“The enemy is the public”: The Player at 30 by Robert Altman | Robert Altman

OReaching Robert Altman’s The Player nearly 30 years after its release is like buying a ticket for a bus trip through time in Hollywood. There’s Jack Lemmon playing the piano at a party and Martin Mull having lunch on an outdoor patio. Look, John Cusack and Anjelica Huston are sitting together in this restaurant, and isn’t that Cher attending a charity event in a gorgeous red dress? These actors, and many more, play themselves in The Player, and most have only one line of dialogue. Some don’t. Brief as their appearances may be, they play a pivotal role, situating showbiz’s incisive and absurd history in the real world. Or at least in real Hollywood. How did Altman make them work for nothing in such tiny roles? He just told them, “I’m making a movie about a studio executive who murders a screenwriter and gets away with it.” According to Altman, each response was identical. They laughed and asked when they should show up.

Much like Sunset Boulevard, the best Hollywood movie ever made, The Player initially presents itself as a film noir. Its protagonist, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), is a classic anti-hero, a studio executive who kills a man he thinks sent him death threats, only to find out that he was the wrong person and that his stalker is still there. The police close in on him, but just as you master the tone of the film, Altman swerves. Then it’s an insider’s look at office politics in Hollywood, then an absurd comedy, a stylish thriller, and finally a postmodern fairy tale with the most twisted happy ending you’ll ever see. One of The Player’s great accomplishments is the stability with which he stays on his feet as he navigates these tonal twists.

In the end, the player is remembered as a Hollywood satire, a movie about cinema, and its meaning is conveyed by its form as much as its content. Altman constantly reminds us that we are watching a movie and that The Player is a deeply Hollywood version of the events it describes. The eight-minute dolly shot through a studio backlot that opens the film features characters reflecting on great cinematic dollies (including Touch of Evil, Rope and The Sheltering Sky), while posters of obscure film noir and film B line the walls of each room. A key scene takes place during a screening of Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, the dark and artful genre of film in which the characters of The Player pretend to love but never would. It’s a trick that eliminates any sentimentality – a must for satire – and allows viewers to both indulge in the film’s conventionality, like its title character’s happy ending, while feeling superior to it.

No wonder it’s such a hit in the industry. The Gambler was seen as a triumphant return for Altman, a New Hollywood icon who, like most of his peers, got lost in the 1980s. most important american myths, the war movie (M*A*S*H) and the western (McCabe and Mrs Miller). The player is closer to Nashville, his 1975 film set in the world of country music that cuts between biting irony and serious scenes of loneliness and human connection. It was also his return to the Oscar race, as The Player was nominated for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. It is not a surprise. Hollywood is always a game for good-humored coasts as it reinforces the industry’s place at the pinnacle of culture. Only the most powerful institutions deserve to be satirized.

For Altman, however, The Player was barely about the movie industry. It was about the corporatization of Hollywood, with the director using his chosen industry as a metaphor for, as he put it in an interview, “the cultural problems of Western civilization.” Altman saw Hollywood deals as a reflection of the cutthroat corporate board culture that gripped the American economy in the 1980s, when harmless petty greed turned into sociopathy. For most of the film, Griffin Mill is about to be arrested for murder, but he’s also concerned about the new recruit on the job, an up-and-comer named Larry Levy (played with effortless smarm by Peter Gallagher ) who never made an overt gesture for Griffin’s work but creates an infuriating distraction nonetheless. For Griffin, a killer rap is as menacing as a demotion, and he’ll stop at nothing to beat them both.

Griffin is an empty suit, a violent criminal and possibly a madman – his interactions with his girlfriend (Cynthia Stevenson) are chillingly even-handed – but he passes for a likable figure in The Player because he claims at least care about cinema. He’s even known around town as a “writer’s manager,” a nickname that, over the course of the film, begins to sound like an epitaph. Levy, on the other hand, is business, not show. He thinks writers are overrated and overpaid, and studio heads could easily do the creative work themselves. He regularly attends AA meetings, even though he is not an alcoholic, because “that’s where the deals are made these days.” He represents the new evil, and Griffin is the old one. Played by Tim Robbins, a master at manipulating his innate seriousness, it’s impossible to tell if he’s a sociopath pretending to be human or vice versa, but as the fear lurks behind his ice blue eyes, we can convince ourselves. that he is just another every man who has fallen out of step with the world. We can’t help but support him to win.

Dean Stockwell and Richard E Grant in The Player. Photography: Spelling International/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

In The Player, he does. In the real world, not so much. Looking at the state of the film industry today, it’s hard not to feel that the Larry Levy’s of the world are now in charge. Franchising, the mainstream filmmaking trend of our time, inherently devalues ​​screenwriters and empowers producers. You probably can’t tell me who wrote the last Spider-Man movie, but I bet you know the name of Kevin Feige, the producer and architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nowadays, the struggle between business and art is not decided by office politics and individual greed. It is the cold and hard macroeconomics of the world market and the synergy of companies. This is the part The Player hadn’t anticipated.

What plays well today is Altman’s adamant refusal to blame everything on the costumes. The player ends with a contrived happy ending his characters don’t deserve, but Altman draws attention to the contrivance, once again reminding us of its fallacy and implicitly throwing his criticism back at the viewer. “The enemy in a movie like this is the audience,” Altman said in an interview. “If people aren’t going to see these fabricated films, they won’t be made.” It’s a bit like a bully hitting you with your own fist, constantly asking why you’re hitting yourself, but he’s not wrong. Its equal-opportunity approach to satire — Altman even admitted he saw himself a lot in Griffin — is what makes The Player so endearing. It highlights the battered and bloody state of American decency at the end of the 20th century and blames us all for the carnage.