The myth of the auteur theory suggests that artists are born fully formed overnight, their style and proclivities intact. While certain first-time filmmakers have made some extraordinarily assured works, numerous others have had to find their voices as they went along. This is especially apparent in the career of director Robert Altman, a man whose name now carries with it a number of thematic and stylistic expectations: a love for the underdogs of society, a skewed and highly critical look at American life, dry humor, hazy cinematography and cacophonous, overlapping dialogue. Yet Altman began his long career far from fully formed, and it wasn’t until 19 years after he began making films that his signature style was born. In the two 1970 releases, M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud, Altman found his voice by aggressively railing against the for-hire nature those movies started life as, his talents coming to fruition by way of subversion.
After a Catholic upbringing in Kansas City, Missouri and a stint in the Air Force during WWII starting at the age of 18, Altman worked a series of odd jobs which included getting involved with the movies as a lark. Attempting a career as a screenwriter in the late ‘40s with little success, Altman was eventually hired to make industrial films for the Kansas City-based Calvin Company, which allowed him a little experimental creative latitude. Through these he gained the attention of television producers and began working as a director-for-hire, helming a number of TV episodes of long-running series as well as a few features with documentary or industrial angles.
His TV career continued despite his growing reputation for arguments with the networks and producers, especially when he attempted anything experimental or subversive. These creative clashes bled into his nascent feature career, seeing him fired off of projects like the 1968 astronaut drama Countdown. That movie barely features any Altman signatures, but on his next film, 1969’s That Cold Day in the Park, the director was able to exert a bit more creative control, resulting in a psychodrama that retroactively feels like the first installment of a thematic trilogy with Altman’s later Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977). Sadly, the film, like Countdown, was met with poor reviews and bad box office, keeping Altman in director jail.
Everything changed with M*A*S*H. Based on Richard Hooker’s novel about military doctors behaving badly during the Korean War, then-ailing studio 20th Century Fox had a difficult time finding a director to make the picture—the Vietnam War as well as the protests of it in the U.S. were in full swing, and all of Fox’s prospects were wary of making a movie that even lightly ridiculed the Army or seemed to comment on current events. Altman was not only unafraid of such analogies when he was eventually hired, but actively pursued them, attempting to wipe away all mention of Korea and make his movie as a very thinly veiled commentary on Vietnam. Knowing that the studio was distracted by the larger, simultaneous productions of Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!, Altman kept the story outline but threw out most of the screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr., working with his cast of then-unknown actors to improvise the movie scene by scene. A large number of those new-to-the-screen actors came from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, their improv training helping Altman’s desire to create a true ensemble cast with characters speaking on top of and over each other, the resulting aural cacophony matching the freewheeling spirit of the film itself.
M*A*S*H may seem tame on first glance to 21st century eyes (especially given the sanitized spin-off sitcom’s legacy), but it was revolutionary for 1970—an ostensible war movie with no all-American hero figures, one which substitutes a vapid football game for battle sequences, features copious blood in surgery scenes, contains washed-out cinematography, and follows a group of disrespectful and disobeying enlisted men and women. Altman, fed up with being a hired hand for so many years, used his position to turn the movie into a bitter, nasty slice of anti-war agitprop, finding his own unique filmmaking voice in the process.
Released in a growing anti-war climate, M*A*S*H was a huge hit, finally giving Altman the validation and influence he’d long sought. Freed from obscurity but not quite on top, the filmmaker chose another script stuck in development hell, Doran William Cannon’s Brewster McCloud,for his next project.. A counter-culture parable about a mousey young man whose grand desire is to make a pair of wings and fly away, the script was almost made by the likes of Bob Dylan but was ultimately just too weird for anyone else to produce. Flush with confidence from his M*A*S*H experience, Altman again essentially threw out the script and re-hired many of his M*A*S*H cast (including Bud Cort, Michael Murphy and Sally Kellerman), and found new talent like Shelley Duvall.
He promptly went to town with the material, making Brewster a rollicking American New Wave satire that once again features characters overlapping their dialogue, hazy cinematography, surrealistic cutaways, and pseudo-musical numbers. Targeting everything from corporations, politicians, class issues, racism, and even 1968’s Bullitt (complete with mock-serious car chase), Brewster McCloud is a big melange of every bone the liberal Altman had to pick at the time. It retains Cannon’s original theme of Brewster as put-upon artist in a corporate, anti-art world, but Altman’s long years of experience toiling for television and commercial clients lends the movie a much-needed depth and honesty. Critics embraced the birth of a new American voice, even as audiences and studios didn’t quite know what to do with him—the ads for Brewster warily describe it as “a different kind of film from the director of M*A*S*H.” In any case, Altman’s style had been coalesced, and it was there to stay.
After years of searching for a way to express his voice within the corporate and Hollywood systems, Altman latched onto the style he found within these two films, applying their lessons and techniques to nearly every movie he’d make during the rest of the decade. He’d push the cacophonous overlapping dialogue to its near-breaking point in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Nashville (1975), experiment with unsavory protagonists in Thieves Like Us and California Split (both 1974), and throw out nearly everything but the basic story in further adaptations, doing so even to the likes of Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye (1973). As his career developed during the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s, Altman further developed his style but never changed his voice, continuing to satirize everything from Hollywood to America, refusing to become a placating filmmaker for the masses. “Robert Altman” the artist may not have been born overnight, but his body of work became loud, influential, and lasting thanks in large part to the right opportunities coming along at the right time.