Robert Altman may have playfully described his ‘Hollywood on Hollywood’ black comedy as “a very mild satire”, but he was fooling no-one.
One of the most cynical, caustic and clever dissections of a creatively bankrupt studio system that has only become worse in the 21 years since its release, Altman’s The Player is one of the late director’s most celebrated works and, ironically, brought him back in from the cold after a decade spent making no budget chamber pieces.
Actors are a contrary lot. Happy to take the cheque and star in the sort of drivel the director mercilessly satirises, dozens of actors (whose star wattage could power a small town) lined-up to take walk-on parts mostly as themselves in order to take a gleeful swipe at the piñata that is Tinseltown’s lumbering studio system.
Based on Michael Tolkin’s book, Altman’s anti-hero is sleek, shark-like studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who’s scared he could be axed in favour of the younger, up-and-coming story executive Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). Mill’s life is thrown into further disarray when he continues to receive increasingly threatening postcards from a writer he can’t remember whose pitch he ignored.
Everything in The Player is artifice from the very first shot of someone asking for “quiet on set” and a clapperboard shutting. A person’s word counts for nothing, false sincerity and hypocrisy is in plentiful supply and artistic backbone turns to spinelessness when money and power enter the equation. At one point, Mill bumps into Burt Reynolds, who’s all smiles until Mill walks away, at which point he calls him an “asshole”.
This most tellingly plays out in the second half of the film when pretentious English writer Tom Oakley (Richard E Grant) and producer Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell) pitch the death row thriller Habeas Corpus to Mill at a restaurant. Oakley vociferously insists it mustn’t lose its downbeat conclusion (“no Hollywood endings”) and feature no stars. Inevitably, as the studio’s claws get into the project Habeas Corpus turns into a very different movie, to the extent that has Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts as its leads and includes a tacked-on happy ‘Hollywood ending’, both of which Oakley seems happy about now it’s been made (in an example of life imitating art, one of the stars of Habeas Corpus is Susan Sarandon, who three years later teamed up with her long-time partner Robbins to make Dead Man Walking, a death row thriller).
Oakley isn’t the only writer who fails to come out of The Player smelling of roses. One pitches The Graduate: Part 2 (I’m personally amazed that one hasn’t been made) in which all the original characters incredulously still live together “in a big, old spooky house”. Another pitches “Out Of Africa meets Pretty Woman“, while a further writer’s idea for a hard-hitting politically radical film with a supernatural edge (“Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate“) is reduced to a bland paint-by-numbers thriller after only 30 seconds in Mill’s hands.
One thing that strikes you about watching the film is just how disinterested Mill and his cronies are in watching movies (something you suspect is true for a lot of today’s execs). At an informal lunch, Mill asks those around him: “Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change?” The silence that follows speaks volumes.
At one point Mill gives a speech at a gala dinner in which he bangs on about the importance of finding the next John Huston or Orson Welles and the fact that “movies are art”. He unsurprisingly contradicts himself later in the film when he lists the key ingredients that make a successful Hollywood film, the most important one being “happy endings”.
The only time we see Mill actually watch a film is when he thinks he’s tracked down the mystery writer sending him death threats to an old movie theatre showing Vittorio De Seca’s 1948 neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves and even then it’s only for the last five minutes. Perhaps underlining how there are no original ideas left in Tinseltown, Altman constantly makes references to Hollywood’s golden age, whether it be the posters of old classics in the studio’s offices or the threatening postcards featuring Humphrey Bogart and James Dean.
Head of studio security Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) complains that all films today are “cut, cut, cut” and refers to the six-and-a-half-minute opening shot of Touch Of Evil. It’s a clever, self-referential nod to the audience as he opens the film with a celebrated tracking shot lasting almost eight minutes. It’s bravura filmmaking and shows off Altman’s unique and complex Peeping Tom style of filming certain moments using a long lens that often incorporate overlapping conversations and multiple set-ups.
The film has a wicked sense of humour (in a cute piece of marketing, a poster for it includes the quote “the best movie ever made!” … attributed to Griffin Mill) that veers from pitch black satire to farce. Altman was always a pranksterish filmmaker and this knowing humour runs through the core of The Player.
Alas, The Player feels all-too-pertinent to a modern-day big studio system scrambling about in the dark for the next big thing. One of Altman’s very best, this could arguably be the ultimate example of Hollywood eating itself.