Watching Robert Altman’s The Player nearly 30 years after its release is like buying a ticket for a time-traveling Hollywood tour bus. There’s Jack Lemmon playing piano at a party and Martin Mull eating lunch on an outdoor patio. Look, John Cusack and Anjelica Huston are sitting together at that restaurant, and isn’t that Cher entering a charity event in a stunning red dress? These actors, and many more, play themselves in The Player, and most have just one line of dialogue. Some have none. Brief as their appearances may be, they play a vital role, situating the incisive and absurdist showbiz story in the real world. Or at least in the real Hollywood. How did Altman get them to work for nothing in such tiny roles? He only told them, “I’m making a film about a studio executive who murders a screenwriter and gets away with it.” According to Altman, each response was identical. They laughed and asked when they should show up.
Much like Sunset Boulevard, the best film ever made about Hollywood, The Player initially presents itself as film noir. Its protagonist, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), is a classic antihero, a studio executive who kills a man he believes has been sending him death threats, only to discover it was the wrong guy, and his harasser is still out there. The police are closing in on him, but just when you have a handle on the film’s tone, Altman swerves. Next, it’s an insider’s look at office politics in Hollywood, then an absurdist comedy, a sleek thriller and eventually a postmodern fairytale with the most twisted happy ending you’re ever likely to see. One of the great achievements of The Player is how steady it stays on its feet as it navigates these tonal twists and turns.
Ultimately, The Player is remembered as Hollywood satire, a film about film-making, and its meaning is relayed through its form as much as its content. Altman constantly reminds us that we’re watching a movie, and that The Player is a deeply Hollywoodified version of the events it depicts. The eight-minute tracking shot through a studio backlot that opens the film features characters musing about cinema’s all-time great tracking shots (including Touch of Evil, Rope and The Sheltering Sky), while posters of obscure film noirs and B-movies paper the walls of every room. A key scene is set at a screening of Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, the kind of bleak, artful film the characters in The Player claim to love but would never make. It’s a neat trick that eradicates any sentimentality – a must for satire – and allows viewers to both indulge in the film’s conventionality, like the happy ending for its main character, while also feeling superior to it.
No wonder it was such a hit within the industry. The Player was considered a triumphant return for Altman, a seminal figure of New Hollywood who, like most of his compadres, got a bit lost in the 80s. Before that, he built his career by poking holes in the most self-important American myths, the war movie (M*A*S*H) and the western (McCabe and Mrs Miller). The Player is closer in feel to Nashville, his 1975 film set in the country music world that cuts between biting irony and earnest scenes of loneliness and human connection. It was also his return to the Oscar race, as The Player earned nominations for best director, best adapted screenplay and best editing. That’s no surprise. Hollywood is always game for a good-natured ribbing because it reinforces the industry’s place atop the culture. Only the most powerful institutions are worth satirizing.
For Altman, however, The Player was barely about the movie industry at all. It was about the corporatization of Hollywood, with the director using his chosen industry as a metaphor for, as he put it in an interview, “the cultural problems with western civilization”. Altman saw in Hollywood dealings a reflection of merciless boardroom culture that invaded the American economy in the 1980s, when a little harmless greed curdled into sociopathy. For most of the film, Griffin Mill is on the verge of being arrested for murder, but he is equally concerned with the new hire at work, an up-and-comer named Larry Levy (played with effortless smarm by Peter Gallagher) who never makes an overt move for Griffin’s job but nevertheless creates a maddening distraction. To Griffin, a murder rap is as threatening as a demotion, and he’ll stop at nothing to beat them both.
Griffin is an empty suit, a violent criminal and possibly a lunatic – his interactions with his girlfriend (Cynthia Stevenson) are chillingly dispassionate – but he passes for a sympathetic figure in The Player because he at least pretends to care about film. He is even known around town as a “writer’s exec”, a moniker that over the course of the movie starts to feel like an epitaph. Levy, on the other hand, is all business, no show. He believes writers are overrated and overpaid, and that studio execs could easily do the creative work themselves. He routinely attends AA meetings, even though he’s not an alcoholic, because “that’s where the deals are made these days”. He represents the new evil, and Griffin is the old. As played by Tim Robbins, a master at manipulating his innate earnestness, it’s impossible to tell if he’s a sociopath pretending to be human or vice versa, but as the fear pools behind his glacier-blue eyes, we can convince ourselves he is just another everyone who has fallen out of step with the world. We can’t help but root for him to win.
In The Player, he does. In the real world, not so much. Looking at the state of the movie business today, it’s hard not to feel that the Larry Levys of the world are now in charge. Franchise film-making, the dominant movie trend of our time, inherently devalues the writers and empowers the producers. You probably can’t tell me who wrote the last Spider-Man movie, but I bet you know the name of Kevin Feige, the producer and architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nowadays, the struggle between commerce and art isn’t decided by office politics and individual greed. It’s the cold, hard macroeconomics of the global marketplace and corporate synergy. That’s the part that The Player didn’t foresee.
What does play well today is Altman’s outright refusal to blame it all on the suits. The Player wraps up with a contrived happy ending its characters don’t deserve, but Altman draws attention to the artifice, reminding us once again of its phoniness and implicitly pointing his criticisms back at the viewer. “The enemy in a film like this is the audience,” Altman said in an interview. “If people don’t go see these manufactured films, they’re not going to get made.” It’s a bit like a bully hitting you with your own fist, asking you all the time why you’re punching yourself, but he’s not wrong. His equal-opportunity approach to the satire – Altman even admitted that he sees much of himself in Griffin – is what makes The Player so endearing. It pinpoints the beaten, bloodied state of American decency at the end of the 20th century and blames us all for the carnage.