Robert Altman’s murder tale reeks of insider access and Hollywood hipster BS; its main claim to greatness is its fifty-plus star cameos. It may no longer seem as smart as it looked in 1992, but they don’t make ’em any slicker than this.
The Criterion Collection 812
1992 / Color /1:85 widescreen / 124 min. / Available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date May 24, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lyle Lovett.
Cinematography Jean Lépine
Original Music Thomas Newman
Written by Michael Tolkin from his novel
Produced by David Brown, Michael Tolkin, Nick Wechsler
Directed by Robert Altman
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Robert Altman’s filmography is undergoing what looks like a full retrospective through Criterion; even the 1975 title Nashville came out not long ago. This very successful later picture marks a revitalization of the director’s career. It’s sort of a Kafkaesque spin on Hail, Caesar! but minus the loving odes to old movies, and plus a creepy murder mystery. If it’s a comedy, it’s a very dark one.
Given a cultural clobbering with 1980’s Popeye, Altman’s aura as an auteur-guru dissipated for a few years. By the 1990s Altman had half-retreated to television, doing better there than he had on a decade’s worth of feature films. Movies like O.C. and Stiggs seemed so ill conceived that the director’s future was in grave doubt. Altman’s critical halo didn’t return entirely until his solid hit The Player in 1992. Rather than spin off in another odd direction, this Hollywood insider murder mystery is a return to Altman’s broad-canvas ‘circus’ style of filmmaking. What might have been ‘Kafka in a film studio’ became much more gimmicky and amusing. To begin with, The Player breaks the record for movie star cameos. Hardly a shot goes by that does not introduce another name actor popping up in every corner of the frame. They’re real stars and current hot names, not just celebrities. In one swoop, Altman proved his mettle as a Hollywood ringmaster — these dozens of celebrities aren’t just cutaways, but are woven into the director’s long-take master shots.
Since Hollywood’s performers still worshipped Altman as a heavy-duty auteur, the fact that the director could easily induce all these celebrities come running to be in his movie, sent a message through executive offices: ‘I’m still a big he-bull around here, so don’t f___ with me.’ It’s definitely a stunt, but for the first time in a decade, a general audience had a reason to think an Altman film was worth checking out.
Hollywood has metamorphosed several times more since 1992 — I don’t believe the present business model sees much in the way of cold pitch meetings, not when so much is franchise-oriented. But the story setup is fairly true to a time when production heads and a few anointed dealmakers wielded tremendous power. But some things never change. These ‘beautiful people’ walk in golden circle, yet their job security is a big zero. Other slick operators are always gunning for the all-powerful catbird seats. There is no mercy in this elitist anthill. As the leading character says to his must trusted associate, when she has been cruelly fired and begs him for protection, “I’m sure you’ll land on your feet.”
It’s business as usual in sunny Los Angeles. Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is this season’s big-studio dealmaker. Griffin takes dozens of writer’s pitch meetings each week and is powerful enough not to return phone calls, but even he doesn’t feel secure. Another glad-handing golden boy, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) is crowding Griffin’s position, and the rumor mill is working at full volume. Executive Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) is always on Mill’s case, and studio head Joel Levinson (Brion James) warns Griffin to not misbehave when Levy joins ‘the team.’ Especially bugging Griffin is a string of postcards from an unidentified writer who keeps threatening to kill him. He doesn’t want to report the threats, as that would hurt his “cool” image. He doesn’t even tell his present girlfriend, story editor Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson). Griffin determines to hunt down the malefactor, hotheaded writer David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) on his own. Griffin tracks first contacts David’s girlfriend, artist June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Schacchi), and is immediately attracted to her.
When David turns up dead, Griffin finds himself even deeper in paranoid confusion. Walter Stuckel acts oddly, as if he knows something. A pair of eccentric detectives (Whoopee Goldberg, Lyle Lovett) plays mind games in the hope of extracting a confession. Griffin must deal with the unhappy girlfriend Bonnie, and his amorous new conquest June, all the while plotting Larry Levy’s downfall. Is this how movies get made?
A satire on the Hollywood scene, the fun, quirky The Player is actually fairly realistic in most aspects. A big fish at the top of the studio food chain, Griffin Mill lives in a fancy Bel-Air house and wears terrific clothes. He takes meetings all day with people dying to please him. By night he attends swank exclusive show-biz parties. Everyone’s mileage varies, but a young single honcho like Griffin has access to plenty of sex; he just has to be careful not to dump the wrong girlfriend. Mill’s present love is Bonnie, but he’s willing to trade up the moment he sees the seductive June through the window of her West Hollywood bungalow. Even when the cops are on his tail, Griffin gets to suffer in style. Unable to leave the country, he takes June to a ritzy retreat out in the desert, a sex hideaway for the rich and connected.
Director Altman opens his movie with a show-off complicated trucking shot that follows Griffin Mill as he walks through the studio lot, interacting with various employees and stars along the way. Parties and visits to restaurants use famous faces like set decoration, and picking them all out is like looking at a Where’s Waldo book. People are constantly trying to draw Griffin into conversations that are really impromptu pitch meetings. Griffin picks an idea from one of these lunchtime ambushes to present to his production chief, and then hand off to his competitor Larry Levy. The idea of course, is to see Levy embrace the idea and go down in flames. It’s a trap straight from the Machiavellian playbook in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.
Writer Michael Tolkin resolves his crazy self-referential movie-puzzle movie by folding the story back upon itself. It’s not very clever but it does harmonize with Robert Altman’s notion of cinematic sophistication. Griffin Mill’s personal dilemma is trivialized as the basis of a movie pitch, and the minimally creative wheels of Hollywood grind on. We’ve already seen Larry Levy’s booby-trap movie idea morph into a lame, pandering but sure-fire hit. Now Griffin’s brush with blackmail, murder and thwarting justice will become another box office sensation. It’s almost like the gag at the end of M*A*S*H, where the public address system that’s been announcing camp movies, suddenly announces M*A*S*H itself, and runs through the fade-out credits. The finish of The Player is altogether too smug and self-satisfied, but it’s exactly the kind of ending the movie needs. It’s appropriate for the shallow, entitled, consequences-avoiding beautiful people of Movieland.
Oddly, the 1995 crime comedy Get Shorty uses a similar story structure, including the ‘plot itself becomes a movie’ idea from The Player. Elmore Leonard’s book predated Robert Altman’s movie, but Michael Tolkin’s book came first.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Player flatters Jean Lépine’s radiant cinematography, which embraces the expensive, heartless slickness of Hollywood’s upper echelons. Although shallow focus is still part of the style, this show has none of the telephoto flatness of Altman’s earlier ‘circus’ movies. The non-anamorphic aspect ratio helps to avoid that tendency, but many of these images are richer and more moody than we’re used to seeing in an Altman picture.
The extras are comprehensive but rather sad… as much as they try to act like outsiders, the filmmakers seen in new and older interviews are part of the Hollywood fabric they set out to lampoon. The fact that the art direction and costumes are retro — everybody wears double-breasted suit jackets — doesn’t seem to have much of a point. And the filmmakers seem quite pleased with their in-jokes, as when, after going through every known brand of water, the show starts inventing new ones.
The extras are definitely thorough. We get an older commentary with Altman, writer Michael Tolkin, and cinematographer Jean Lépine, an interview with Altman from 1992, and a video of the Cannes festival press conference from that year, attended by the cast and crew. Criterion producer Karen Stetler rounds up a gallery of new interviews for a making-of piece, with Tolkin, Tim Robbins, associate producer David Levy, and production designer Stephen Altman. A new featurette shows a fund-raiser organized for the film, and a ‘cheat piece’ that identifies all the star cameos by name. Several deleted scenes and outtakes are included. Altman, Lépine, and Tolkin each provide a separate commentary for the film’s eight-minute opening shot. The insert essay is by Sam Wasson.
Rather than try to work the deluge of star cameos into the review, here’s a list shamelessly garnered from the IMDB. Many of these are more than one-shot who-dats? Altman secured the cooperation of a LOT of talent here: Gina Gershon, Michael Tolkin, Stephen Tolkin, Steve Allen, Richard Anderson, Rene Auberjonois, Harry Belafonte, Shari Belafonte, Karen Black, Michael Bowen, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Charles Champlin, Cher, James Coburn, Cathy Lee Crosby, John Cusack, Brad Davis, Paul Dooley, Thereza Ellis, Peter Falk, Felicia Farr, Kasia Figura, Louise Fletcher, Dennis Franz, Teri Garr, Leeza Gibbons, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Elliott Gould, Joel Grey, David Alan Grier, Buck Henry, Anjelica Huston, Kathy Ireland, Steve James, Sally Kellerman, Sally Kirkland, Jack Lemmon, Marlee Matlin, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Jayne Meadows, Martin Mull, Nick Nolte, Alexandra Powers, Bert Remsen, Guy Remsen, Patricia Resnick, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Mimi Rogers, Annie Ross, Alan Rudolph, Jill St. John, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Joan Tewkesbury, Brian Tochi, Lily Tomlin, Robert Wagner, Ray Walston, Bruce Willis, Althea Gibson, Patrick Swayze.
Interestingly, the box art includes credits for the film’s top stars, something Criterion usually does not do. Many of their discs list few or no performer names. I’ll have to check to see if this is some kind of exception.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Player Blu-ray
Movie: Very good
Supplements: Audio commentary from 1992 featuring director Robert Altman, writer Michael Tolkin, and cinematographer Jean Lépine; Interview with Altman from 1992; New interviews with Tolkin, actor Tim Robbins, associate producer David Levy, and production designer Stephen Altman; Cannes Film Festival press conference from 1992 with cast and crew; Robert Altman’s Players, a short documentary about the shooting of the film’s fund-raiser scene; Map to the Stars, a gallery dedicated to the cameo appearances in the film; Deleted scenes and outtakes; The film’s opening shot, with alternate commentaries by Altman, Lépine, and Tolkin; Trailers and TV spots, insert essay by author Sam Wasson.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 27, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson