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Academy Awards honor Robert Altman

The ‘Nashville’ filmmaker has never played by Hollywood’s rules
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert Altman, the iconoclastic director who has long chafed at the conventions of Hollywood, finally got his first Oscar at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

The 81-year-old Altman — who has had a record-tying five nominations for best director — was bestowed with a lifetime achievement award.

His five nominations (for “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville,” “The Player,” “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park”) ties Altman for Oscar futility in the director category with filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Clarence Brown and King Vidor.

Sunday, he harbored no grudges.

“No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have,” Altman said while accepting the award. “I’m very fortunate in my career. I’ve never had to direct a film I didn’t choose or develop. My love for filmmaking has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition.”

While Altman’s love of movies has never been questioned, the Missouri-born director once explained of his differences with Hollywood: “We’re not against each other. They sell shoes and I make gloves.”

In a prolific career stretching to nearly 40 movies, Altman has resisted extensive pre-production planning, allowed dialogue to naturally overlap (which was parodied by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin’s rambling introduction), and revised nearly every archetypal genre.

“I look at it as a nod to all of my films. To me, I’ve just made one, long film,” he said of the honor.

Altman also revealed one surprising bit of news: he said he had a “total heart transplant 10, 11 years ago,” receiving a heart from a woman several decades younger. Backstage, he explained why he hadn’t disclosed the transplant earlier.

“I didn’t make a big secret out of it, but I thought nobody would hire me again. You know, there’s such a stigma about heart transplants, and there’s a lot of us out there.”

Proud to be an iconoclastFrom the start, Altman — a pilot in World War II who started in television and low-budget independent movies — clashed with the Hollywood studio system. His 1970 breakthrough, “M*A*S*H,” included considerable fighting with Fox. Nevertheless, the anti-war picture would be Altman’s biggest hit and spawn the beloved TV series.

Critic Pauline Kael called Altman’s “M*A*S*H” “the best American war comedy since sound came in,” and the New York Times said it was “the first American movie openly to ridicule belief in God.”

“M*A*S*H” also sneaked in some parody of its genre; the Army base’s P.A. announcer can be heard throughout calling soldiers to big-studio battle epics.

Similarly, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), perhaps Altman’s finest film, was a unique take on the Western. 1973’s “The Long Goodbye” turned classic big-screen detective Philip Marlowe on his head.

His 1975 epic about the heartland of country music, “Nashville,” epitomized his natural style. Altman’s cynical comedies were an enviable job for actors. Given to improvisation, his sprawling ensemble casts often included Elliott Gould, Lily Tomlin, Shelley Duvall and other mainstays.

In Peter Biskind’s book about the American auteurs of the ’70s, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” the author writes, “Altman became the quintessential New Hollywood director. The irony, of course, was that he was a good twenty years older than, say, George Lucas.”

The ’80s was a down period for Altman, most notably featuring the catastrophe “Popeye.” The 1980 musical starring Robin Williams is still considered one of Hollywood’s biggest bombs.

Altman made a comeback in the ’90s beginning with 1992’s “The Player.” The movie, starring Tim Robbins as a desperate producer who literally gets away with murder, is still considered one of the best satires to ever skewer Hollywood.

“Short Cuts,” adapted from Raymond Carver short stories, followed the next year. Since then, Altman’s work has been checkered, from the panned “Pret-a-Porter” (1994) to the acclaimed “Gosford Park” (2001).

Receiving the lifetime achievement award, he said, “I always thought this type of award meant that it was over,” but he’s said he plans to continue to make movies “as long as I last and as long as people allow me to do it.”

He recently opened a theatrical production in London of one of Arthur Miller’s last plays, “Resurrection Blues.” In June, he’ll release “A Prairie Home Companion,” based on humorist Garrison Keillor’s popular radio show.

“Admire me not for how I succeed and not for how ‘good’ my films are,” Altman has said, “but for the fact that I keep going back and jumping off the cliff.”