Robert Altman turned 81-years-old last month, and after close to 50 features, he's finally getting an Oscar -- an honorary one. It's no surprise it took this long: he was, and is and always will be, a maverick.
Although he's had a couple of hits, the only real smash was "M*A*S*H" more than 35 years ago. He's not the friendliest guy, either. He's not mean, he just doesn't give a damn and he's almost arrogant in the way he refuses to spoon-feed his audience. You have to listen hard at his movies and find your own focus.
Altman started in TV on such series as "Combat" and "Bonanza," but the style we know him by -- the huge ensemble casts and overlapping lickety-split dialogue -- dates from that hilarious military comedy that brought a hip new counterculture sensibility to cinema.
The critic and painter Manny Farber once wrote about what he called Altman's "dispersed" frame. He meant there was no center, and no center of gravity. The screen is in constant flux, just like life, and if you get on Altman's wavelength, all those comings and goings and general hubbub can make you laugh out loud.
It isn't chaos, though. Altman has the tightest, loose frame in the business. He even made a great ballet film, "The Company," which proved he's a master of space.
My favorite Altman movie is "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," which about three people saw in 1971. It's a frontier story of missed romantic connections with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie and a soundtrack of songs by Leonard Cohen that gives it a dreamy and lonely and slightly disembodied quality. It's also the best acting Beatty ever did, although Altman once told me the actor hates it. Then he called Beatty a word I can't repeat.
"Nashville" was his big one, his cynical yet passionate epic of America as seen through the prism of the Country Western music world. After that, Altman's work turned sour, and he hit a dry spell in the 1980s. The nasty Hollywood comedy "The Player" was his commercial comeback. He thumbed his nose at the industry, but with so much wit and elegance that the industry nominated him for an Oscar.
He was up for "Short Cuts," too, and the delicious "Gosford Park," an English whodunnit in which Altman kept his chattering upper and lower classes in motion and teased us with indirection.
May I be, in a most un-Altmanlike way, direct? He's our greatest living American director. And I hope tonight the L.A. audience screams itself hoarse over this ornery sonofagun.