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Book Review: Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff

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“He was drafted.” This line of dialog, spoken by Father Mulcahy in response to a hysterical rhetorical question from Hot Lips, is one of my favorite in the movies.  It ranks right up there with the best of Lauren Bacall, Rodney Dangerfield and Mae West.  Out of context here, it loses the impact.  In the confines of the movie, it was not only funny, but a scathing indictment of conscription that came during the Viet Nam Conflict.  It was especially relevant to this reviewer as I was in the last class of students that had the option of a college deferment.  I was in school rather than a rice paddy.

Robert Altman’s movies had many lines like that with which audiences could identify.  His trademark use of ensemble casts with many actors having speaking roles delivered in conversational style includes the viewer in the scene.  Altman gave his audiences credit for being intelligent and able to participate in such conversations, draw conclusions, and as he often said, “Giggle and give in.”  At the time of his death, he was working on a film with no less than 48 speaking roles.

Mitchell Zuckoff has taken a cue from Studs Terkel and written a book that he describes as an “oral biography.”  (Terkel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for an oral history of World War II.)  Zuckoff offers readers a book of almost 600 pages in the words of those that spoke them.  Much of the text in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, is from Altman himself.  Additionally, we hear from over 145 of his associates, friends and collaborators.  The list reads like a “who’s who” of Hollywood and the movie industry.  Zuckoff edited all these voices into a cohesive and readable text that enriches our understanding of one of the great directors.

Family members (from widow to cousins) talk about his life off the set and actors (such as Tim Robbins and Buck Henry) discussing his approach to film making make it clear how much he was respected and how they enjoyed working with him. 

If you enjoy selecting movies to watch based on who directed them, and especially if you’re a fan of Altman, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography will be a welcomed addition to your library.  Those not familiar with his work will enjoy a pleasurable and informative read — and may become fans as well.

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  • Delbertmj0

    The man was a genius and Mash was spot on. I can’t hear Suicide is painless to this day without smiling. An incredible legacy to leave behind.

  • Jas

    He was an amazing force and I look forward to reading this myself. Great review. You sold me.

  • Jeff Forsythe

    I have been an Altman fan for some time and found this an enjoyable read FC. You have given me a good idea for a Christmas gift as well


  • Revealer

    I’m a huge Robert Altman fan but I enjoy his later stuff more than the earlier work. I especially love Short Cuts and The player.