One of the highlights of this year’s Oscar ceremony was the Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed on the Academy’s greatest director and biggest pain in the ass, Robert Altman. The octogenarian auteur accepted the award graciously, but he had a surprise in store. The term “lifetime achievement,” he suggested, might be a little premature. He’d had a heart transplant and was expecting to live a lot longer.
CRASH? He did that 25 years ago.
Maximum theatricality aside, why had Altman chosen that occasion to announce this to the world?
“I’d done it 11 years ago,” he recalls while in town to promote A Prairie Home Companion and also join in the festivities for Meryl Streep’s own Lifetime Achievement Award from the Coolidge Corner Theatre. (She’s part of Prairie’s ensemble cast.) “And I didn’t want it known then, because there’s such a stigma connected to it. I was 70. And I thought, maybe people wouldn’t hire me. But it just fell into place and I thought, well, it isn’t going to affect me now. And I think it’s important to get that stigma behind us and know you can have these, these body parts can be almost harvested and replaced and there’s no, I can’t tell you how many thousands of heart transplants [there have been] around the world and they hardly lose anyone. I was the oldest person that they would give them to because they didn’t want to waste the hearts. But most heart transplants go to young people, teenagers, people who have really defective tickers.”
Any clue as to the donor?
“A young woman from Seattle, I think, or Portland. I think it was a woman. They won’t tell you much.”
“ Ah, mezzo mezzo.”
Could it be a movie?
“ A bad movie. It’s been done before. And where do you go from there? The work I have done since then, it has had no effect on my brain . . . ”
Has it touched into your feminine side?
“I’ve always had my feminine side.”
That’s just one characteristic of Altman’s style that’s remained consistent over the past four decades of his feature-film career. Another is his resistance to the system, as was demonstrated in his ruthlessly funny 1992 satire The Player.
“The system beat itself,” he says. “Incest will eventually defeat it, there’s just too much incest at the studios and you have to do this and this and this. You gotta use this star and you can’t use anybody else because she’s gotta be in every scene. It’s all out of whack. Just look at the popular films last year. Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash. Crash, I’m not a big fan, I did that 25 years ago. But anyway, it’s all the same trip. Short Cuts would be Duck Soup these days.”
Such feistiness notwithstanding, the studios have insisted on a guarantee that if he doesn’t live to finish a movie, someone else will. So a back-up director is assigned to the set — in this case, P.T. Anderson, who in such films as Magnolia (1999) showed his affinity for Altman’s œuvre.
“My shadow,” says Altman.
Is he an acolyte?