Robert Altman’s “The Player” may be 25 years old, but it’s lost none of its bite as an essential Hollywood satire.
In fact, despite being released in 1992 and depicting a pre-internet film industry enamored with Fax machines, Altman’s film hasn’t dated as much as one would expect. In fact, in ways both minor and profoundly on point, it’s as timely and sharply reflective of Tinseltown today as it was in the 1990’s.
Based on the novel by Michael Tolkin (who also wrote the screenplay), “The Player” stars Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a big shot movie producer who spends his days listening to story pitches for potential hit movies.
In the film’s justly celebrated opening scene Mill listens to everyone from filmmaker Alan Rudolph, Buck Henry and complete unknowns as they try to sell gimmicky plots to be produced into motion pictures at Mill’s studio.
It’s both a tour de force one-take shot and a sly spoof of such one-take sequences.
While Mill appears bored by the demands of his work, rumors of his being replaced by up-and-comer Larry Levy (played to snarky perfection by Peter Gallagher) keep him on edge. His girlfriend and colleague Bonnie (the underrated Cynthia Stevenson) assures him he has nothing to lose, but Mill can sense another Hollywood player aiming to replace him. There’s also a series of postcards that hound Mill daily. An unknown screenwriter he rejected is now threatening to kill him.
The second act introduces a murder subplot, in which the film becomes a modern film noir. Yet, Altman’s quasi-documentary feel, with his trademark overlapping dialog and voyeuristic cinematography (with many scenes peeking in on the action from a hidden vantage point) keeps this feeling more “real” than contrived.
The presence of dozens of Hollywood actors, some of whom are cannily playing themselves, is just another touch that makes this depiction of Hollywood’s empty, money-driven movie producers seem forever on-point.
FAST FACT: “The Player” opened in the U.S. on April 10, 1992, earning $21 million at the domestic box office.
The notion of high concept pitches being made into lavish productions is nothing new. Here’s a recent and most unusual example: A recent GQ article verified the rumor that the recent mega-flop “Monster Trucks” was conceived by the President of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group, as he watched his son play with toys.
The earlier reports were that his 4-year old actually pitched the film to him but the truth is even more telling. A session of watching a kid mash his toys together provided the inspiration for $150 million dollar product to be created (and mostly ignored). It’s on par with the 27-words-or-less make-or-break pitches that Mill endures throughout “The Player.”
The central movie-within-the-movie, a legal thriller titled “Habeas Corpus” (which comes with the tagline, “Produce The Corpse”), illustrates traits that are very much a part of contemporary studio involvement, both welcome and otherwise.
As pitched by Richard A. Grant (in a performance that should have garnered him a Supporting Actor award), we see this movie-within-the-movie become a prestige Oscar-bait project that promises “no stars, no happy endings, just reality.” Over the course of “The Player”, the integrity of the work-in-progress “Habeas Corpus” diminishes considerably.
Reports of films with compromised visions and troubled productions are nothing new. Consider the release of “Cleopatra,” the infamous 1963 Elizabeth Taylor vehicle that inspired more articles and production coverage than genuine enthusiasm for the film itself.
In recent years, reports of the shaky behind-the-scenes choices that led to the financially successful “Suicide Squad” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” as well as flops like “The Dark Tower” and the most recent “Fantastic Four” are arguably more interesting than the films themselves.
In the case of “World War Z,” the extensive pre-release articles, filled with the sky-is-falling accounts of an out-of-control, third-act free production, vanished when the film became a runaway blockbuster. “The Lone Ranger” and the recent “Ghostbusters,” on the other hand, were so financially unsuccessful, all the poison pen editorials on those films (written before anyone saw them) were seemingly justified when the movies failed.
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Obviously, it isn’t fair to judge a work based on box office gross, pre-release buzz or whether Oscar consideration is a factor. Yet, as Altman’s film attests, we live in a world where monetary success in Hollywood means careers remaining intact, even at the cost of robbing a film of its integrity, depth and purpose.
An odd thing about “Habeas Corpus”: seven years after the release of “The Player,” Clint Eastwood’s “True Crime” featured a strikingly similar ending to Altman’s fake movie-within-the-movie. While it was likely an art-imitating-life coincidence, Eastwood’s film (which carried no baggage of a troubled production beforehand and has a straightforward, seemingly untarnished narrative), “True Crime” concludes on an identical, very-Hollywood manner.
Eastwood isn’t the only filmmaker who apparently should have taken notes while watching “The Player.” In 2005, Rob Reiner’s “Rumor Has It” was released, which centers around a “real-life” continuation of the plot to “The Graduate.”
In the aforementioned opening of “The Player,” Buck Henry, screenwriter of “The Graduate,” is playing himself and pitching Mill his concept for “The Graduate II.” While Henry’s fictitious concept for the return of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson is dissimilar to Reiner’s Jennifer Anniston-starring flop, its plot is every bit as absurd as the one Henry concocts for Mill.
Then there’s “Dead Man Walking,” the Robbins-directed film from 1995, which also focuses on a death row inmate; Robbins’ celebrated film, featuring its powerhouse turns by Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, actually plays like the film “Habeas Corpus” wanted to be before it becomes re-shot and hashed into a studio-mandated product.
To set aside the fate of “Habeas Corpus,” here are other aspects of “The Player” that remain true today:
- A comment made about “Studio Politics,” which, more often than not, draws unwanted attention to the private collaboration of the filmmaking process, as well as corporate decisions, career choices and achievements and stumbles made along the way. In recent years, the so-called “Sony Hack,” the remarkable tale of legendary CAA founder Michael Ovitz, astronomical movie star paychecks and the release of “vanity projects” have created more gossip, Hollywood lore and greater fascination for the studio “players” involved than their films.
- One of the pitches aimed at Mills turns into “Goldie Hawn in the Jungle…” which is one way to describe her high concept dud “Snatched.”
- An argument is made in more ways than one that, if you want your movie made, it needs to star Julia Roberts or Bruce Willis. With the dire amount of dramatic, adult-minded films released yearly, it sure does seem like, if you want to make a small, “daring” art film that will play in theaters, it really ought to feature a big name actor or…well, Willis or Roberts.
- Note how the most threatening of the poison pen postcards sent to Mill (declaring “In The Name of All Writers, I’m Going to Kill You!”) comes together as a set. Mill unravels like a film strip and is bathed in a noir glow. It’s a moment of pure cinema.
- I won’t give it away, but “The Player’s” ending is a fiendishly clever, if rather cruel, joke on the audience. In the final moments, we’re seeing Mill’s own creative demands on Altman’s movie alter the course of the narrative. If the ending seems unfair and tonally wrong, then you’re getting the point.
Altman’s film is a slam against corporate cinema, studio meddling, narratives dictated by populist tastes, the reliance on test screening scores and the interjections of unwanted opinions hurled at filmmakers.
While all of the “players” in Altman’s film claim to be searching for art and lovers of classic cinema, the reality we see is that they’re all about shaping a hit at the cost of everything else. A telling quality of Altman’s film is that it never explains, demonstrates or pretends to know how someone can make a great movie but is all too eager to show us how bad movies are manufactured.
DID YOU KNOW? Robert Altman flew more than 50 B52 bombing missions during his days with the U.S. Army.
If all of this makes “The Player” sound didactic and heavy handed, it isn’t.
Altman’s movie is awfully funny, features one of his all-time best ensemble casts, and is clever and caustic in equal measures. There’s so much here to take in, like the icy beauty of Thomas Newman’s score, Jean Lepine’s remarkable, serpentine cinematography and Altman’s offbeat approaches to film standards.
There’s a “stalker” character (Lyle Lovett), a police interrogation and a highly erotic sex scene that are, nevertheless, staged and captured by Altman in a way that feels entirely fresh.
As a response to the way Hollywood once embraced Altman, kicked him out after too many flops, then welcomed him back, “The Player” is his masterful act of cinematic revenge. It’s also a cautionary tale, a tribute to The Writer (both the trade and an actual character in the film) and a plea for art to be created by an artist, not a committee.
Altman’s towering achievement still holds its grip, gets better every year and has a lot to tell us about how art can be captured, stomped on and molded into something atrocious by an unwanted “player.”