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Once again, a 'Player'

There is the temptation to write this article from the obvious angle, which is that Robert Altman, the perennial Hollywood maverick and outsider, has skewered the establishment with his savage new comedy named "The Player." There would be some truth there.

Altman has never been a happy camper, and "The Player" shows Hollywood in the 1990s with an unforgiving clarity. All of the insider books you've read--the Julia Phillips autobiography, the exposes about David Begelman and "Heaven's Gate" and "Bonfire" and even Michael Milkin -- were the words. This is the music.

But there are wheels within wheels, and Altman the outsider is also Altman the industry survivor, who has made most of his films for big studios, who has worked with the top stars (Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Cher, Robin Williams), and who was as happy as a clam when 20th Century-Fox rented him a yacht at the Cannes Film Festival.

"The reason I'm not exempt from the criticisms in my film," Altman himself says, "is that I'm a player, too."

He knows how the game is played. And that is why he has made the most knowledgeable, cynical and unforgiving film about the movie industry since "Sunset Boulevard." That is also why his film is funny, suspenseful and entertaining. "Message pictures" close in a week in Hollywood; no matter what you want to say, you'd better make people want to pay money to hear you say it.

Altman's movie chronicles some time in the life of an upper-level studio executive, played by Tim Robbins ("Bull Durham") as a completely self-absorbed cynic who knows no religion except for studio politics. During the course of the film, Robbins finds his job is threatened, he murders a writer, and he engages in corporate infighting, more or less in that order of importance. His character is surrounded by dozens of other players, and Altman has filled the movie with dozens of famous cameo appearances.

Will the movie be too "inside?" Not a chance. In an age when the papers print the box office totals every Monday, when Entertainment Tonight is a daily trade report, when Entertainment Weekly and Premiere read like Variety, the real question is, what took Hollywood so long to make "The Player?" Moviegoers have been ready for this film for years. "More people can tell you when a picture is over budget," Altman says, "than can tell you who the director is."

For Altman, the film's reception has been sweet revenge. He owned the town in the 1970s, with hits like "M*A*S*H" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville." Then he made a string of movies that were not box office hits, although he winces in pain when he hears "Popeye" (1980) included in any list of his flops. "That movie made a lot of money," he says. "It was a hit. Repeat. A hit. It ushered in all of the comic book movies."

But "Popeye" was perceived as a flop, and after a decade of big-budget films with big stars, Altman spent the 1980s making small-budget films with small stars, or big stars who were working for scale. Some of them were great films: "Secret Honor," for example, with Philip Baker Hall in a one-man performance as Richard Nixon, or "Fool for Love," based on the Sam Shepard play. But Altman remained in exile, nursing his projects in Paris and New York, unwanted and increasingly uneasy in Hollywood.

And now comes "The Player," based on a novel and screenplay by Michael Tolkin, a writer whose portrait of the way Hollywood treats writers is no doubt based on his own bitter ruminations in the dark of the night.

"At first," Altman told me, "I thought the movie was a metaphor for Hollywood. Then I realized that Hollywood is a metaphor for the situation in our culture today. Greed is our ruling principal, and Hollywood is just a convenient example of it. Before the movie had even opened anywhere, I'd already received more mail on it than any other movie I've ever made. People in the banking business think it's about banking. People in the newspaper business think it's about newspapers."

We were talking one afternoon in his suite at one of those exclusive hotels that overlook Beverly Hills. He seemed a little like a guy who had spent ten years losing his shirt in Vegas, and had just broken the bank.

"I think what happened is, we struck a nerve. The movie is like a march, and everyone wants to join in. It's like a march on Washington. It stands for the savings and loan debacle, for the Reagan-Bush administration. It's like we held up a sign saying, 'Throw the bastards out!'"

When he put out a call for movie stars to come and play themselves, Altman said, "they turned up, 65 of them, with no paranoia, and they all knew exactly what they wanted to say. They were mad. When Burt Reynolds sits in the restaurant and calls everyone an a------, do you think he doesn't mean it?"

Reynolds may even have been including Altman. "I'm as guilty as anybody else," he said. "I'm a part of this system I'm satirizing. I play the game, too. I have this ridiculous reputation of being an outsider and a rebel. I don't know anyone who's been treated better than I have. John Ford, Howard Hawks...who's had a better career than I have?"

The fly in the ointment (or, as Altman prefers, "the hair in the butter") is that Hollywood is still not ready to finance the movies he wants to make. "They see this one, and they say, great! Terrific! What do you want to do? And then, without pausing, they tell me what they want me to do. And when I say, I have this project here--actually, it's a film based on a group of stories by Raymond Carver--they don't want to do it. Nothing has changed."

The problem, Altman said, is that "The Player" is all too accurate, and what corporate Hollywood thinks about these days is the bottom line. "Two studio heads came right out and said so. Joe Roth at Fox and Brandon Tartikoff at Paramount, both said they were only interested in making pictures that made a lot of money, and don't have a downside to them. Great. Except they ought to listen to Einstein, who said the train is moving, but so is the station. Their philosophy leads to an endless attempt to make last year's big hit. What an audience really wants to see is something they've never seen before. They respond to 'The Player" because they haven't seen it before, and they smell the truth in it. It happened with 'Easy Rider,' with 'MASH,' with 'Close Encounters,' with 'Star Wars.' The pictures that really make it, got made by accident."

Altman twisted the top off a diet soda and settled back and his eyes twinkled. No one looks more avuncular and more conspiratorial at the same time.

"I'll let you in on something," he said. "I think the room at the top is empty. There are all these guys in Hollywood who are just below the top, and they take the information, and send it up to the empty room, and it comes back just the same as when they sent it up. There's not even a bad guy up there. So he can't even make a good mistake." What would you do, if you ran a studio?

Altman laughed. "I would never run a studio," he said. "But when I pick a project, I go by hunches. I use all of the information I can take in, through my sense, my skin, my eyesight, hearing. And when I make that decision, it's the way I bet on a horse. If everybody at the races bet according to the form, there wouldn't be any races. And if they keep doing the same thing in Hollywood, there ain't gonna be any movies."

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