntingly repeated melody" in The Long Goodbye (1973), and employed Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks to score Popeye (1980).
A number of music experts have written about Altman's use of music, including Richard R. Ness, who wrote about the scores for many of Altman's films in an article, considered to be a valuable resource for understanding Altman's filmmaking technique. Similarly, cinema studies professor Krin Gabbard wrote an analysis of Altman's use of Jazz music in Short Cuts (1993), noting that few critics have considered the "importance of the music" in the film.
Jazz was also significant in Kansas City (1996). In that film, the music is considered to be the basis of the story. Altman states that "the whole idea was not to be too specific about the story," but to have the film itself be "rather a sort of jazz." Altman's technique of making the theme of a film a form of music, was considered "an experiment nobody has tried before," with Altman admitting it was risky. "I didn't know if it would work. . . . If people 'get it,' then they really tend to like it."Nightmare in Chicago (1964) [previously "Once Upon a Savage Night" in Kraft Suspense Theater]
Precious Blood (1982) – Television film written by Frank South
Rattlesnake in a Cooler (1982) – Television film written by Frank South
The Laundromat (1985) (60 min.)
Basements (1987) – two one-act plays by Harold Pinter: The Dumb Waiter and The Room (the former was released to video as its own feature by Prism Entertainment)
Tanner '88 (1988) – six-hour miniseries for HBO
The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1988) – Television film based on the play by Herman Wouk
Vincent & Theo (1990) – British miniseries in 4 parts, later released in edited form worldwide as feature film.
McTeague (1992) – an opera for PBS
The Real McTeague (1993) – making of "McTeague", also for PBS
Black and Blue (1993) – a Primetime Emmy Award-nominated filmed play which aired on PBS' "Great Performances"
Robert Altman's Jazz '34 (1997) – PBS special about the music from Kansas City
Tanner on Tanner (2004) – two-hour miniseries for the Sundance Channel, a follow-up to Tanner '88
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957–58)
ep. 3–9: "The Young One" (air-date December 1, 1957)
ep. 3–15: "Together" (a.d. January 12, 1958)
M Squad (1958) ep. 1–21: "Lover's Lane Killing" (a.d. February 14, 1958)
The Millionaire aka If You Had A Million (1958–59)
directed by Altman
ep No. 148 / 5–14: "Pete Hopper: Afraid of the Dark" (a.d. December 10, 1958)
ep No. 162 / 5–28: "Henry Banning: The Show Off" (a.d. April 1, 1959)
ep No. 185 / 6–14: "Jackson Greene: The Beatnik" (a.d. December 22, 1959)
written by Altman
ep No. 160 / 5–26: "Alicia Osante: Beauty and the Sailor" (a.d. March 18, 1959)
ep No. 174 / 6–3: "Lorraine Dagget: The Beach Story" [story] (a.d. September 29, 1959)
ep No. 183 / 6–12: "Andrew C. Cooley: Andy and Clara" (a.d. December 8, 1959)
ep. No. 53 / 2-14: "Infra-Red" (a.d. May 5, 1958)
ep. No. 55 / 2-16: "Blind Date" (a.d. May 19, 1958)
ep. No. 68 / 2-29: "Glamour Girl" (a.d. November 17, 1958)
ep. No. 70 / 2-31: "The Story of Sister Bridget" (a.d. December 1, 1958)
ep. No. 71 / 2–32: "The Midnight Show" (a.d. December 8, 1958)
ep. No. 78 / 2-39: "Rest In Peace" (a.d. January 26, 1959)
ep. No. 79 / 3–1: "Guilty of Old Age" (a.d. April 13, 1959)
ep. No. 80 / 3–2: "A Matter of Trust" (a.d. April 6, 1959)
ep. No. 81 / 3–3: "Christmas in June" (a.d. April 20, 1959)
ep. No. 82 / 3–4: "Til Death Do Us Part" (unknown air-date, probably April 27, 1959)
ep. No. 83 / 3–5: "Time Limit" (a.d. May 4, 1959)
ep. No. 84 / 3–6: "Experiment X-74" (a.d. May 11, 1959)
ep. No. 87 / 3–9: "The Challenge" (a.d. June 1, 1959)
ep. No. 88 / 3–10: "The Big Lie" (a.d. June 8, 1959)
ep. No. 91 / 3–13: "The Perfect Crime" (a.d. June 29, 1959)
ep. No. 92 / 3–14: "The Unknown Soldier" (a.d. July 6, 1959)
ep. No. 93 / 3–15: "Two of a Kind" (a.d. July 13, 1959)
ep. No. 94 / 3–16: "In Ways Mysterious" (a.d. July 20, 1959)
ep. No. 97 / 3–19: "The Black Maria" (a.d. August 10, 1959)
ep. No. 98 / 3–20: "The Sitting Duck" (a.d. August 17, 1959)
U.S. Marshal (original title: Sheriff of Cochise) (1959)
ep. 4–17: "The Triple Cross"
ep. 4–23: "Shortcut to Hell"
ep. 4–25: "R.I.P." (a.d. June 6, 1959)
uncertain; some sources cite Altman on these episodes; no known source cites anybody else
ep. 4–18: "The Third Miracle"
ep. 4–31: "Kill or Be Killed"
ep. 4–32: "Backfire"
ep. "Tapes For Murder"
ep. "Special Delivery"
ep. "Paper Bullets"
ep. "Tarnished Star"
Troubleshooters (1959) (13 episodes)
ep. 01 Liquid Death
ep. 02 The Law and the Profits / Disaster
ep. 03 Trouble at Elbow Bend
ep. 04 The Lower Depths
ep. 05 Tiger Culhane
ep. 06 Moment of Terror
ep. 07 Gino [also co-writer]
ep. 14 Swing Shift / Trouble at the Orphanage
ep. 17 Harry Maur
ep. 20 The Town That Wouldn't Die
ep. 22 Senorita
ep. 24 No Stone Unturned
ep. 25 Fire in the Hole
ep. 26 The Carnival / The Cat-skinner [also co-writer]
Hawaiian Eye (1959) ep. 8: "Three Tickets to Lani" (a.d. November 25, 1959)
ep. No. 47 / 3–7: "Apollo with a Gun" (a.d. December 8, 1959)
ep. No. 50 / 3–10: "The Highbinder" (a.d. January 19, 1960)
Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (1960)
ep. "The Sound of Murder" (a.d. January 1, 1960)
ep. "Death of a Dream"
The Gale Storm Show aka Oh! Susanna (1960) ep. No. 125 / 4–25: "It's Magic" (a.d. March 17, 1960)
Bronco (1960) ep No. 41 / 3–1: "The Mustangers" (a.d. October 17, 1960)
Maverick (1960) ep. #90: "Bolt From the Blue" (a.d. November 27, 1960)
The Roaring '20s (1960–61)
ep. 1–5: "The Prairie Flower" (a.d. November 12, 1960)
ep. 1–6: "Brother's Keeper" (a.d. November 19, 1960)
ep. 1–8: "White Carnation" (a.d. December 3, 1960)
ep. 1–12: "Dance Marathon" (a.d. January 14, 1961)
ep. 1–15: "Two a Day" (a.d. February 4, 1961)
ep. 1–28&29: "Right Off the Boat" Parts 1 & 2 (a.d. May 13/20, 1961)
ep. 1–31: "Royal Tour" (a.d. June 3, 1961)
ep. 2–4: "Standing Room Only" (a.d. October 28, 1961)
ep. 2–13: "Silent Thunder" (a.d. December 10, 1960)
ep. 2–19: "Bank Run" (a.d. January 28, 1961)
ep. 2–25: "The Duke" (a.d. March 11, 1961)
ep. 2–28: "The Rival" (a.d. April 15, 1961)
ep. 2–31: "The Secret" (a.d. May 6, 1961)
ep. 2–32 "The Dream Riders" (a.d. May 20, 1961)
ep. 2–34: "Sam Hill" (a.d. June 3, 1961)
ep. 3–7: "The Many Faces of Gideon Finch" (a.d. November 5, 1961)
Lawman (1961) ep. No. 92 / 3–16: "The Robbery" (a.d. January 1, 1961)
Surfside 6 (1961) ep. 1–18: "Thieves Among Honor" (a.d. Jan 30, 1961)
Peter Gunn (1958) ep. 3–28: "The Murder Bond" (a.d. April 24, 1961)
Bus Stop (1961–62)
ep. 4: "The Covering Darkness" (a.d. October 22, 1961)
ep. 5: "Portrait of a Hero" (a.d. October 29, 1961)
ep. 8: "Accessory By Consent" (a.d. November 19, 1961)
ep. 10: "A Lion Walks Among Us" (a.d. December 3, 1961)
ep. 12: "... And the Pursuit of Evil" (a.d. December 17, 1961)
ep. 15: "Summer Lightning" (a.d. January 7, 1962)
ep. 23: "Door Without a Key" (a.d. March 4, 1962)
ep. 25: "County General" [possibly failed pilot] (a.d. March 18, 1962)
Route 66 (1961)
ep. #40/2-10: "Some of the People, Some of the Time' (a.d. December 1, 61)
ep. 3–17: "A Gift for a Warrior" (a.d. January 18, 1963) – often incorrectly cited, Altman did not direct this
The Gallant Men (1962) pilot: "Battle Zone" (a.d. October 5, 1962)
ep. 1–1: "Forgotten Front" (a.d. October 2, 1962)
ep. 1–2: "Rear Echelon Commandos" (a.d. October 9, 1962)
ep. 1–4: "Any Second Now" (a.d. October 23, 1962)
ep. 1–7: "Escape to Nowhere" (a.d. December 20, 1962)
ep. 1–9: "Cat and Mouse" (a.d. December 4, 1962)
ep. 1–10: "I Swear by Apollo" (a.d. December 11, 1962)
ep. 1–12: "The Prisoner" (a.d. December 25, 1962)
ep. 1–16: "The Volunteer" (a.d. January 22, 1963)
ep. 1–20: "Off Limits" (a.d. February 19, 1963)
ep. 1–23: "Survival" (a.d. March 12, 1963)
Kraft Suspense Theatre (1963)
ep 1–8: "The Long Lost Life of Edward Smalley" (also writer) (a.d. December 12, 1963)
ep 1–9: "The Hunt" (also writer) (a.d. December 19, 1963)
ep 1–21: "Once Upon a Savage Night" (a.d. April 2, 1964)
The Long Hot Summer (1965) pilot
Nightwatch (1968) pilot: "The Suitcase"
Premiere (1968) ep. "Walk in the Sky" (a.d. July 15, 1968)
Saturday Night Live (1977) ep. No. 39 / 2–16 "h: Sissy Spacek", seg. "Sissy's Roles" (a.d. March 12, 1977)
Gun (aka Robert Altman's Gun) (1997) ep. 4: "All the President's Women" (a.d. May 10, 1997)
this episode, along with another, was released on DVD as Gun: Fatal Betrayal; subsequently, the entire six-episode series was released.
Killer App (1999) Unscreened pilot
Academy Awards:1971: Best Director (MASH, nominated)
1976: Best Director, Best Picture (Nashville, nominated)
1993: Best Director (The Player, nominated)
1994: Best Director (Short Cuts, nominated)
2002: Best Director, Best Picture (Gosford Park, nominated)
2006: Honorary Oscar (won)
British Academy Film Awards:1971: Best Direction (MASH, nominated)
1979: Best Direction (A Wedding, nominated)
1979: Best Screenplay (A Wedding, nominated)
1993: Best Film (The Player, nominated)
1993: Best Direction (The Player, won)
2002: Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film (Gosford Park, won)
2002: David Lean Award for Direction (Gosford Park, nominated)
Berlin International Film Festival:1976: Golden Berlin Bear (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, won)
1985: FIPRESCI Prize – Forum of New Cinema (Secret Honor, won)
1999: Golden Berlin Bear (Cookie's Fortune, nominated)
1999: Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas (Cookie's Fortune, won)
2002: Honorary Golden Berlin Bear (won)
2006: Golden Berlin Bear (A Prairie Home Companion, nominated)
2006: Reader Jury of the "Berliner Morgenpost" (A Prairie Home Companion, won)
Cannes Film Festival:1970: Golden Palm (MASH, won)
1972: Golden Palm (Images, nominated)
1977: Golden Palm (3 Women, nominated)
1986: Golden Palm (Fool for Love, nominated)
1987: Golden Palm (Aria, nominated)
1992: Golden Palm (The Player, nominated)
1992: Best Director (The Player, won)
1996: Golden Palm (Kansas City, nominated)
Directors Guild of America Awards:1971: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (MASH, nominated)
1976: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (Nashville, nominated)
1993: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (The Player, nominated)
1994: Lifetime Achievement Award (won)
2005: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television (Tanner on Tanner, nominated)
Primetime Emmy Awards:1989: Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series (Tanner '88, won)
1993: Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program (Great Performances – Black and Blue, nominated)
Golden Globe Awards:1971: Best Director (MASH, nominated)
1976: Best Director (Nashville, nominated)
1993: Best Director (The Player, nominated)
1994: Best Screenplay (Short Cuts, nominated)
2002: Best Director (Gosford Park, won)
Independent Spirit Awards:1994: Best Director (Short Cuts, won)
1994: Best Screenplay (Short Cuts, won)
1995: Best Feature (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, nominated)
2000: Best Feature (Cookie's Fortune, nominated)
2007: Best Director (A Prairie Home Companion, nominated)
Venice Film Festival:1993: Golden Lion (Short Cuts, won)
1996: Career Golden Lion (won)
2000: Golden Lion (Dr T and the Women, nominated)
Robert Altman Bibliography (via UC Berkeley)
Rafal Syska, Keep the Distance. Film World of Robert Altman, Rabid, Cracow 2008. ISBN 978-83-60236-36-9