Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

ALTMAN, ROBERT (b. 1925)

One of the prime architects of a renaissance in American independent filmmaking in the 1970s, Robert Altman has chronicled in his own idiosyncratic way the vagaries and varieties of the American experience. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 20, 1925. He recalls that his formative youthful experiences–particularly his frequenting of the jazz districts around 18th and Vine and the movie theaters near his Brookside neighborhood home–provided him with what he calls his "chips," his "attitudes" toward life and art.

After serving as a B-24 pilot during World War II, Altman returned to Kansas City, where he began making industrial films for the Calvin Company. He made two locally financed features, The Delinquents (1956) and The James Dean Story (1957), then departed to Los Angeles, where he began directing for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Rifleman, and Combat! His breakthrough film was M*A*S*H in 1970, which he quickly followed up with several "antigenre" films, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974), and Nashville (1975). He won the Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival for M*A*S*H and the New York Critics' Film Circle Award for best director for Nashville.

Altman returned to his hometown in 1996 to make Kansas City, a portrait of the town's milieu of jazz, corrupt politics, and rampant gangsterism in the mid-1930s–a summation of his thematic preoccupation with loose ends and failed hopes, served up with his trademark eccentric, semi-improvisational style (which he compares to the solo riffs of the jam sessions he heard as a youth in the Kansas City clubs). Kansas City may be his most autobiographical film, drawn as much from his own memories as from the historical record. With his characteristic relish for paradox, Altman admits the film is hardly factual but insists it is "truthful."

John C. Tibbetts University of Kansas

Jacobs, Diane. Hollywood Renaissance. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1977.

McGilligan, Patrick. Robert Altman: Jumping off the Cliff. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Tibbetts, John C. "Robert Altman: After Thirty-Five Years Still the "Action Painter" of American Cinema." Literature/ Film Quarterly 20 (1992): 36-42.

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