Penthouse Retrospective

by Lawrence Linderman Originally Published: January, 1981

Robert Altman | 40 Years Ago This Month

Another biggie is “Does Paul Newman really drink a lot of beer?” It’s like fan magazines or a gossip column, and it’s only because we’ve catered to the lowest possible part of our circus.

But there’s obviously a method behind all that madness. Frank Price, head of Columbia Pictures, recently noted that 75 percent of moviegoers are 30 years old or under. If that’s an accurate statement, can you really blame the studios for catering to a younger crowd?

Frank Price is one of the terrible people who are responsible for the way films are going. Guys like him sit around and look at a graph and say that the biggest audience for movies is made up of everybody under 30. Well, of course that’s true. People under 30 have a lot of money to spend and the most leisure time to spend it in. And they don’t like to stay home, and they don’t have that many places to go — you don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. But it doesn’t mean you cannot make profitable films for a discerning, intelligent adult audience. But the studios don’t want that anymore. They need the $100 million picture to make up for their failures. That’s become the criterion behind every picture: success. And that’s why I don’t go to the movies anymore. What is there to see? Why waste your time? Every once in a while I’ll hear about an interesting film and I’ll think, “Oh, God, a good one managed to slip through.”

Have the great Robert Altman actually had trouble slipping your movies through?

That’s happening right now. We have a film called Health, a political satire about presidential elections starring Lauren Bacall, Glenda Jackson, James Garner, and Carol Burnett. The film is owned by Twentieth Century-Fox, and we can’t even get their attention when it comes to getting them to release it. Their answer is “We don’t know how to sell this film. There’s too much in it. We don’t know what audience to sell it to, and we can’t find a hook to get everybody into theaters to see it.” They’re looking for one thing to advertise so that people will say, “Oh, we gotta see that.” Caddyshack was scato-logical; they knew people weren’t going to have to stop and think. People didn’t have to say, “What did that mean?” Health isn’t that kind of picture.

What can you do to change the situation with Twentieth Century-Fox?

Nothing. I have no options: they own the film. I could sue Fox for not making a proper effort, but my chances of winning such a suit are slim and none. I just give up.

Could you buy the film back from them?

Oh, if I came in and handed them $6 million, they’d sell me the film back. But I don’t think I’m going to get anybody to invest $6 million in a film that’s been bad-mouthed and is already a year old.

Before Nashville was released, Pauline Kael saw a rough cut of the film and her rave review helped make Nashville the most eagerly awaited movie of 1975. Could you do something like that for Health?

You don’t understand: that doesn’t mean a thing to them. You can’t even embarrass these people. I can say things about them that should cause me never to be allowed into their offices again, but they don’t even care about it. They’ve got accountants who say, “No, we’re not going to spend money advertistury — Fox finally released Health: The film opened in one theater in Los Angeles.)

As for Nashville, it was a very low-grossing picture, and I think Pauline’s review probably hurt the film because she overhyped it. I think Pauline blew the film up to such an extent that it affected the way it was sold. I mean, if you try to sell something as a masterpiece, you’re dead. In school, if a teacher talked that way about a book you’d say, “Oh, God, a classic. Do I have to read that?” But if the same teacher said, “Here’s a book about a mad dog in Alaska, and it has some dirty words in it,” you’d think, “Hey, perfect. This sounds like a terrific story.” Partly because of that, Nashville wasn’t successful compared with Animal House and those kinds of films. Nashville got a lot of ink and was very successful in Europe, as most of my films have been, but people in the South hated it, and it hardly ran there. Yet those same people went out and spent a fortune on Smokey and the Bandit and Walking Tall, which gave them a chance to watch Sheriff Buford Pusser crack skulls.

Penthouse: Your description of the movie business — along with the news that film attendance is down this year — would serve to indicate that it’s in bad shape. Is that really the case?

It’s in terrible shape. It’s at the point just before total destruction. It’ll be just like Broadway, which has become a joke. You no longer can take a viable piece of material to Broadway and really do well with it, because everything on Broadway is now geared to Long Island theater parties.

The same kind of thing has been happening to films over the last decade. It began happening when certain pictures grossed $100 million and when the conglomerates took over film studios. These companies make their money off ski lifts, soft drinks, hotels, and television. Right now, I can’t think of one person who’s running a studio who really understands — or likes — films. They’re merely managing a business. I can go in and talk to the president of a studio, and he’ll say, “Showmanship is no longer required. This is a dollar-and-cents business.” What it’s really become is an ugly business, and it used to be a nice, glamorous, attractive industry. No more.

Could part of the problem be a lack of talented young filmmakers coming along?

No, the talent’s out there. Think about the publishing world for a second. If the only books published were written by guys like Harold Robbins, an E. L. Doctorow would be back working as an editor again, because he can’t write that crap. My point is, when there’s no market, talent can’t surface, and that’s what’s happening in films. I mean, if Universal calls in a young director and says, “Listen, we’ll give you the chance to direct a film, but goddamit, we want it to be like Animal House,” what’s the guy going to do? Lie to Universal? Jeopardize his future by making the film he wants to make? Or will he make the piece of shit they want him to make? In any case, there are plenty of good young directors around.

Many of us have a list of movie directors we think should have won an Acadamy Award by now. Some of us here think Robert Altman should have won it three times. Maybe four.

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