Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is a Hollywood studio executive dating story editor Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson). He hears story pitches from screenwriters and decides which have the potential to be made into films, green-lighting only 12 out of 50,000 submissions every year. His job is threatened when up-and-coming story executive Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) begins working at the studio. Mill has also been receiving death threat postcards, assumed to be from a screenwriter whose pitch he rejected.
Mill surmises that the disgruntled writer is David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio). Mill is told by Kahane's girlfriend, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) that Kahane is at a theater in Pasadena. Mill pretends to recognize Kahane in the lobby, and offers him a scriptwriting deal, hoping this will stop the threats. The two go to a nearby bar where Kahane gets intoxicated and rebuffs Mill's offer; he calls Mill a liar and continues goading him about his job security at the studio. In the bar's parking lot, the two men fight. Mill goes too far and accidentally drowns Kahane in a shallow pool of water, then stages the crime to make it look like a botched robbery.
The next day, after Mill is late for and distracted at a meeting, Studio chief of security Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) confronts him about the murder and says that the police know that he was the last one to see Kahane alive. At the end of their conversation Mill receives a fax from his stalker. Thus, Mill has killed the wrong man, and the stalker apparently knows this. Mill attends Kahane's funeral and gets into conversation with June. Detectives Avery (Whoopi Goldberg) and DeLongpre (Lyle Lovett) suspect Mill is guilty of murder. Mill receives a postcard from the writer suggesting that they meet at a hotel bar. While Mill is waiting, he is cornered by two screenwriters, Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant) and Andy Sivella (Dean Stockwell), who pitch Habeas Corpus, a legal drama featuring no major stars and with a depressing ending. Because Mill is not alone, his stalker does not appear. After leaving the club, Mill receives a fax in his car, advising him to look under his raincoat. He discovers a live rattlesnake in a box and, terrified, bludgeons it with his umbrella.
Mill tells June that his near-death experience made him realize he has feelings for her. Apprehensive that Larry Levy continues encroaching on his job, Mill invites the two writers to pitch Habeas Corpus to him, convincing Levy that the movie will be an Oscar contender. Mill's plan is to let Levy shepherd the film through production and have it flop. Mill will step in at the last moment, suggesting some changes to salvage the film's box office, letting him reclaim his position at the studio. Having persuaded Bonnie to leave for New York on studio business, Mill takes June to a Hollywood awards banquet and their relationship blossoms.
After Bonnie confronts Mill about his relationship with June, Mill coldly severs their relationship in front of two writers. Mill takes June to an isolated Desert Hot Springs resort and spa. In the middle of Mill and June making love, Mill confesses his role in Kahane's murder, and June responds by saying she loves him. Mill's attorney (Sydney Pollack) informs him that studio head Joel Levison (Brion James) has been fired, and that the Pasadena police want Mill to participate in a lineup. An eyewitness has come forward, but she fails to identify Mill.
One year later, studio power players are watching the end of Habeas Corpus with a new, tacked-on, upbeat Hollywood ending and famous actors in the lead roles. Mill's plan to save the movie has worked and he is head of the studio. June is now Mill's wife and pregnant with his child. Bonnie objects to the film's new ending and is fired by Levy. Mill rebuffs her when she appeals her termination to him. Mill receives a pitch over the phone from Levy and a man who reveals himself as the postcard writer. The man pitches an idea about a studio executive who kills a writer and gets away with murder. Mill gives the writer a deal, if he can guarantee the executive a happy ending. The writer's title for the film is The Player.
Altman had troubles with the Hollywood studio system in the 1970s after a number of studio films (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye) lost money or had trouble finding audiences despite the critical praise and cult adulation they received. Altman continued to work outside the studios in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, often doing small budget projects or filmed plays to keep his career alive. Although it was distributed by Fine Line Features rather than a major studio (FLF was a division of New Line Cinema), The Player was a comeback to making films in Hollywood. It ushered in a new period of filmmaking for Altman, who continued on to an adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, Short Cuts (1993).
The opening sequence shot lasts 7 minutes and 47 seconds without an edit. Fifteen takes were required to shoot this scene, but, according to the slate at the beginning of the shot, the tenth take was used in the final edit.
Altman was praised for the sex scene in which Robbins and Scacchi were filmed from the neck up. Scacchi later claimed that Altman had wanted a nude scene, but that it was her refusal which led to the final form.
The editing of The Player by Geraldine Peroni was honored by a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Film Editing. In 2004, Tony Sloman wrote an appreciation of the film's editing:
The Player is a marvellous example of collaborative editing, Peroni matching Altman's tone with exactitude. Early on, a cut from a zoom-in to the gun in Humphrey Bogart's hand on a postcard sent to Tim Robbins is perfectly successively matched with what appears to be a black frame, in which a reveal shows that it's an open drawer in which the postcard has been placed. Another felicitous sequence is the one in the Pasadena police station, where the Robbins character is arraigned as Lyle Lovett swats a fly and Whoopi Goldberg and her associates ridicule Robbins with laughter. This is beautifully edited; well-shot, too, but the rhythm is built in the cutting.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 98% based on 61 reviews, with an average rating of 8.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Bitingly cynical without succumbing to bitterness, The Player is one of the all-time great Hollywood satires -- and an ensemble-driven highlight of the Altman oeuvre." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 86 out of 100, based on 20 critics, indicating "universal acclaim."
Altman won a number of European best-director awards (the BAFTA Award, Best Director at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival) and he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Director (the film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical). Tolkin was nominated for a Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and he received an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. Geraldine Peroni's editing was nominated for both the Academy Award and the BAFTA Award. Tim Robbins also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical and Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2015, Entertainment Weekly's 25th anniversary year, it named The Player in its list of the 25 best movies since the magazine's beginnings.