Robert Altman's career started with corporate training films in Missouri. The experience landed him Hollywood work filming TV shows in the 1960s — but his personality rebelled against creating false fables of comfort. Before M*A*S*H and The Player, Altman had forced his fierce honesty onto unsuspecting television characters. It marked the beginning of a forgotten march through America's cherished archetypes, challenging one beloved hero after another.
For example, when network executives handed him the characters from Bonanza, his first impulse was to torture them.
1. Bonanza (1961)
Hoss, Adam and Little Joe were a happy all-male family on a Nevada ranch in that magical TV west. Altman opens his episode Silent Thunder with rednecks sexually harassing a deaf mute female (played by Stella Stevens). Good son Little Joe intervenes, and later teaches her how to read, but then she falls in love with him. In a series of painful scenes, Little Joe struggles to convey rejection to someone who doesn't understand, can't communicate, and is full of the rawest emotion.
Altman directed eight episodes of Bonanza, all but one in the show's second season — and they're some of the darkest in its 14-year run. In The Rival, gentle Hoss loves a woman, but she loves a fugitive. In a typical Bonanza plot, a showdown seems inevitable, but Hoss agonizes over the ambiguity. Is he hunting his rival because of his crimes — or to vindictively avenge his scorned heart? There's no easy answers as a lynch mob starts forming, and even before any triggers are pulled, a devastated Hoss knows that the woman he loves will never, ever be his. Altman heightens the episode's tension with evocative lighting tricks. In one scene, a gun emerges from the shadows for several agonizing seconds before the triggerman is revealed — Hoss himself.
2. Combat (1962)
Altman's dark style was better suited for the gritty war stories in the series Combat. In one episode the survival of the entire unit rests on a single captured prisoner not giving away their position. Pinned down in a chateau, the soldiers can escape by swimming down a river at night — but they can't haul their prisoner underwater. The commander faces an impossible choice. He can kill the young Nazi conscript before escaping — or risk all their lives on the soldier's pleas and promises of secrecy. Again — there's no easy answers. Altman used the chateau to good effect, including long shots to show the soldiers on its upper level with the lone Nazi below.
Altman's TV career would be short-lived. It was reportedly hobbled by his clashes with TV executives, but there were other controversies. Wikipedia notes that Congressional hearings were held over an episode of a forgotten TV show called Bus Stop which showed a murderer successfully escaping both capture and punishment — a favorite Altman theme.
3. Countdown (1968)
Even before M*A*S*H the maverick director took a special delight in confronting the media's traditional heroes with muddier dilemmas that exposed their all-too-human weakness, whether it was soldiers, cowboys — or astronauts.
In Countdown James Caan and Robert Duvall played astronauts challenging everything but outer space. There's jealous co-workers, organizational indecision, and the all-too-real friends who don't understand. If the astronaut makes it to space — alone, in his space capsule — will this din of endured opposition ultimately cloud his judgment? The final press conference is chaired by Ted Knight, who later played the vacuous newscaster Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. In a friendly, empty TV voice, he's the one who delivers unsettling news about the mission's status. Would the astronaut successfully launch and reach the safety of a moon base? Or would Altman strand him alone on the moon, ending the film within maddening proximity to what could have been a happy ending.
This is considered Altman's first major feature film. A string of successes followed — including M*A*S*H and the critically-acclaimed Nashville. But after the disappointing box office for Popeye in 1980 (along with rumors of libertine excesses on the set), Altman was effectively exiled from major Hollywood productions.
4. Secret Honor (1984)
During these "wilderness years," Altman filmed a remarkable one-man show in which a lonely, drunken and suicidal Richard Nixon looks back over a secret plan he'd orchestrated to provoke his own impeachment and escape his war-mongering corporate handlers. ("Secret honor...public shame.")
As Nixon descends into drunken bitterness, he has trouble working the tape recorder, and rambles through an alternate history of his political career. As Nixon prowls the room, so does Altman's camera, and in one of the most disturbing moments, the screenplay revisits a famous story about young Nixon writing his mother a letter in the voice of Richard's pet dog (signing it, "Your faithful dog, Richard.") As he addresses his enemies, real and imagined, the disgraced and tortured ex-President roars out, "I'm not your dog, Mother!" Altman ultimately magnifies the image of a raging Nixon across multiplying TV screens responding to a nation he feels is urging him to suicide with a heroic, "Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em!"
5. Tanner '88 (1988)
Would Altman ever acknowledge a true act of goodness? He teamed with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau to create a counter-candidate in the 1988 presidential race. In half-hour episodes on HBO, Jack Tanner interacted with real political figures like Bob Dole (during the New Hampshire primaries) and Kitty Dukakis (at the nominating convention) — but only to make the point that the primary process buries any meaningful passions with political consultants and sound bites. Tanner's true fervor is only visible when he privately addresses his campaign staff. In a rare happy twist, Tanner's private thoughts about what the 1960s had meant are surreptitiously taped, making him a viable candidate and bypassing the political consultants altogether.
But Altman still plagues Tanner with a bewildering array of opposing and arbitrary forces — both political and media — which come between Tanner and his friends, his wife, and his daughter. And like the characters in Nashville, Tanner's campaign strategist remains haunted by the ultimate arbitrary political event — the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Future Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon plays Tanner's daughter (she was 22) — and the show ultimately received an Emmy.
6. The Gingerbread Man (1998)
When handed an unpublished John Grisham story, Altman gave the studios exactly what they didn't want. Robert Duvall's portrayal of a mentally challenged stalker fits Altman's unsettling world view too well. Though the womanizing lawyer (Kenneth Brannagh) tries to do the right thing, in an Altman world there's nothing but chaos — so the script's final redeeming fight on a rainy night becomes just one more turmoil of emotions. Dissatisfied studio executives tried to re-edit the film, but when test audiences didn't respond any better, they apparently decided to under-promote it.
The move was so little-known that when Internet Movie database listed the film, they mistook its title for a series of children's stories, and included this picture:
7. The Long Goodbye (1973)
When remembering Altman in his heyday, people point to his early 70s triumphs like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or M*A*S*H. (Someone once even uploaded the entirety of Altman's remarkable 1970 film Brewster McCloud onto YouTube in ten-minute installments.) But often overlooked is Altman's bold 1973 re-imagining of the ultimate American archetype — the lonely detective.
Philip Marlowe clings to a personal code of honor in a world that has gone wild — but Altman transplants the character into the 1970s, so his world includes protesters, feel-good health clinics, and topless neighbors sun-bathing. The detective becomes everyman Elliott Gould, who moves through a Raymond Chandler underworld still filled with cops and petty crooks, but ultimately reaching a dark irony in its dime store message about loyalty. The noir-ish jazz in its title theme works on many levels, seeming to acknowledge that people everywhere were changing and, like Altman himself, moving further and further away from the simple answers of the 1950s. It could almost be an epitaph.
"There's a long goodbye, and it happens every day..."