Friday, September 5, 2014


Robert Altman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

ROBERT ALTMAN WAS NEAR THE END of a career doldrum when I photographed him at the 1990 Toronto International Film Festival. His first great peak had begun with M*A*S*H and ended a decade later when his musical Popeye had bombed, and when I shot him it would be another two years before The Player was released, returning him to A-list status with that most iconic (and ironic) of Hollywood projects - a film that attacked Hollywood and its cruel, venal denizens.

The Player's success saw the industry that had effectively exiled him for a decade suddenly beckon him over, warmly kiss him on both cheeks and say, "Thanks so much for spitting in our eye. Welcome back. You've always been one of us."

It might have been the best business decision of his career.

Altman was in town plugging Vincent & Theo, a biopic about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother starring Tim Roth, which had originally begun as a BBC miniseries. It was the sort of film an American director in disgrace makes - a faintly highbrow picture for the very finite art market, produced with European money. He might have been in exile, but he still had a home on the festival circuit, and NOW magazine sent me to get a portrait.

I don't know whether it was meant for a cover, but I shot a roll of slide film anyway, probably because I was hoping to get something for my portfolio. I chose Agfa 1000 RS, the fastest 120 transparency film on the market in those days, knowing that it would give me an unusually cool cast. The light must have been quite dim, because even with the fast film in a Rollei on a tripod, I ended up using a very narrow depth of field.

Robert Altman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

Altman had a reserved but genial "Southern Colonel" demeanor, and I tried to break the ice by saying that he'd directed one of my favorite films of all time, but that I was sure he couldn't guess what it was.

This seemed to pique his interest, and he began listing films. "Quintet? HealtH? Tanner '88?"

No, I said. It was Secret Honor - a film I'd seen at the film festival just six years before.

"Oh," he said, clearly surprised. "That is a strange choice."

I told him that it was my favorite film about Nixon, and raved about Philip Baker Hall's performance, which is still my favorite Nixon on film - better than Dan Hedaya or Frank Langella or Anthony Hopkins. What, I asked Altman, had happened to Hall? (It would be a few years before the actor would end up with character parts in blockbusters like The Sum of All Fears and critics faves like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.)

"Ahh," Altman said, sourly. "I heard he's been doing television."

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