Get away with murder

Beneath all the tinsel lies the real tinsel

Published: Mar 14 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, April 24, 1992.
THE PLAYER. Written by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel. Music by Thomas Newman. Directed by Robert Altman. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier's warning "some very coarse language, occasional nudity and suggestive scenes."
GRIFFIN MILL (TIM Robbins) gives us what we want.
    The senior vice-president of production at a major Hollywood studio, Mill is on top and determined to stay there. He knows that "there are certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.
    "We need suspense," he tells his new girlfriend, non-moviegoer June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi). "Laughter. Violence. Hope. Heart. Nudity. Sex. And happy endings.
    "Mainly happy endings."
    Director Robert Altman gives us what he wants. A product of the psychotropic sixties, he's been called everything from a maverick genius to a self-indulgent fake.
    He's best known for his marketplace successes, among them M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975). Altman became a Hollywood exile for refusing to make the sort of films the system's Griffin Mill demanded.
    With his irresistibly intelligent The Player, he joins the select group of industry insider-outsiders who've turned their satirical attention to the system itself. Based on screeenwriter Michael Tolkin's adaptation of his own 1988 novel, Altman's comedy-laced drama ranks with the best of them.
    With the easy cheek of a man secure in his own talent, he delivers the sort of film that "power player" Mill could market successfully. It has suspense.
    From its opening moments, the corporately cool Mill is a man on the edge. Professionally, he feels threatened by the shark-like dynamism of young "comer" Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher).
    Personally, Mill is being threatened by an anonymous poison-pen pal. Almost daily, he gets notes from a disaffected screenwriter who promises "I'm going to kill you!"
    Violence follows when Mill tracks down and accidentally kills angry, obnoxious David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio). Suspense increases when it turns out that ratty little David was the wrong man.
    Hope? Heart? Actor Robbins brings to his character a wonderfully charming ambiguity.
    As Mill, his soft, even friendly, features are like those of the young Orson Welles. There is something in the eyes. Is it decency? Or, perhaps, unthinkable evil?
    Whatever it is, the murdered man's attractive former paramour finds it fascinating. Mill courts the cool, self-possessed June against the background of a police investigation and cutthroat studio politics.
    Nudity? Sex? Of course, but in moderation and within the bounds of artistic necessity.
    Laughter is built in as well. As Pasadena police detective Susan Avery, Whoopi Goldberg turns in a fine comic performance, as does Dean Stockwell, cast as fast-talking talent agent Andy Civella.
    And, as a special bonus, more than 60 of Altman's celebrity friends and admirers appear as themselves in bit roles, and as set decoration. This is a picture you have to see twice to spot them all.
    That, for a bottom-line man like Mill, qualifies as a happy ending. Sharp and successful, the picture that Altman wanted to make is also one that film-goers will want to see.

*   *   *
APPEARING AS THEMSELVES: Steve Allen, Richard Anderson, Rene Auberjonois, Harry Belafonte, Shari Belafonte, Karen Black, Michael Bowen, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Charles Champlin, Cher, James Coburn, Cathy Lee Crosby, John Cusack, Brad Davis, Paul Dooley, Thereza Ellis, Peter Falk, Felicia Farr, Kasia Figura, Louise Fletcher, Dennis Franz, Teri Garr, Leeza Gibbons, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Elliot Gould, Joel Grey, David Alan Grier, Buck Henry, Angelica Huston, Kathy Ireland, Steve James, Maxine John-James, Sally Kellerman, Sally Kirkland, Jack Lemmon, Marlee Matlin, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Jayne Meadows, Martin Mull, Jennifer Nash, Nick Nolte, Alexandra Powers, Bert Remsen, Guy Remsen, Patricia Resnick, Burt Reynolds, Jack Riley, Julia Roberts, Mimi Rogers, Annie Ross, Alan Rudolph, Jill St. John, Susan Sarandon, Adam Simon, Rod Steiger, Joan Tewkesbury, Brian Tochi, Lily Tomlin, Robert Wagner, Ray Walston, Bruce Willis and Marvin Young.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1992. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: After making his big screen debut with a B-budget feature, 1957's The Delinquents, Robert Altman spent more than a decade as a television director, working on such series as Whirlybirds, The Millionaire, Troubleshooters, Bonanza and Combat. The second of his 34 features, 1969's That Cold Day in the Park, was filmed in Vancouver, as was his fifth, the 1971 western McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Between visits to British Columbia, Altman created a major screen sensation with his third feature, 1970's M*A*S*H, an anti-war satire nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. That same year, he founded Lion's Gate Films (named for the suspension bridge that links Vancouver to the north shore of Burrard Inlet, and often confused with Lions Gate Entertainment, the Vancouver-based distribution company incorporated in 1997). Altman's production company made 14 features in all, including two in Canada. Both the 1976 western, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (filmed in Alberta), and the 1979 science-fiction thriller, Quintet (shot in Montreal), starred Paul Newman.

See also: The famous long tracking shot referred to above can be seen in this link to Orson Welles's Touch of Evil.