Penthouse Retrospective

by Lawrence Linderman Originally Published: January, 1981

Robert Altman | 40 Years Ago This Month

For instance, I think Alan Rudolph is a terrific filmmaker. He’s got great potential and great integrity. I produced two films that he directed, Welcome to L.A. and Remember My Name.

How were they received?

Reviewers liked them, but financially both films were highly unsuccessful. He then finished a picture for United Artists called Roadie, which I haven’t seen. I was in Malta when it was released, and although everything I heard about it was great, UA pulled it out of release after a week or two, and now it’s gone — and suddenly Alan Rudolph is no longer a desirable film commodity. Meanwhile, I had a commitment to do a film with United Artists, but they reneged on it after Roadie. They said, “Look, we don’t want to make this kind of film anymore because we had bad luck with Rudolph.” So, because I sponsored a director whose film was unsuccessful, they’ve canceled me. They did it because they no longer want to make a film unless they know exactly how it’s going to turn out. They’re now terrified of doing that, and maybe they’re right; maybe my films wouldn’t make their costs back under the best of circumstances. That’s the dilemma we’re in, and that’s also the thing that keeps the lid on so that you can’t find the new directors.

Does the present state of the movie business ever make you long for the old Hollywood studio system?

Well, I never worked for a major studio when they had contract players, but at least those guys — the Zanucks, Warners, Mayers, and Cohns — took pride in what they did. They were absolute, insane monsters, but making movies was more than just a business to them. If they wanted to make a film and were told the public wouldn’t like it, then goddamit, they’d make the public like it. I think there’s some value in that. But believe me, it doesn’t happen anymore, at least not at the studios. Those old guys who once ran the studios may have browbeaten their people and treated their actors like dirt and also may have cheated them on their salaries, but they knew those people were their bread and butter, and they nurtured them and brought them along. Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart would never have made it as stars today, because nowadays if you don’t hit it right off the bat, you may never get a second chance. Back. then, a Jack Warner would say, “I don’t care what he thinks, get that mush-face Bogart into that goddamn picture, and if he doesn’t like it, suspend him!” People saw more and more of Bogart until he finally got a role that hit, and then the public’s confidence moved over to him, and he was a star.

Contrast that with what happened to Shelley Duvall: after I put her in Brewster McCloud, her first movie, nobody hired her again except me. Shelley Duvall’s done seven or eight pictures for me in the last seven or eight years, and we thought she’d finally become a major star when she got The Shining. That didn’t happen, but that’s still a pretty good credential — to have the lead in a Kubrick picture with Jack Nicholson. After Popeye, though, I don’t think there will be much question about her.

Popeye certainly seems like a departure for you. How did you happen to get involved in it?

Producer Bob Evans, as I understand it, came up with the idea and got Jules Feiffer to write the screenplay. A copy of the script was sent to my agent, Sam Cohen, for another client of his to read. The director in question, a very fine director, rejected it on the basis that he didn’t think it was right for him. Sam then called me and said, “Would you read this and tell me if I’m wrong? Because I think this is a great screenplay, and I can’t understand why people aren’t fighting to do it.”

‘I don’t go to the movies anymore. 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.”’

Well, I read it, not to pass judgment on it but just for my own curiosity. Much to my surprise, I called Sam and said, “Really, I’d love to do it.” He called Evans, and we got together and went out and made the picture. Because of Robin Williams’s television schedule, we had to shoot the picture during January, February, and March, and after researching Florida, Mexico, Hawaii, and Australia, we chose Malta, built an entire sea village there, and then shot the movie.

When she returned from filming in Malta, Shelley Duvall characterized the film as “a morality tale.” Is it?

If you’ve read the original Popeye, you can see that it is a morality tale, and it’s a familiar theme in pictures for me: Popeye is a stranger, an orphan who comes into this sea village, looking for his father, who deserted him when Popeye was two years old. He’s an outcast, and the community he comes into is oppressed by a dictator. People have never seen the dictator, but they live in fear of him, and suddenly here’s this character who shows up and says a man should stand up for his rights.

Our Popeye is not the animated cartoon. He’s the comic-strip Popeye created by Elzie Segar. He’s a character who says “I am what I am,” and he won’t be pushed around. It’s a very simple film that deals with basic human emotions and political ideals that really go back to ancient Greece.

You usually cast your own films. Were you at all reluctant to work with Williams, who’d never made a movie before?

I don’t think I would have done the film without Williams, because I wouldn’t have known who else to cast as Popeye. I did choose Shelley Duvall. When I came into the thing, most of the talk was about Gilda Radner, who I rejected, but that was just people thinking, “Oh, she’s hot, she’s Saturday Night Live, so let’s protect our investment.” But Shelley was a perfect Olive Oyl. She and Robin are superb in the film.

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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