Book Report on ‘Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff’

By Patrick McGilligan

            Robert Altman was born in Kansas City, the son of a rich insurance agent. The Altman family tree was essentially Irish and German. McGilligan provides a short description of the family ancestry:

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The family name was originally Altmann with two n’s. Altman’s great-grandfather, Clement Altmann, was born in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, of part-Dutch ancestry. Clement and his brothers were respectable linen manufacturers until their factory happened to burn to the ground. After Clement was rejected by the army because of a hearing impairment, he and his two brothers sailed for the greener pastures of America. The two brothers were stricken with cholera and buried at sea … he (Clement) found employment making bricks by hand for a brick manufacturer. Soon, he became a contractor (16-17).

Robert had been reared Catholic, attending Jesuit schools before joining the army. During the Second World War, Altman was involved in several bombing missions in Indonesia and the Philippines. In 1946, he lived in California and worked as publicity assistant. The Altmans were well-known in Kansas City. Indeed, Robert Altman was able to find good jobs because of his family name. As McGilligan notes:

Literally as well as figuratively, then, the Altman family was part of the early foundations of modern Kansas City. As a youth, Robert Altman could walk around the downtown area and savor standing monuments to his own family name, including a locally famous ‘Altman Building.’ It is not everyone who basks in the shadow of a city landmark, and not everyone who must live up –or down – to that sort of legacy (18).

            In 1947, he sold the script for the film ‘Bodyguard.’ This encouraged him to move to New York City, where became a writer. However, he enjoyed little success. After two years, he returned to Kansas City to work as director of industrial films. Altman was able to direct 65 industrial films. In 1956, Altman worked for a local businessman to direct a film on juvenile delinquency. United Artists purchased the product for 150 000 dollars. The movie was released in 1957. Capitalizing on his success, Altman moved to California. Altman’s first television features attracted the attention of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock made him the director for the series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents.’

            In 1969, Altman was commissioned to write a script for ‘MASH’ – a satirical documentary of the Korean War. Altman directed the documentary. However, some of the top actors were infuriated by Altman’s unorthodox methods. When ‘MASH’ was released in 1970, it enjoyed sustained success. It was able to accrue 6 Academy Award nominations. Thereafter, Altman directed a chain of films which made headway in mainstream filmmaking.

            In the 1980s, Altman directed the comic strip ‘Popeye’ (where Robin Williams played the role of Popeye). Critics perceived the movie as a failure, partly because of its low popularity and technical proficiency. Undaunted by his first major failure, he directed a chain of films which were well-received by the public. In 1981, Altman failed to convince financiers to fund his films. Indeed, he was forced to sell his studio and production facility to a producer.

            In 1992, Altman directed ‘The Player’ – a satire nominated for more than 3 Academy Awards. Although he failed to win the Best Director Award, it rejuvenated his financial outlet. In the same year, he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival and the New York Film Critics Circle.

            In 1993, Altman directed the film ‘Short Cuts’ – a biographical sketch of several individuals in the city of Los Angeles. The film’s success earned Altman the ‘Golden Lion’ Award.  In 2001, he directed ‘Gosford Park’ which won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and the other six nominations. Altman’s success resembled that of his paternal grandfather. As McGilligan notes:

He (Robert) enjoyed considerable success in the film industry much like Frank Sr. Indeed Frank Sr. was quite the entrepreneur, a strain that runs deep in the family. He learned the watch repair trade from a large jewelry store owner in Quincy, and at eighteen, left town with a ‘thousand dollars represented in his own savings and with a loan of some capital from his father, which he soon paid back with interest.’ Robert is the mirror image of his paternal grandfather (112).

Altman acquired a total of five Oscar nominations. In 2006, he was awarded an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement.

On the 20th of November 2006, Altman died at the age of 81. According to his personal doctor, he died from leukemia.

Work Cited

McGilligan, Patrick. Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff. New York: Julian Barnes, 1998 (reprinted).


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