Fall 2009

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
(Knopf, 576 pages, $35)
By Mitchell Zuckoff

Altman BioSometimes the oral biography format delivers big time. Such is the case with Mitchell Zuckoff’s marvelous, epic, tapestry-like life-scape of Robert Altman. The book itself resembles any number of Altman movies, with enormous casts teeming with talkers of every stripe—chatterboxes, con men, bullshitters and nut jobs. Just as Altman’s complex mic setups allowed us to eavesdrop on the conversations of multiple characters in Nashville, M*A*S*H, Gosford Park, and many others, so Zuckoff corrals dozens of figures from every period of Altman’s long life—including the director himself—and sets them to yakking, yarning, kvetching and carping. One witness makes assertions that the next one deems nonsense; implausibly tall tales rouse the reader’s deepest skepticism, and then are promptly verified by four eyewitnesses. Others tell us we’re about to hear “the greatest Bob Altman pot-smoking story of all time,” and they deliver. Some interviewees are vengeful (moneymen and aggrieved writers), most are laudatory (actors in particular), none are boring.

All of Altman’s surviving siblings take a turn, as do his three surviving wives (the fourth is deceased), many of his lovers, his children, war buddies, and early collaborators on industrial movies in post-war Kansas City. The 45 years before he made M*A*S*H prove incident-packed. There is the mischievous teenage Bob; war hero Bob (50 missions flown); skirt-chasin’ Bob; workaholic Bob (he freely admitted that family came second); boozer-gambler-jazz fan Bob; and the indefatigable Bob, who made several ambitious but unsuccessful moves to Hollywood in the ’50s.

Even from the post-M*A*S*H years, which have been chronicled before, there are new stories. There’s one about the waitress who took Altman’s dinner order and the next day found herself cast as a gun moll brutally beaten with a Coke bottle in The Long Goodbye. There are tales of the freedom he gave his performers—many of them, like Shelley Duvall, his own discovery—often at the expense of writers. More than one actor recalls him saying: “I’ve got this great script, but we’re not gonna film it.” And even in the ’80s, during what was supposedly his long exile and absence, we see how he never stopped working for a minute.

Witness by witness, Zuckoff constructs an exemplary and cautionary American life, and with the funny, tragic and compelling tales they tell, he has made something like a print version of the Last Great Robert Altman movie.

Review written by John Patterson.


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