The Player (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Jeremy Carr

Produced by David Brown, Michael Tolkin, and Nick Weschler; screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel; directed by Robert Altman; cinematography by Jean Lépine; edited by Geraldine Peroni; starring Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Cynthia Stevenson, and Vincent D’Onofrio. Blu-ray, color, 124 min., 1992. A Criterion Collection release.

After a series of commercial failures and idiosyncratic passion projects, a famous American film director is essentially ostracized from the Hollywood community. In an effort to produce a movie of personal interest, he takes on a delegated project as a way of ingratiating himself with the financial powers that be. This project, which audaciously lampoons Hollywood clichés and conventions under the guise of a murder mystery, is nevertheless a tremendous success and said filmmaker is welcomed back to the film industry fold. 

A screenwriter couldn’t come up with a better, more ironic scenario than that which truthfully surrounds Robert Altman’s The Player (1992).

Griffin Mill at work in his Hollywood office.

From start to finish, The Player assumes a playfully (and maybe just a little bitter) tongue-in-cheek tone toward its Hollywood locale and its roster of studio types. Newly released on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD, which itself has an unusually self-referential menu background, featuring posters for the movie rather than the typically inspired film-related art, The Player pulls back the curtain of its production starting with scene one, as someone yells quiet on the set, then action, then the slate claps, commencing the film. Echoing Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), the virtues of which Fred Ward’s anticutting studio security head heartily extols, Altman gets The Player rolling with a bravura eight-minute take. During this introductory sequence, a careening camera tracks the exteriors of the studio, surveying and temporarily following a host of characters, some of whom reappear as major figures, others who are seen here only as part of improvised comic pitch sessions. This overtly stylish lead-in and the amusing banter initiates The Player with high expectations, both in terms of visual virtuosity (which it does not maintain) and sardonic movie humor (which it does). As much as anything, though, by Altman’s own admission, this opening was a conceit, a gimmick that took sixteen takes but was worth it, for, as the director points out, “It’s what people talk about.”

Tim Robbins plays executive Griffin Mill.

Though a singular character focus is not entirely absent from Altman’s oeuvre, The Player is somewhat unusual in that while there are many who surround executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), and some will play larger parts than others, in the end, and during every major scene, it is he who elicits the most interest and maybe, just maybe, sympathy. As the film begins, the smarmy wheeler-dealer begins receiving menacing postcards (and not for the first time, as a drawer full of similar notes attests). Not necessarily direct threats but threatening all the same, these messages do little to pacify this already anxious individual. As important as he apparently is, Griffin is still on shaky occupational ground, especially with rival producer Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) potentially moving in on his territory.

Going solo into the investigation of the mysterious dispatches, Griffin easily tracks down the apparent culprit, David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio). Confronting the resentful writer, a murderous rage boils over and Griffin finds himself in a criminal position he surely didn’t count on, one that amplifies his personal and professional dilemmas. Calling on a mental catalogue of scrutinized crime films, Griffin covers his homicidal tracks, but still he comes under suspicion for the murder. Developing a relationship with the deceased’s less-than-distraught girlfriend, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), surely does little to alleviate the growing misgivings about his role in the killing. And yet the notes do not stop. 

Griffin recognizes he is bound to make enemies as part of his profession, and with his job on the line, he can be as lecherous as anyone. Furthermore, though in a relationship with sweet story editor Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson), Griffin callously drops her like a hot potato for June. Despite it all, as shocked as one is to discover the latent fury beneath his honed, even temper, and as odious and pretentious as he may be (habitually ordering so much trendy mineral water that Altman had to make up new brands), he can be brave, he is audacious, and somehow we are not entirely against him, even after he commits murder. Still, this is certainly an uncommon path toward sustaining audience sympathy. As The Player thus raises questions of fictional morality versus real life crime and punishment, it ends by coiling back upon itself, so that, as Altman states, “The movie you saw is the movie you are about to see; the movie you saw is the movie we’re going to make.”

Griffin (Robbins) and his girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi).

Griffin (Robbins) and his girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi).

The conditions of Hollywood’s cutthroat constitution lie at the heart of what drives the intimidating letter writer, so fittingly, that aspect of the film never fully dissipates. As with Nashville (1975), Altman concurrently explores those attributes, which make the respective location so unique (for better or worse), similarly exploiting the setting-specific quirks to dramatic and comedic effect. Within the background milieu of Hollywood chicanery, Griffin and his associates are obsessed and entirely absorbed by their occupation. These people simply cannot talk about anything other than making movies, which is why June stands out. She is someone who is not involved with, and has no real interest in, the film business; as a painter, her work is emblematic of a tangible, solitary, and “pure” sort of expression. There are times when the burgeoning romance between her and Griffin drags down the film’s momentum somewhat, but because she is peculiar in a way that is incongruous with the general environment, she remains an intriguing figure, which is exactly what draws Griffin in. 

Compared to Altman’s most exceptional work, The Player is noteworthy for its linear, relatively conventional plot, with traditionally effective traits of suspense, drama, and comedy (one of the funniest sequences alludes to the 1932 film Freaks and its infamous “one of us” chant and features a hilarious tampon-twirling Whoopi Goldberg). This all makes The Player a cross-genre showcase from Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who is also the author of the film’s source novel and a producer of the movie. Working with cinematographer Jean Lépine, certain scenes were designed to emulate varying cinematic styles, and aside from the self-effacing opening, the film likewise incorporates standard musical cues to suit the customs of the fluctuating generic tone. At the same time, Altman gleefully thwarts expectations, flaunting the requisite nudity, for instance, but not when and with whom one would assume (by contrast, the famously lauded love scene between Griffin and June is shot entirely in close-ups of their faces). Certain characters repeatedly appear with no initial explanation (a roaming Lyle Lovett) and moments of tension are frequently undercut by surreal humor. With so much transpiring, as Altman rightly comments in an interview on the Criterion disc, The Player is strengthened by its “density” and “layers,” with “something for everybody to respond to.” 

June paints... Griffin grows more paranoid.

Into this quintessential movie movie, Altman packs as many quips about American filmmaking as he does a nostalgic appreciation of the classics and an assortment of unscripted star cameos in his trademark ensemble style. A picture of Hitchcock and posters for films like They Made Me a Criminal (1939), M (1931), and Sunset Blvd. (1950) serve as deliberate narrative commentary and stress an ever-present indebtedness to film history. In the movies, though, gangsters must suffer for their crimes (a comment literally uttered at one point), but by the time of this film’s tragicomic conclusion (based on Robbins’s idea), such contracts do not apply. Which is fine—after all, everyone loves a happy ending. 

While The Player looks great, especially in this 4K restoration, few shots stand out for pure pictorial beauty. Instead, Altman does what he does best by having a roaming camera restlessly pan, track, and slowly zoom, navigating the locations and capturing and conveying the vibrancy of the setting. There is a continuity of foreground and background, where even extraneous exchanges generate spatial consistency as Altman increases points of aural relevance regardless of the apparent visual focus; whether the vantage point in through windows looking in or out, dialogue is retained from the originating locale as a way of opening up what are commonly restricted interiors, with multiple conversations over multiple planes.

The Criterion Collection went above and beyond with the bonus features for this release. From a provocative Cannes press conference, during which Altman seems bent on one-liners directed toward Hollywood, to a 1992 audio commentary with Altman, Tolkin, and Lépine, a wealth of interviews, Robert Altman’s Players, a documentary about the film’s fund-raiser scene, deleted scenes and outtakes, and an essay by author Sam Wasson, there is much to be absorbed about what is truly a multifaceted motion picture. In addition to using Hollywood—and subsequently The Player—as a metaphor for Western civilization, the judicial system, and society in the 1990s, Altman admits the film was also a satire on himself: he knows full well he was only able to make the more desired Short Cuts (1993) because of The Player’s triumph. But insofar as the film is one of his many comebacks, Altman argues he was “sent away” but he never “went away”—“I don’t know where they’ve been, but they haven’t been where I was,” he says in the Cannes interview. Either way, after being “artistically exiled” (as Robbins calls it), The Player did serve as a validation of sorts, earning Altman and the film more than two dozen awards and nominations the world over.

Altman is quick to share credit with his cast and crew, but it is also made clear in the assortment of interviews that while The Player was based on Tolkin’s story, once Altman got his hands on the property, it became a Robert Altman film. With his penchant for “planned improvisation,” his liberating directorial process, and his 360-degree set dressing, there is a sense in The Player, as in all his best work, that anything is possible, with characters unburdened by the camera’s constraints. Though the praise his collaborators heap upon him may seem like hyperbolic adoration, in this case, the proof is indeed on the screen.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for Film International, Senses of Cinema, Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Vague Visages, and CutPrintFilm.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 4