The Player: Why Robert Altman’s Hollywood Satire Is an Even Better Film 25 Years Later

Screenplay writers hate Hollywood! It really is as simple as that.

There's a good chance you would too if you had to go through all the studio bullshit (i.e., studio rewrites, budget cuts, lame-brain producers) just to see a version of your project reach theaters that barely resembles what you had in mind.

Just ask Michael Tolkin, who came to Holywood in the 1980s with aspirations of writing scripts that felt like Steven Spielberg meets Reiner Werner Fassbinder (Ha! Like that’d ever happen.) and eventually found it to be a lost cause. Instead though, Tolkin decided to use his hardships of working in Hollywood as a basis for a crime novel, The Player, and it ended up being his bridge towards finally having a fruitful career in the cinematic world. In 1992, the book was adapted into a film, with Tolkin supplying the screenplay and Robert Altman helming it as director.

It was a clever concept that was rapturous in in its simplicity: a sleazy film producer (Tim Robbins) gets caught up in a noir-esque crime caper after receiving a death-threat from a writer while also going through the checks and balances to get a promising new project made. For a number of reasons, the movie seemed problematic towards getting made. Robert Altman was a legendary filmmaker from the New Hollywood era, but he had been relatively low-key for the past decade, and the film's Hollywood bashing wasn’t exactly commercial friendly.

By some minor miracle, however, not only did The Player make its way into theaters with little studio conflict, but it also was also one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year—as well as a box office success off of a fairly modest budget of $8 million. It worked exceedingly well because it was a hostile attack at money-hungry producers and what they had done to filmmaking and it expressed its rage by being a piece that was very adherent to classical Hollywood.

Despite having a contemporary setting, The Player’s aesthetic almost immediately comes off as retrospective. Characters dress in garb that often recalls the 1930s, shots of posters from classical films are frequently shown for symbolism, and the opening is an 8-minute tracking shot that even includes dialogue that references the similarly choreographed opening in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. Sure, it wasn’t exactly subtle, but it also never felt like pastiche. And after the glut of lousy studio-mangled films that came out throughout the 80s, The Player really felt like the artistic jolt Hollywood needed at the time.

Face it, the 1980s were a shitty time for auteur cinema, as studio big-names had returned to power after a period in the 1970s when director’s had more production control (thanks in no small part to the disastrous box office results of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, another film that’s referenced in The Player’s dialogue). Even now, though, a quarter century after the film’s release, The Player still feels like a singular experience, even with a legacy and influence so vast.

Despite the genre tropes, The Player was also trying to cast an authentic reflection on the movie business, and it achieved this by casting a lot of actors as themselves. While all these guest appearances tended to be brief, they were all equally important towards the ethos and provocative in their own manner.

What’s to take of the scene where Malcolm McDowell confronts our producer protagonist and tells him to confront him like a man rather than bad mouthing him (a line that McDowell improvised)?

Or how about the hilarious scene near the end that features Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts making fun of their type-casted roles?

Just like The Larry Sanders Show (which premiered the same year), The Player ushered in the meta-television mainstays like Entourage and 30 Rock, as well as more scathing media breakdowns like Bojack Horseman and Fox’s short-lived sitcom Action.

What gives The Player a bit of an edge over its successors, however, is that it manages to be a very likable film despite exhibiting a concern towards some very rotten people. Tim Robbins’s character, Griffin Mill, is an asshole. He’s a greedy prick who commits a horrible crime within the film’s first act and even cheats on his wife with a woman who he’s secretly wronged. Yet, still, there’s a part of you that roots for the guy. He’s a good business man, intelligent, and he even seems to know more about cinema than his co-producers do.

Throughout the film, Griffin is trying to get a film made, but he’ll have to compromise with the writers for much of the project’s content in order for it to get funding. Thing is, he’s mostly successful in erring the vision and feelings of the screenplay writers, and the results are both clarifying and fascinating. When The Player’s unexpected finale comes along, one has to ask if Griffin really gets his just-dos at the end. Whatever the case, the central message Altman and Tolkin are trying to make is lucid: Hollywood is adept at fucking people over and looking good while doing it.

Over two decades since The Player, the movie’s view on Hollywood is still accurate. While the movie’s very existence is a case in point that great directors will always find ways to work with/against the system, it’s tearing to consider that so much talent is passed on due to the ruthless standards of studio executives. For that reason, this particular Altman film stands among his most timeless projects, and I personally feel it should be required initial viewing for any first day at film school.

Check out Peter Foy's article on Point Blank (1967)!

 


Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon. You can find out more about him at his blog-site Redgunner5.

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