Nanette Bulebosh's Reviews > Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

Robert Altman by Mitchell Zuckoff
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Feb 11, 2010

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Read in January, 2010

Zuckoff, in an interview on WBUR's "Here and Now," described Altman as a maverick who, despite several professional setbacks, refused to compromise his idiosyncratic vision and desire to tell stories far differently than most film directors. I loved Gosford Park, M*A*S*H, and (just recently) A Prairie Home Companion, Altman's last movie. As a director, he is especially deft with ensemble acting. Gosford Park succeeds in part because of the comfortable and intimate banter between the characters, both the servants and the wealthy weekend guests the former have to care for. PHC is also great. I love how the actors talk over each other, something quite common in real life but rarely seen in film. The characters played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin come off belieably as Midwestern sisters(from Oshkosh, WI!), despite the fact that they look and act nothing alike, because of the intimacy and easy comfort they have for each other. Altman, who died in 2007, seemed to relish in this intimacy. By all accounts he actively encouraged his actors to improvise and experiment. He was the qunitesssential actor's director.

Thus, who wouldn't be interested in learning more about this man? For me, however, this particular book was not the ideal path doing that. "Oral biography" turns out to be quite a limiting term. We get no indepth objective story-telling or analysis. No narrative from Zuckoff at all, in fact. All we get are fond memories and quotations from loved ones and the many people who worked with him. The book is a series of individual monologues from famous and non-so-famous people. It's not at all what I'm used to seeing in a biography.

Not that the author pretends to do anything else. He's upfront about his method. And clearly he spent a great deal of time tracking down all these people and hearing their stories. I'm sure he came up with some great questions and methods for getting people to open up. He also spent a lot of time with Mr. Altman, who supported the project, himself.

It's just not the kind of biography I was looking for. It may work very well for others.
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