In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Robert Altman

  • Introduction
  • Essay Collections
  • Archives and Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Interviews with Altman
  • Films about Altman
  • Filmography

Cinema and Media Studies Robert Altman
Robert T. Self
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0054


Robert Altman (b. 1925–d. 2006) had a directing career that stretched over fifty years, from the end of World War II to 2006. After spending his early adult life making industrial documentaries and directing television dramas, Altman finally broke into Hollywood at the age of forty-four. Thereafter, until his death at eighty-one, he proved to be one of the most prolific and experimental directors in American movie history. His iconoclastic narratives and his impressionistic cinematic style were widely denounced by movie audiences as confusing, boring, and pessimistic, but they were acclaimed by film fans and professionals as imaginative, original, and progressive. He told innovative fictions with dozens of characters (twenty-four in Nashville, forty-eight in A Wedding, and forty-four in Gosford Park) to reflect his belief that human life is connected in inexplicable, fortuitous, and impalpable ways that he called “subliminal reality.” He experimented with the causal structures and traditional themes of classical Hollywood genres. He explored the aesthetic limits of the zoom lens, pioneered multitrack sound recording, and consistently employed a lyrical film style. His films generally depicted characters estranged from themselves and from others and debilitated by the forces of the modern world. After Popeye in 1980, he worked independently and critically outside the Hollywood production system in Paris and New York, in the academy, and in theater. He liked to claim that he made gloves in an industry that sold shoes. Nevertheless, the Motion Picture Academy nominated him five times for Best Director awards—for M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001), and gave him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2004. Three of his films, M*A*S*H, Nashville, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) have been named by the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry. Only M*A*S*H, however, at the beginning of his Hollywood career, enjoyed box-office success. Nonetheless, his thirty-three films in the last quarter of the 20th century established him as one of the most important directors of American art cinema. Dozens of movie reviews accompanied the release of his films and reflected the inevitable division between hostility toward his films and praise for their genius. The critical studies referenced here largely reflect the fact that film critics and academic analysts, whether or not they liked it, treated his work with a serious appreciation for its importance in film history.

Book-Length Studies

Books on Altman’s work began to appear early in his career, and they continue to the present.

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