Oscar honors Robert Altman -- The legendary director receives his first Academy Award at this year's ceremony

To those who weren’t there, it’s hard to convey the invigorating kick in the pants that Robert Altman gave Hollywood in the early ’70s. Like a counterculture wizard, he scrambled improvisation, multiple story lines, and overlapping dialogue, broadening the possibilities of filmmaking with some of cinema’s most original work. And yet, despite five directing nominations over 30 years, he’s never won an Oscar.

Though his debut feature was 1957’s The Delinquents, 1970’s M*A*S*H, with its anarchic satire and operating-room gore played by a commune-like cast, was the first to fully reflect his outsider sensibility. It made a bundle and earned five nominations, including Best Picture and Director (losing both to Patton). Of his propensity for large ensembles, Altman says, ”It’s self-defense. If one part of a picture doesn’t work you can throw concentration onto other characters.” He followed with the quirky comedy Brewster McCloud, then 1971’s beguiling McCabe & Mrs. Miller, arguably his best film. He sampled noir, with Elliott Gould as a pomo Marlowe in 1973’s The Long Goodbye, and teamed Gould and George Segal in 1974’s funny/sad California Split. Thieves Like Us, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as ’30s outlaws, rivals McCabe, while the kaleidoscopic, supremely entertaining slice of Americana Nashville (1975) received five nods, including one for direction.

When the studios stopped calling because the pictures were deemed too puzzling (1977’s undervalued 3 Women), too big a flop (1980’s Popeye, also undervalued), or too abstruse (1979’s Quintet, no argument there), Altman didn’t fold. He retreated to television, theater, and small-scale projects. And then, a delicious comeback: The Player, sly and star-packed, brought him a third nomination in 1993. Ditto for 1993’s bravura Short Cuts. The opulent 2001 mystery Gosford Park — entranced more with upstairs/downstairs goings-on than the who, how, or why — is pure Altman. Now 80, the director recently wrapped his 39th feature film, A Prairie Home Companion, starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Lindsay Lohan. Does Altman feel he’s run out of genres? ”Well, I hope not,” he laughs. ”I’ll think of something.” Undoubtedly, he will.