The Simpsons Decade

Robert Altman's The Player is a Meta Exploration of Hollywood's Twisted Self-Obsession

Nathan Rabin breaks down how this 1992 show-biz satire both critiqued the industry and restored Altman to the A-list.

by | December 6, 2016 | Comments

The-Player-Title

 

Movies about movies generally don’t fare well at the box office, and they tend to get mixed-to-dire reviews. Yet Hollywood keeps making ostensibly scathing satires exposing the film industry as a snake pit of phonies, opportunists, sycophants, and worse. It seemingly can’t help itself.

The deluge of unwanted, unloved show business satires is partially attributable to the toxic self-absorption of Hollywood folk. People involved in the industry find nothing more fascinating than their own quirks, pretensions, and excesses. In that respect, they’re a product of deep-seated narcissism, even as they take gleeful satirical aim at the narcissism endemic in show business.

This might seem masochistic from the outside, but really it’s just another form of egomania. Even the most brutal, eviscerating takedown of Hollywood flatters show business by treating it as a subject worthy of being targeted.

So when Robert Altman finally got around to making a movie world satire with his 1992 comeback hit The Player, I suspect Hollywood was flattered rather than insulted that one of its prickliest geniuses considered their industry worthy of his mockery and scorn. The Player is entertaining but endlessly glib, a deeply superficial look at a deeply superficial industry. It’s minor Altman elevated to major status due to its commercial and critical success and the pivotal role it played in returning Altman to the ranks of A-list studio filmmakers.

The glibness begins with a long, uninterrupted eight-minute shot that, like all uninterrupted shots of that length, serves dual purposes. First and foremost, it draws us into the world of the film, a world of free-floating desperation and naked greed, where everyone, from executives to screenwriters to actors, speaks the mercenary, reductive language of “the pitch.” The Player is full of the kind of comically inane pitches ubiquitous in show business satires, particularly the ones that combine two wildly dissimilar but well-known titles, like “Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate.”

The-Player-Robbins

People involved in the industry find nothing more fascinating than their own quirks, pretensions, and excesses.

More importantly, an unedited shot of that length serves to call attention to itself and to the director. The more you know about Altman’s history, the more you get out of the film itself, in part because the film’s gallery of famous people includes much of Altman’s repertory company as well. This opening shot gives us an impish first impression of a broad cross-section of Hollywood phonies while at the same time establishing an achingly meta, self-referential tone that carries through to the final frame.

These players and would-be players are divided by class, by money, by success, but they are united in their desperation, in their feverish quest to get ahead — or at least not fall behind — in a business that is equal parts sadistic and insane. Nobody is exempt from this free-floating terror, not even legends like Buck Henry, who shows up in the opening shot to pitch a sequel to The Graduate featuring a stroke-afflicted Mrs. Robinson.

Altman can be an extraordinarily subtle filmmaker. He’s at his least subtle here, though, when he has Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward), who works in security at the studio, lament the kinetic, MTV-style editing that has replaced the kinds of long, uninterrupted takes you found at the beginning of Touch Of Evil. Of course, when Stuckel references the opening shot in Touch Of Evil, he is also implicitly acknowledging the shot he’s in, but it doesn’t stop there. The Player is a film of overkill (even the plot hinges on a man who kills one more person than is absolutely necessary) so Stuckel continues singling out similar shots in Absolute Beginners and The Sheltering Sky.

Tim Robbins plays studio executive Griffin Mill, who begins the film in a state of perpetual distraction. Robbins plays Griffin as a man whose attention is far too valuable to waste on insignificant screenwriters or underlings. If he believes in anything, which is doubtful, it’s in Hollywood formula. And if he gives 15 percent of his attention to any one person, it’s a mark of extravagant generosity; most of the peons in his life get far less.

This includes David Kahane (Vincent D’ Onofrio), a pretentious, bespectacled, struggling screenwriter in the Clifford Odets/Barton Fink mold who sees Griffin not just as a powerful man who made, and makes, him feel powerless, but as something close to the embodiment of Hollywood evil. Griffin feels threatened by him, so in a bid to neutralize this potential threat to his life, he tracks down the scruffy scribe at a theater showing not just an arthouse movie but the arthouse movie: The Bicycle Thief.

At the theater, Griffin masquerades unconvincingly as a man who cares about art, and even less convincingly as a man interested in whatever is rattling around inside the failed screenwriter’s frazzled brain. For the briefest of moments, it appears these two wildly dissimilar men may not be perpetually at war, but when David starts antagonizing Griffin about the buzz that rival Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) will usurp his place in the show-biz hierarchy, Griffin flies into a rage and accidentally kills the hapless writer.

The-Player-Donofrio

Within the world of the film, screenwriters are disposable, while men with the power to green-light movies are worshipped like Gods.

Griffin then goes about seducing David’s ice queen girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scaachi), who doesn’t seem particularly concerned about her partner’s disappearance. Griffin assumes that it was David who was sending the postcards, but they keep coming even after his death, and he seems far more concerned with staying in the game, professionally, than he is with staying out of jail.

He needn’t worry. In The Player, the life of an angry, struggling screenwriter in a town and industry full of angry, struggling screenwriters doesn’t amount to much, if it amounts to anything. That’s also true outside of the film’s world as well, but The Player is relatively unique in Altman’s filmography in that it seems to belong as much to its writer as it does to its director. Altman is famously cavalier about ignoring scripts, including the Oscar-winning ones for M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud, the latter of which was one of the hottest screenplays in show-business before Altman scooped it up and made a movie that bore almost no resemblance to it. Yet in The Player, Altman treats Michael Tolkin’s adaptation with uncharacteristic reverence. Within the world of the film, however, screenwriters are disposable, while men with the power to green-light movies and realize dreams — men like Griffin — are worshipped like Gods.

The people in The Player see everything in terms of cinematic formula. They’re not human beings, they’re characters, and they similarly see their lives and careers in cinematic terms. There’s a great scene early on when Larry Levy uses random articles in the newspaper to illustrate that there’s no story too dry or depressing that it cannot be transformed into a crowd-pleasing Hollywood melodrama. All you need to do is add some laughs, some sex, some heart, and a happy ending, and suddenly you have a movie exactly like every other.

The characters in The Player seem wholly aware they’re in a movie. For them, life is movies, and Altman further blurs the line separating the (just barely) fictional world of his film from the real world of Hollywood by filling the film with dozens upon dozens of cameos from famous people playing themselves, from Burt Reynolds to Altman protege Alan Rudolph. This never-ending string of big name cameos functions as commentary on the movie world’s obsession with celebrity, but from a commercial standpoint, it never hurts to have as many big stars involved with a project as possible. This also helps explain why The Player feels more like a good-natured goof than a vicious takedown. Altman may despise the business, but he loves actors, and movies, and human behavior, and the cynicism at the core of the film is leavened by his palpable affection for his collaborators.

The Player ends on a distinctly self-satisfied and deeply meta note. A movie that was pitched by a pair of characteristically struggling screenwriters (played by Richard E. Grant and Dean Stockwell) as a raw, troubling slice of unvarnished reality with no big names to distract from its brutal truths is instead transformed into a gossamer ribbon of pure fantasy that’s zero reality and all star power.

The-Player-Robbins2

The cynicism at the core of the film is leavened by Altman’s palpable affection for his collaborators.

And because the “reel” world of The Player is a funhouse mirror reflection of its real world, our aloof, unsympathetic, murderer of an anti-hero gets a Hollywood-style happy ending of his own as well. Real life is not governed by the dour, moralistic dictates of the Hays Code, which mandated for many decades that if someone committed a crime, legally or morally, they were invariably punished for their transgressions.

Griffin doesn’t just escape jail time for his crime, he also gets the girl of the man he murdered, as well as a movie that looks destined to be a blockbuster on account of its slavish devotion to Hollywood formula. The only down note is the intimation that the screenwriter who had been sending Griffin angry postcards throughout the film may be blackmailing him in order to green light his latest script, a dark thriller about a studio executive who kills a screenwriter. The title? The Player, of course. Murder, calculation, and compromise are all rewarded; artistic integrity is punished. Forget it, Jake. It’s Hollywood.

Today it feels like Altman made The Player for Hollywood as much as he made it about Hollywood. The film ironically fulfills many of the requirements of a mainstream commercial movie, while self-consciously calling attention to movie conventions at the same time.

Altman’s big comeback is one of the safest and most conventional films in his filmography. So perhaps it’s not surprising, or coincidental, that this is the film that made Altman a player again. With The Player, Altman made a moderately scathing indictment of the cowardice and groupthink that characterizes Hollywood decision making. More importantly, as far as studios were concerned, Altman proved that he could make a conventionally entertaining and commercially successful Hollywood movie, happy ending, stars up the wazoo and all.


Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

Apple cinemax Endgame Fall TV Winners ESPN football ABC Family IMDb TV Trivia foreign cops HBO Tokyo Olympics Black History Month Marathons miniseries OneApp Drama WGN trailers superman canceled ghosts stop motion A&E screen actors guild Fox Searchlight Pop 93rd Oscars Dark Horse Comics monster movies emmy awards reviews international crime thriller singing competition spanish language Crackle Summer transformers prank Lifetime Christmas movies social media Sony Pictures child's play FX HFPA docuseries composers legend Native See It Skip It CBS First Reviews Mindy Kaling Logo reboot E! CBS All Access TCA Winter 2020 summer TV black Avengers sequel interviews 2015 dogs DC Comics Awards Tour BBC America children's TV cats werewolf TCM Turner Classic Movies TNT stand-up comedy TV movies Crunchyroll Year in Review 72 Emmy Awards Nat Geo films Marvel Studios Warner Bros. Academy Awards MCU Action VOD natural history versus feel good streaming pirates of the caribbean adventure Apple TV Plus godzilla South by Southwest Film Festival crossover 2019 kong Watching Series 45 book science fiction A24 anthology video on demand Arrowverse Mary Poppins Returns LGBT Animation Hear Us Out YouTube technology Character Guide spanish Paramount Plus Paramount HBO Max olympics CW Seed unscripted WarnerMedia ABC American Society of Cinematographers Nickelodeon Oscar Sundance crime festivals south america comiccon cancelled TV shows ratings Superheroes Starz Vudu women biopic Holidays rt labs Rom-Com Fantasy Film Festival SDCC TruTV lord of the rings Walt Disney Pictures harry potter dreamworks action-comedy remakes Adult Swim concert TLC OWN Musical festival GoT TV Land Wes Anderson ViacomCBS spain travel Tubi halloween tv BET Awards new york 007 quibi docudrama Winter TV animated italian Horror hist hidden camera Cartoon Network scary comics police drama game show Holiday marvel cinematic universe vs. DC streaming service Music MSNBC worst live action award winner slasher jamie lee curtis The Arrangement kids jurassic park BAFTA Elton John scene in color series dramedy BET fresh deadpool Best Picture Best Director serial killer Stephen King CNN PaleyFest christmas movies twilight TIFF dceu Instagram Live disaster best RT21 mcc The Academy independent 99% Sundance TV 2018 USA Network Disney+ Disney Plus Britbox TV renewals Writers Guild of America dragons comic book movie obituary E3 vampires Shondaland japan sports stoner documentary golden globes Calendar DGA book adaptation Geeked Week Classic Film laika Esquire Prime Video Universal Exclusive Video zombies obi wan space Kids & Family historical drama History Acorn TV young adult Thanksgiving Tomatazos heist movie Hollywood Foreign Press Association discovery witnail Lucasfilm Disney rt labs critics edition Masterpiece NYCC Women's History Month sopranos Food Network documentaries Amazon Prime Video rt archives boxing news art house Star Trek king arthur The CW National Geographic Sneak Peek cartoon Brie Larson elevated horror Paramount Network Disney streaming service 90s Baby Yoda nbcuniversal Alien crime drama TV One 94th Oscars black comedy Cosplay summer preview Star Wars scorecard tv talk anime 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Apple TV+ GIFs politics robots Funimation Rocketman Broadway king kong romance Awards Best and Worst Tumblr revenge Spike criterion Shudder Mary Tyler Moore critics wonder woman Fox News Election Reality Amazon Pirates TBS Certified Fresh basketball Peacock 73rd Emmy Awards leaderboard Chernobyl BBC One Travel Channel venice GLAAD FOX series classics facebook Netflix comic book movies aapi Comics on TV royal family Interview supernatural NBA Marvel Television slashers talk show zero dark thirty saw latino TCA Awards renewed TV shows cancelled spinoff YouTube Premium rotten movies we love Photos scary movies trophy DC Universe comic books richard e. Grant new zealand movies Spring TV cancelled television Fargo APB scene in color film series Lifetime streamig archives blockbusters suspense aliens what to watch 20th Century Fox TV MTV The Walt Disney Company Mudbound Cannes blockbuster Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Best Actress streaming movies TCA 2017 indiana jones thriller television Extras based on movie comedies Pixar blaxploitation romantic comedy Neflix golden globe awards YouTube Red ID ABC Signature Amazon Studios Comic Book SXSW 2022 posters LGBTQ Toys Schedule Pet Sematary AMC Plus Superheroe gangster 71st Emmy Awards doctor who Set visit Disney Plus Ovation Marvel President critic resources 21st Century Fox 79th Golden Globes Awards target scene in color all-time true crime japanese RT History rotten 24 frames Black Mirror rom-coms strong female leads justice league TCA Binge Guide australia SundanceTV theme song Indigenous chucky Discovery Channel Quiz game of thrones Anna Paquin Creative Arts Emmys The Walking Dead BBC Ellie Kemper video cults toronto Syfy IFC Films Spectrum Originals Opinion First Look zombie PlayStation Tarantino VH1 Showtime casting Universal Pictures teaser Bravo Comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt indie Netflix Christmas movies free movies sitcom 2017 Song of Ice and Fire summer TV preview Ghostbusters mutant Rocky james bond VICE The Witch The Purge boxoffice universal monsters Podcast Martial Arts cars Film Legendary X-Men scene in color diversity joker DirecTV french Video Games Mystery El Rey HBO Go medical drama new star wars movies Hallmark mob fast and furious Countdown Sundance Now satire green book psychological thriller San Diego Comic-Con toy story binge Comedy Central Pride Month worst movies adenture NBC 2016 Nominations Western Best Actor war psycho YA a nightmare on elm street asian-american high school political drama Captain marvel USA name the review mockumentary comic movie spy thriller cancelled TV series Heroines genre hispanic broadcast razzies Infographic die hard directors Tags: Comedy canceled TV shows breaking bad Pacific Islander Paramount Pictures Pop TV spider-verse New York Comic Con Trailer Sony Columbia Pictures Hallmark Christmas movies marvel comics screenings ITV Freeform Trophy Talk kaiju finale know your critic Comic-Con@Home 2021 Christmas live event Box Office telelvision 2020 popular nfl hispanic heritage month Sci-Fi Musicals Emmy Nominations CMT adaptation Family Disney Channel Emmys mission: impossible Amazon Prime Teen sequels Polls and Games 1990s SXSW franchise Turner Lionsgate Grammys Mary poppins debate Image Comics Television Academy nature Hulu 4/20 dc Oscars spider-man batman superhero period drama parents Biopics Red Carpet Star Wars Celebration AMC Focus Features Television Critics Association FXX Valentine's Day target dark 2021 sag awards Epix IFC biography cooking hollywood Rock dexter Super Bowl Premiere Dates PBS Country MGM Reality Competition halloween FX on Hulu