October 29, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

A movie god of the 1970s, Robert Altman, 68, is once again the stuff of legend. His new film, the sprawling, three-hour-plus Short Cuts, has been hailed as his best since 1975’s Nashville, and even better than last year’s The Player, which marked the maverick director’s return to true form. In limited engagements, Altman’s jazzy riff on the writings of Raymond Carver—a sort of album of contemporary life in all its tragicomic disarray—is playing to packed houses in New York and L.A. (it opens in about 30 more cities Oct. 22). Although Altman has always been bent on subverting expectations in his ! films, he has never discouraged a certain mythologizing of himself. Does he live up to it?

* Myth: He’s a Hollywood pariah. Truth: He’s so far out he’s in. Altman still isn’t considered bankable by the studio moguls he skewered in The Player. (Paramount tossed out the unconventional screenplay of Short Cuts during a 1991 executive housecleaning; it was financed independently.) But his sets are a magnet for Hollywood’s acting elite, who happily pay court to the master gadfly. ”Before I even read the script I said I’d do it,” says Jack Lemmon, who spent three days working on Short Cuts. ”Because when he, Billy Wilder, Neil Simon—just a handful of guys—call, I do it.” Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis were just as eager to spoof their stardom in The Player. And to rope in those actors immune to his reputation, Altman knows how to play the Hollywood game: When Andie MacDowell hesitated to take a part in Short Cuts, the director told her Lori Singer wanted the role. MacDowell signed on.

* Myth: He lets actors improvise like mad. Truth: Anything goes in rehearsal… sometimes. From Nashville, for which many of his actors wrote their own songs, to Tanner ’88, in which he allowed politicos Bruce Babbitt and Bob Dole to ad-lib their lines, Altman is known for the freedom he grants actors. But after rehearsals are done, so’s the experimentation. This was especially true of Short Cuts. Given the film’s logistical and structural complexity, Altman made everyone stick to the script. ”I didn’t change a syllable,” says Lemmon of the painful nine-minute monologue he delivers (cut to about six minutes in the finished film). ”I had to follow the script more closely,” Altman explains, ”because I only had each group of actors for a week.”

* Myth: He’s one wild and crazy guy. Truth: He’s one moderately wild and crazy guy. In the days of M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Altman’s nightly screenings of the day’s rushes were justly famous orgies, and Altman has acknowledged a past propensity for drinking, gambling, marijuana, and mistresses. But that was then, and this is the ’90s. Except for a rare drink and an occasional joint, his big habits are iced cappuccinos—and the plain speaking that helped make him notorious: ”I don’t work with the studios,” says Altman, ”and I don’t see most of their films. I haven’t had a phone call from one studio out here in 20 years.”

* Myth: He wouldn’t want these myths blown out of proportion. Truth: He wouldn’t?

Additional reporting by Alan Graison

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