''The Player'' holds a mirror up to Hollywood -- Robert Altman's new movie is making studio execs squirm

By Jeffrey WellsJuliann GareyGregg Kilday and Anne Thompson
Updated May 01, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT
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”It’s so real it’s scary,” Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes) shudders. ”I’m glad I saw it in New York and not L.A.,” says Batman director Tim Burton. ”In L.A., it would have felt sort of redundant and unclean.” ”Barry Diller saw the film, laughed his head off, went home, and resigned,” says Robert Altman of his biting new satire, The Player. ”Take that for what it’s worth.”

A scalpel-sharp dissection of all that’s fatuous and cynical in the movie business, The Player has clearly made its prime targets squirm. Based on Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel about an amorally ambitious studio exec who disposes of a threatening screenwriter as coolly as he outmaneuvers a rival executive, the movie was one of Hollywood’s hottest tickets long before it opened on April 10. ”The film nails it cold,” says Intertalent agent J.J. Harris. But many were shaken by its black comedy of Hollywood manners. Confesses one executive, begging for anonymity, ”Coming back to the office and having to get on the phone, I couldn’t work. It felt so creepy.”

Altman, 67, a cagey renegade throughout his long career of highs (M*A*S*H and Nashville) and lows (Health and A Perfect Couple), pretends to be surprised by the talk The Player is generating. ”I never dreamed it would spark this kind of reaction,” he insists.

The irony is that the executives who now applaud the movie weren’t interested in seeing it made — and they certainly weren’t eager to do business with Altman, who after the disappointing returns on Popeye, his eccentric 1980 attempt to fashion a studio blockbuster, went into self-imposed exile in Paris. Producer David Brown (Jaws, The Sting) acquired rights to the Player novel in ’88, and though various directors were attached to it over the years — including Sidney Lumet (Q&A) — no studio warmed to it. At one point, Chevy Chase even wanted to star as Griffin Mill, the cold-blooded operative, but Tim Robbins (Bull Durham) wound up with the plum role. It was only after Brown joined forces with Altman, and the movie was made with $8 million in independent financing, that studios began bidding for distribution rights. The filmmakers opted instead to release it through an independent distributor, New Line Cinema’s Fine Line division.

If studio execs still regard Altman with suspicion, actors regard him with something approaching reverence. Altman had little trouble lining up more than 60 stars to make cameo appearances. He even managed the casting coup of the year by persuading Julia Roberts to spoof her star status. Though she had to shoot her scene on a Sunday, her only day off from filming Hook, Roberts says, ”One of the best reasons I’ve ever had for getting out of bed on a Sunday morning is Bob Altman. Besides, I had a lot of fun doing it.”

Hollywood players — who for all their enthusiasm still express some doubts about the movie’s commercial prospects — have already proclaimed it ”Altman’s revenge.” But typically, Altman rejects the label. ”What do I want to get revenge for?” he protests. ”I mean, going after Hollywood is pretty easy. That isn’t what this picture is at all. If anything, the target of this movie is the audience. They’re the ones that are responsible for lousy movies.”

Altman is now developing a film about the Paris fashion world called Prêt á Porter, an adaptation of several Raymond Carver stories titled L.A. Short Cuts, and an opera, McTeague, which he cowrote and hopes to stage in Chicago in October. But he’s not expecting to be named a major Hollywood player himself. ”This is my third comeback, really,” he says. ”M*A*S*H was considered a comeback, and so was Nashville. So far, The Player and all the hoopla has brought me nothing.”

A Player’s Guide
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), the would-be hero of The Player, might not recognize a good movie if he wandered into it by chance (as he does with De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief), but he has mastered the rules of the game. For those less familiar with Hollywood’s inside moves, here’s a Player primer.

The Stars: In a town — Hollywood insiders always refer to Los Angeles as “a town” — where celebrity sightings are as commonplace as drive-by shootings, Mill ; never passes up the opportunity to glad-hand a star: He braves Anjelica Huston’s cool politesse, Malcolm McDowell’s outright disdain, and Burt Reynolds’ muttered contempt (“A–hole!”) like a small-town politician. After all, his clout depends on the perceived strength of his relationship with the “creative community.” When his archrival, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), not only manages a private conversation with Jeff Goldblum but then shows up at a charity gala in the company of Cher, Mill knows he’s being one-upped.

The Pitch Meeting: Mill is a master of High Concept (“Just tell it to me in 25 words or less”). In The Player‘s already famous eight-minute opening shot, he makes his writers (often played by former Altman collaborators) sweat as they nervously pour out their ideas: Buck Henry is seen cannibalizing his own screenwriting past with a pitch for The Graduate — Part II (“The Postgraduate?”), and others doing the hard sell are Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote Altman’s Nashville; Patricia Resnick, who contributed to Altman’s A Wedding; and director Alan Rudolph, an Altman protégé (Welcome to L.A.). Much later, The Player‘s own screenwriter, Michael Tolkin, and his brother Stephen play a fraternal writing team not unlike the Coen brothers (Barton Fink), except that the fiercely independent Coens would never plead so desperately, “We’re tired of shopping everything around.” The perfect high-concept pitch? Describe a movie as the illegitimate child of two prior successes. That’s why we see Mill thoughtfully considering such ideas as “Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate” (with Bruce Willis) and “Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman” (with Goldie Hawn).

The Places: Mill’s frantic itinerary takes him to L.A.’s chicest power spots: He breakfasts with studio head Joel Levison (Brion James) at Geoffrey’s, a seaside spot popular with the Malibu/Trancas Beach crowd. For lunch, Mill prefers Le Restaurant in West Hollywood (though its heyday was in the late ’70s and early ’80s and it recently closed, Le Restaurant serves as a stand-in for similarly elegant Hollywood canteens like the Ivy or the Columbia Bar and Grill). For drinks, it’s on to the St. James’ Club & Hotel, the Sunset Strip establishment much favored by visiting Brits. Mill also works a star-packed benefit at the imposing Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And for a weekend getaway it’s off to Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa in Desert Hot Springs — one of the movie’s few lapses in logic, since if Mill really wanted to hide away he’d never go to a spot where the mud baths usually teem with networking development execs.

The Beverages: Champagne may be permissible for after-hours sipping by the Jacuzzi, but the true player must keep his wits about him. Lunchtime martinis are virtually verboten, and even a single glass of chardonnay could mean the loss of competitive edge. So Mill sticks to bottled waters, but flaunts his sophistication by ordering increasingly esoteric vintages: Evian, Pellegrino, Ramlosa, Vittel — the more obscure, the better. Again, though, Mill is one-upped by Larry Levy, who proudly announces that he goes to AA meetings, not because he’s a recovering alcoholic but because “that’s where all the deals are being made.”

The Wheels: In L.A., you are what you drive. David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), the unsuccessful writer, must settle for a compact — his license plate might as well read LOSER. Levy, the up-and-comer, tools around in a sleek black Mercedes, the automotive equivalent of a ponytail. Mill, who thinks he has made it, enjoys the luxury of a $45,000 Range Rover, the British-made all- terrain vehicle favored by city slickers who want to wear their macho-man credentials on the road (the better to prepare for camping weekends with Kevin Costner). Promoted to studio head, he trades up to an ostentatious Rolls.

The Office Decor: Has Mill taken his cues from real-life Fox chairman Joe Roth, whose office is dominated by a vintage poster for Raoul Walsh’s 1940 road melodrama They Drive By Night? Mill decorates with artwork for such film noir classics as Laura, as well as posters for B movies with foreboding titles (Murder in the Big House, Highly Dangerous, Prison Break). But Mill’s movie taste is all acquired from poster shopping rather than experience: When he receives a phone call from someone who identifies himself as Joe Gillis (the name of the unlucky writer in Sunset Boulevard), Mill gives himself away by asking, “Anybody know who Joe Gillis is?”

The Name-Dropping: It’s second nature to a player. The rule to remember, though, is that it’s not the name you drop, it’s the way you drop it. Veteran show-biz lawyer Dick Mellen (played by veteran producer-director Sydney Pollack) does it with practiced nonchalance when he says to Mill at a party, “You know who’s here? Harry,” and then adds, almost as an oh- you’ve-never-met afterthought, “Belafonte.” But Mill has less finesse, opting either for the too obvious (he claims to have been in Japan “with Steven…Spielberg“) or the too chummy (he calls John Cusack “Johnny”). Running into Joel Grey, he can’t resist an overly familiar mention of Grey’s daughter, Jennifer (Dirty Dancing).

The Accessories: In Hollywood, the point is not only to have great toys but to have slightly greater toys than the next guy. Thus, in The Player, Griffin Mill doesn’t merely have an office fax machine, he has a car fax. And the mini-basketball hoop in his office (an important signifier of one’s status as a regular guy) is a sleek electronic one that generates crowd noise when a basket is bagged.

The In-Jokes: The movie brims with throwaway moments aimed at folks in the know. Jeffrey Berg, the chairman of the ICM talent agency, and David Kirkpatrick, a studio executive who has bounced from Paramount to Disney and back again, are mentioned as likely contenders for Mill’s job, precisely because they are the sort of names that are always mentioned whenever a job is assumed to be up for grabs. Bumping into Burt Reynolds, Larry Levy apologetically insists, “I was only working for Kastner at the time,” an allusion to Elliott Kastner, who produced 1987’s Heat, where Reynolds allegedly came to blows with director Dick Richards. The Player also makes a game of challenging viewers to figure out which fictional characters are actually based on real people: “If you know who Sydney Pollack plays, you’ll know who runs Hollywood,” Altman teasingly says, but that could mean any one of a number of powerful show-biz lawyers: Peter Dekom, Bert Fields, Bruce Ramer, Mickey Cantor. Finally, in the movie-within-a-movie that ends The Player, viewers can glimpse Altman standby Paul Dooley (who played Wimpy in Popeye), Susan Sarandon (Tim Robbins’ real-life companion), Louise Fletcher (lampooning her One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest role), and of course, Bruce and Julia. Bruce and Julia who? If you have to ask, you’ll never be a player.

The Player

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