"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Player

“It’s an art movie. Doesn’t count. I’m talkin about movie movies.”

April 10, 1992

I have enjoyed some of Robert Altman’s movies over the years, but never became a full-on “he’s one of my favorites” convert like so many film buffs a little older than me. In fact the only ones I’ve ever reviewed are MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, POPEYE and NASHVILLE. POPEYE was definitely the first Altman movie I saw, since it starred my biggest childhood hero (not Robin Williams – Popeye). THE PLAYER was the first one I watched as a grown-ish person trying to see good movies for adults.

I don’t hear people talk about it that much these days, but it has an 86 on Metacritic, which they quantify as “universal acclaim.” And it has a Criterion Edition. I remember it being viewed as a major cultural event in the film coverage I read in magazines and alternative weeklies of the time. In his review, Roger Ebert brought up Wall Street scandals and said the movie “uses Hollywood as a metaphor for the avarice of the 1980s,” but in my memory people enjoyed it as a satire of Hollywood executives. My most specific memory about it was a certain cameo in a movie-within-the-movie meant to parody the “pat Hollywood endings” joked about throughout the movie.

The other thing I remembered was the then-very-famous opening tracking shot, which introduces us to many characters having ludicrous discussions at a fictional studio with the motto “MOVIES – now more than ever!” It all centers around Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins, TOY SOLDIERS, HOWARD THE DUCK, JUNGLE FEVER), senior vice president of production who fears he will soon be replaced by a new hire, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher, SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE).

The dry humor in the movie largely comes from the inane things Griffin says to the writers and the desperate ways they try to pander to him, using all kinds of cliches and buzzwords to describe their projects. And most of them mention wanting Julia Roberts and/or Bruce Willis to star, except one writer who wants a cast of unknowns so he mentions not wanting Julia Roberts or Bruce Willis to star.

I believe one of the most famous parts of the movie (maybe because it was in the trailer) is Buck Henry, writer of THE GRADUATE, pitching THE GRADUATE PART II. At the time it was a hilarious joke about shamelessness in Hollywood, but now it just sounds like what we call a “legacy sequel.” And with that new context it actually doesn’t sound terrible. He wanted to reunite Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross 25 years later to see where their characters were at and how things were different for their daughter as she graduated. That’s not so ridiculous. But I’m not of the generation who found great meaning in THE GRADUATE, so it’s not so sacrosanct to me. I was more bothered when they made CARRIE II and that turned out not so bad.

The tracking shot lasts for 7 minutes and 47 seconds without any edits, even hidden ones. Altman jokily draws attention to it by introducing studio security chief Walter Stuckel (the great Fred Ward, who we just saw in THUNDERHEART) complaining, “Pictures these days are all MTV, cut cut cut cut. The opening shot of Welles’s TOUCH OF EVIL was six and a half minutes long!” He only knows old movies, though, so when a lowly assistant (Paul Hewitt, A PERFECT WORLD) gushes about “an extraordinary shot” in ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS, Walter says “I don’t know what the hell you’re talkin about.”

Reportedly Altman did 15 takes and decided to use the tenth one. The camera moves around between a couple different buildings, intersecting with different characters moving in different directions and hearing their conversations, but maybe as impressive as that is that they planned the whole thing so that the main actors first appear at the same time as their credits come up. That cannot be easy to orchestrate. Good job Altman, director of photography Jean Lepine (HABITAT), and whoever else was involved in figuring that out.

What you might not know from the hype around the movie at the time or from what I’ve said so far is that it’s more of a thriller or neo-noir than a comedy. It’s written by Michael Tolkin (GLEAMING THE CUBE), based on his own novel, and it’s one of those “seemingly ordinary person discovers the evil they’re capable of” type stories, except the ordinary person is this powerful Hollywood asshole. At the end of that opening shot we learn that Griffin has been receiving anonymous threatening postcards. He has a drawer full of them. He plays them down, but they seem increasingly unhinged.

Griffin is dating a story editor he works with, Bonnie Sherow (introducing Cynthia Stevenson, later in AIR BUD: GOLDEN RECEIVER). She seems too nice for him, mainly there to give him humanity. It’s clear that in her mind they’re practically married, but he hasn’t even told her about his stalker, and when he wants her advice about it he pretends it’s a movie pitch he heard.

He determines that the postcards are coming from a writer named David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio, THE BLOOD OF HEROES) who he once met with but never got back to. So he gets the guy’s address and goes to confront him. He has a mobile phone, as only rich assholes like this guy did back then, so he calls the house from outside and watches through the windows as David’s girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi, THE COCA-COLA KID) answers the phone.

I think this is my favorite scene. The camera stays outside the windows, and we only hear her voice distorted through the phone, so that it will feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. June is working on a painting and engages in a somewhat flirtatious conversation about herself for a few minutes. Not knowing she’s being watched she does things like pull an ice cube out of the freezer, suck on it for a second, and cool her armpit with it. Functionally it’s the introduction of a quirky, likable character, but since it’s shot like a reverse-perspective SCREAM opening it’s very creepy.

It’s also part of a visual motif throughout the movie. That opening shot spies on people in their offices, through blinds. Later there’s a meeting where we see out the window as Griffin arrives late. When we see dailies from a movie-within-the-movie starring Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin it’s from a scene also shot through a window. I don’t know what it means, but it’s interesting.

June reveals that David is out seeing THE BICYCLE THIEF at the Rialto (also the theater in THE ROCKETEER, SCREAM 2 and LA LA LAND), so Griffin goes there and approaches David in the lobby (after first trying the wrong guy). It seems like authentic bullshit when he says, “It’s so refreshing to see something like this after all those cop movies, you know, that we make.” When he muses about remaking it David says, “You’d probly give it a happy ending.” That was the ultimate shorthand for Hollywood bullshit. A happy ending.

Griffin takes David for a drink, tries to apologize and give him a deal, but blows it by accidentally making it clear that he doesn’t remember what David’s script was about. During a drunken argument in the parking lot David accidentally knocks Griffin over a ledge, then tries to make sure he’s okay, and Griffin slams him face first in a puddle, killing him. Then he takes his wallet to make it look like a robbery gone wrong and tries to go back to his life.

In case you mistake him for a generally okay guy who fails a moral test under pressure, he goes ahead and goes to the funeral, talks to June, starts spending time with her, decides he loves her, brings her to an awards banquet while Bonnie is out of town, doesn’t tell Bonnie, when she finds out he takes June to Bonnie’s favorite resort, and then confesses killing David while having sex with her. In my opinion these are all poor choices.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The morning after David’s death Walter knows all about what happened, but as head of studio security tries to keep it hush hush. Also, of course, the postcards keep coming. Whoops.

When Griffin’s at the funeral we see Lyle Lovett (in his first theatrically released film) watching him. It would be cool if he was playing himself, but instead he’s a detective named Paul DeLongpre. After he’s introduced it cuts to Griffin looking at a toy shark in June’s studio, and DeLongpre will proceed to silently follow him like a shark. And of course he will be seen through some windows.

Whenever I see Lovett in a movie I remember that he was once known as the guy who married Julia Roberts, and every hack comedian on TV had a joke about how he was too ugly to marry precious treasure Julia Roberts. I guess they actually met on the set of this movie, dated for three weeks and then eloped, before being married for less than two years. Anyway fuck those guys for calling him ugly. He’s so cool looking. I don’t know anything about his music but I’m excited any time he shows up in a movie.

The stalker suggests meeting at a hotel bar, but doesn’t show because he sees that Griffin is not alone – the writing team of Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant, HUDSON HAWK) & Andy Sivella (Dean Stockwell, BEVERLY HILLS COP II) keep trying to pitch him a pretentious legal thriller called HABEUS CORPUS. I like that after ranting and raving about how it can’t have any known actors in it because “this story is too important to risk being overwhelmed by personality” and “we don’t want anyone coming in with any preconceived notions,” Oakley adds that, “If I’m perfectly honest, if I think about this, this isn’t even an American film.” This is funny shit and it shows that the people who are against the Hollywood bullshit aren’t necessarily correct either.

Griffin comes up with a scheme to convince Levy to make HABEUS CORPUS as an Oscar contender, then when the movie is a commercial disaster swoop in and “save” it with the “pat Hollywood ending” Oakley repeatedly said it wouldn’t have. (spoiler: It works, and Oakley seems to love the new ending more than anybody.)

Since Altman was revered as a genius, everybody wanted to work with him, and he was able to populate his Hollywood with around 65 stars playing themselves. Griffin goes into a restaurant, introduces himself to Joel Grey, sees his rival having lunch with Anjelica Huston and John Cusack. He goes to hip restaurants and rich people parties, including one thrown by a friend named Dick Mellon, who’s played by Sydney Pollack. I swear this guy later changed his name to Victor Ziegler and hosted another party in EYES WIDE SHUT. It’s the same character.

Famous people playing themselves include Harry and Shari Belafonte, Karen Black, James Coburn, Peter Falk, Sally Kellerman, Marlee Matlin, Jeff Goldblum (wearing a Cosby sweater and talking about GHOSTBUSTERS), Malcolm McDowell (who tells Griffin off), Jack Lemmon (playing a jazzy “Silent Night” on piano), and even Burt Reynolds (who calls Griffin an asshole). But of course a few actors have to play characters. Whoopi Goldberg plays a police detective, so they play with that by introducing her at the studio picking up an Oscar and pretending to accept it (Goldberg had won one for GHOST about a year earlier.)

People in Hollywood seem to love any decent movie about Hollywood. Could be a love letter, could be a hate letter, or a threatening postcard, doesn’t matter. To my ears the movie talk and and studio executive banter here seem a little more true than most movies like this. There are little random details, not overly explained to the audience. Walter brings up the movie D.O.A. as a comparison to Griffin’s situation, and his boss (Brion James, CRIMEWAVE) has to point out that it was remade by Disney. In a meeting he asks for “an update on the Taylor Hackford project.” Yeah, seems like this guy would be working on a Taylor Hackford project. We learn that DeLongpre is a fan of Tod Browning’s FREAKS. Maybe the unlikeliest bit of Hollywood minutia is that Griffin’s very first conversation in the movie is with Adam Simon, playing himself, aggressively pitching a sci-fi movie as he arrives at work and gets out of his car. Most people probly never heard of Adam Simon, but maybe he was getting lots of meetings off of his trippy 1990 debut BRAIN DEAD starring Bills Pullman and Paxton? He never got that greenlight from Griffin, because his next movie was CARNOSAUR. (He later wrote BONES and BOOKS OF BLOOD.)

I like that Griffin tries to use going to see THE BICYCLE THIEF to prove that he’s a real movie lover. David calls him on the fact that he came in five minutes before the ending. And yet the next day he brings it up as a way to seem cultured – even though it will link him to David’s murder! Doesn’t really play like a joke, but it’s funny.

Of course there’s also all the meta stuff. So much talk about happy endings. June talking about that criminals in movies “always have to suffer for their crimes.” When she says that “knowing that you committed a crime is suffering enough. If you don’t suffer, then maybe it wasn’t a crime after all” she has no idea she’s commenting on his actual situation or the ending of this movie, in which they get to live happily ever without suffering for their crimes. And the overblown music as the camera pulls out from their picturesque home makes it play like a movie-within-a-movie.

There’s also a scene where Levy argues that writers don’t matter because “the audience wrote” the ending to FATAL ATTRACTION that was changed after test screenings. Ironically it’s Griffin who adds a happy ending to his movie, HABEUS CORPUS.

That brings me to the cameo I remembered. SPOILER I guess, though the Bruce icon here will give it away. When we finally see this movie they’ve been talking about, a tragic story where an innocent woman is executed “because that happens,” it’s now Julia Roberts playing the innocent woman, and Bruce Willis plays a hero who busts in when she’s in the electric chair gas chamber and carries her to freedom. Bruce does it just right, just playing it as a straight action movie, nothing comedic. Oh, and this was not meant as the same kind of crowdpleaser cameo, but it just so happens that Steve motherfuckin James plays one of the prison guards. So for now on it’s Steve James (THE PLAYER). Or I guess Steve James (HABEUS CORPUS).

THE PLAYER received Oscar nominations for best director, best adapted screenplay and best editing (losing to Clint Eastwood, HOWARD’S END and UNFORGIVEN, respectively). It won best director at the BAFTAs and Cannes, and Robbins won a Golden Globe, if that counts as an award.

When I first saw THE PLAYER I accepted the conventional wisdom that it was A Great Movie. Now, well… I think I still like it. It’s definitely an unusual mix, the dark thriller meets movie industry satire. But I think for me there’s something a little empty in the center, and it’s either Griffin or Robbins. I think it’s a good performance, lots of unsettling distant looks, good arrogance in pitch meetings, good shameless lying, effectively unreadable at times. But I think I might find the movie more compelling with a different type of charisma at the center.

Does he need to be broader? At times he’s a funny parody of a guy who’s full of shit, but the people around him are generally more full of shit. Griffin fumes and tells off Levy for arguing at a meeting that writers are overpaid and unnecessary. The interesting thing about the scene is that Griffin would have this argument while also sweating about the newspaper article about the manslaughter/murder he committed sitting on the table in front of him. But I guess maybe I would prefer a less complicated character here. He doesn’t need to occasionally be the one standing up for artistic integrity.

It’s okay that he’s a bastard – that is acceptable, maybe even preferable in a neo-noir. But I don’t really like that he’s such a cold, hollow guy from the beginning. I didn’t understand why Bonnie liked him so much. Maybe he used to be different. But June (who is not in the industry and doesn’t watch movies) has even less reason to like him, even setting aside it being a bizarre choice to hang out with the guy who she should know more than anybody very obviously murdered her boyfriend. “Oh, have you met Griffin? He’s a guy I met when he called asking where David was and then went to find David and then David was found murdered nearby.” Maybe from her choices at the end we can infer that she suspected more than she let on, but it’s a hard thing to accept while watching the movie.

Obviously Altman is a great director, but I think this is a blindspot of many dude directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s – creating these female characters who are very quirky and vibrant and have a strong presence (and of course are stunningly beautiful) and then assuming yeah, I’m sure she would instantly give over her life to this off-putting drip who’s the main character. No reason to question that.

(On the other hand, we’re certainly supposed to have the most sympathy for Bonnie, who Griffin totally screws over both in the relationship and in the job, and she’s the only one concerned that they sold out by changing the ending. So I’d say she’s a female character who’s mistreated by Griffin, but not by Altman.)

This is heresy, but when I read that Chevy Chase tried to get the role, I thought oh shit – that might’ve been better. I guess it would’ve been right after NOTHING BUT TROUBLE and instead of MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN so… generally not considered his artistic peak. I don’t know if he would’ve been able to pull it off. Would’ve been interesting, though.

Actually, you know who really might’ve worked as Griffin Mill? Bruce Willis. No joke. But then it would’ve been an American film.

Ah, I don’t know. I don’t totally know what to make of THE PLAYER, but I watched it twice for this review, and it kept me interested. I don’t really know another movie to compare it to, so it stands out, even in this weird summer.

Signs of the times:

While playing THE BICYCLE THIEF, the Rialto has up a poster for PEACE MAKER, the sci-fi movie with Robert Forster, from the director of WITCHBOARD and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. I wonder if that’s what was actually showing at the time? Nah, more likely Altman was a fan.

Griffin and David have an argument in an alley plastered with posters for Van Halen, Skid Row, Megadeth, Guns ’n’ Roses and the movie DROP DEAD FRED. I’m assuming Altman is also a fan of those. This is like how directors now show off what they’re into by giving a character, like, a movie poster of THE THING or something. Altman was really into Skid Row.

This may change in time, but in my opinion the early ‘90s fashion is not very pleasant to look at. All these baggy suits. Ward and Lovett wear some ties that I kinda like, though.

Also released April 3, 1992:

FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFORST, NEWSIES, and SLEEPWALKERS. I would say the latter, directed by Mick Garris and “written directly for the scream” by Stephen King, is a good offering for Weird Summer. It’s about incestuous shapeshifting cat monsters and I thought it was laughable trash at the time but when I recently watched it as an adult I learned that I was a fuckin idiot back then because it’s a wonderfully crazy movie. Recommended, especially in the context of celebrating 1992 weirdness.

And DEEP COVER came out the next week. Like THE PLAYER, it was written by Michael Tolkin (well, he has a story credit) and has been released on blu-ray and DVD in the Criterion Collection. I’m sorry, I didn’t make time to revisit it for this series, but I can vouch for it. Here’s my (pretty low quality) review from 2004.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 19th, 2022 at 12:46 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “The Player”

  1. It’s no POPEYE, that’s for sure!

  2. I love some other Altman film’s but I’m with Vern on this one, it just never quite ‘worked’ for me. It seems way to self aware and a bit too convinced of its own greatness.

    A lot of the time it’s clever for no other reason than being clever, and it seems like the thing it has the most contempt for is the audience – but it doesn’t want to follow that through to it’s logical conclusion. But I also accept that my less than warm feelings for this film might be preventing me from fulling getting into the ‘meta’ aspects of it – so I might be missing something.

    I think of this one as ultimately one of Altman’s weaker films – he’s got at least a dozen that are a lot better.

    And Vern nails it with his comment about Hollywood being in love with itself – both in the film and in the reviews – I think that led to its critical over estimation by so many.

    I kind of wish that Cynthia Stevenson went on to more success though – she is really the best thing in this, pulling the scene out from other more accomplished actors. But she was probably too quirky and unconventional for that to have happened.

    For what its worth I always liked the 1994 joint SWIMMING WITH SHARKS a lot more – it was a more berserk, funny, blood thirsty and bleak look at the filmmaking business.

  3. Count me as an Altman fan. I’ve seen most of his movies because I am a completist for better or worse. He’s made many great movies. Sorry you didn’t like this one more. I only saw one Altman movie in the theater and that was Prairie Home Companion. I figured it was going to be his last one and it was. Paul Thomas Anderson had to be the backup director just so Altman could be insured. Other Altman films of note are Brewster McCloud, 3 Women and Images. Sorry. Went in to fan boy mode for a moment.

  4. Franchise Fred

    May 19th, 2022 at 9:25 pm

    Been a while since I saw it but wasn’t it the gas chamber? Sorry to be a stickler but I remember because Bruce shoots it open so she can breathe and then carries her to safety, like a boss.

  5. You are correct.

  6. Altman is a bit of a blind spot in my movie knowledge. I think the only two of him that I saw are POPEYE and M*A*S*H. This one here sounds like fun, but also like unbearable masturbatory I AM AN ARTIST, DAMMIT, I MAKE REAL CINEMA AND NOT MINDLESS CONTENT bullshit.

    I wonder if Chevy Chase had gotten the role, would he turned suddenly into a beloved character actor and indie/arthouse darling? Kinda doing a Bill Murray before Bill Murray. Motherfuckers better get going with making multiverses available in the real world. So many unanswered questions about alternate movie history…

  7. I want to give this a pass, because we’re all feeling tender after the loss of Fred Ward, and because Pegsman reminded me last week just how great Lyle Lovett is. But I can’t.

    The real meta joke here is that Altman was always killing the writer, be that Tolkin, Chandler, Carver, or E. C. Segar. His direction is always “Look at me, look at me! I’m the artist here!” THE PLAYER goes beyond Altman’s usual auteurist posture that the setting of the movie, whatever that may be, is full of assholes, to make clear his contempt for the audience who had failed to show up to his “great works”, preferring star vehicles with happy endings. “The fools!”

    Watching this in the theatre back then I felt sorry for Bruce and Julia Roberts, who had actually done little more at that point than star in a couple of hits, for the treatment they get in the movie.

    As a satire on Hollywood, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS remains more subversive, funnier and more telling.

  8. It’s funny that this review came out, as just the other day I was thinking of Altman; I had remembered a part in Peter Biskind’s book EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS where Altman bemoaned the state of mainstream Hollywood cinema. He said that he went to the multiplex to look for something to watch, and the only choices were — if I recall correctly — FACE/OFF, MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING, and THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, nothing that an “intelligent adult” would want to go see. As a filmmaker whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely and admired (his 70s output was indeed unfuckwithable) the man was entitled to his opinion, as far as 2 out of those 3 films go. But for daring to besmirch the monument to Mega that is my choice for John Woo’s second best American film (gotta give the edge to HARD TARGET), he can go posthumously fuck himself.

    Anyway, I just thought it was interesting that Altman was talking about the “death of film” in the 90s, which sounds like the same song of sorrow being sung today — only the lyrics in the 2022 updated version have been changed to “Marvel” and “existing IP”.

    I have nothing else to pretend to add to this discussion, other than that I used to go to the Rialto. They had really cool midnight screenings on the weekends for movies; I saw MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE for the first time there. Also, I might’ve been drunk but I swear one particular Saturday night, they were selling DVD copies of THE PLAYER at the concession stand.

  9. I’ve always been a middle to big fan of Altman’s movies. But in ’92 I felt that this was a too mild a satire on Hollywood to be interesting. He was obviously looking for a hit, and brought in all the stars he could get his hands on, but dumbed it down too far to be really funny or edgy. It’s like the conversation in the movie between Roddy McDowall, Andie MacDowell and Malcolm McDowell about their last names. Funny, right?

  10. dreadguacamole

    May 20th, 2022 at 6:17 am

    I like a lot of Altman films, but I agree this one isn’t one of his best. I remember it being a huge deal at the time, but other than that all I remember of it is that it felt too on-the-nose.
    Sleepwalkers is indeed batshit; any movie where someone gets killed by being stabbed with an ear of corn, or where a cat shatters a car window by batting at it with its paws, is A-OK with me. Such a weird movie, from script choices to its mythology to the way it’s filmed. The main thing I disliked about it was the morphing effect they used on it, which if I remember correctly was the first time I was put off by bad CGI in a film (and having seen the exact same effect in a Michael Jackson video did not help.)

  11. Remember watching this and SHORT CUTS on premium cable in the 90s. Robbins is so good in both. He has an incredible moment in the Todd Haynes movie from a few years ago DARK WATERS, and it reminded me of just how good he was back in the 90’s. Kind of the anti-Hanks, in his best stuff always subverting the natural charm he projects.

    I like this a lot, and as 92 was a pretty vital year for me in terms of pop culture, this is definitely a landmark. Predating the online film culture, it sold itself best on showing the machinery of Hollywood at work even if done so in slightly satirical ways. It’s also very much of its time, and if not as current to the way Hollywood operates now certainly in other aspects of corporate America, certainly the gov’t. After all, the saying goes that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.

  12. I might be misremembering (only saw this once on video, waaay back around when it first came out) but I seem to recall the movie inserting something that is definitely not in the original novel: a short, audience-sympathy-generating monologue by Robbins’ character on how it’s really hard to make a good movie and he tries his best. Am I making this up? I remember at the time feeling like the movie wimped out on making the lead as truly shallow as he was in the (similarly only vaguely remembered by me) Tolkin novel. Not quite the same as Bruce Willis blowing open the door of the gas chamber at the end, but not totally dissimilar either.

    Anyway, I am a medium fan of a lot of Altman’s work but the one that truly stands out is GOSFORD PARK. Over here we rewatch that movie on the regular. So freaking good.

    I have never seen BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, but the book about the making and marketing of that movie, THE DEVIL’S CANDY, is a hilarious and dark epic of its own. Recently turned into a season of the TCM “The Plot Thickens” podcast, also really really good.

  13. Since this one fell out of the Summer schedule (like most of the best from 1992) I wasn’t expecting The Player to show up in this series. I’m no Altman fan but really love this movie which I saw on release and plenty of other times since. I don’t care about Altman’s snobbery or Tolkin’s intent, I just celebrate the total amoralness of the thing. I don’t know if watching it twice in quick succession dragged you down Vern, it is an intense soulless vacuum, but I think it works just as well today as back then even if much of the satire is now just part of today’s disgrace of a studio system.

    I’ve known a few people who don’t like the Griffin/June relationship, and I don’t know if my take is what either writer or director intended, but both are soulless, which is revealed more obviously through Griffin’s interactions but can be seen in June’s art. Both want what they want to the exclusion of others which is how it falls into their “new normal” so quickly.

    I enjoy the cameos and technical details but most of all I just like how everyone plays things so straight which lets the dark humor shine brightly. The flick is just a load of fun.

  14. I was 19 when this came out and had an experience with it a lot like Vern describes: I was a movie junkie, and EW, the local paper, and even one of my college professors were insisting that this was a great film that had to be savored. I saw it and I did like it kind of, but privately I struggled with not really latching on to what was so “great” about it. I rewatched it about 10 years ago and had basically the same assessment, except that by then I wasn’t insecure about it. I think it’s kind of good but not as special as a lot of people made it out to be 30 years ago.

    I’m ambivalent about Altman overall. Ready to Wear, Dr. T and the Women, and especially Short Cuts are total misfires for me. Short Cuts was particularly rough because the Raymond Carver source stories that he was adapting are so damn good, and it was obvious that Altman didn’t get them at all. The Carver stories are quiet and thoughtful, but Altman’s movie was brassy and busy. He also made a lot of deletions and changes that dumbed the stories way down. All told, the Player is probably my favorite Altman, and I’m only Luke warm on it.

  15. In all fairnes, READY TO WEAR and DR T are seen as misfires in general.

  16. Whoopi Goldberg is so good in this. Understated but sharp. and sometimes really funny. There’s a line (something like, “so you’re saying you’re a black woman?”) that would play as a “laff moment” in a movie today, but here is delivered (and edited) like a throwaway line. You might almost miss it, and it’s so much funnier that way.

  17. As for the movie as a whole, I saw this when it was theaters, I was (I think) 17, and I remember not liking it as much as I thought I was supposed to. And also thinking maybe that’s because it was somehow… a little corny? I watched it again very recently and felt the same way. I think the consensus here is correct—it has some neat stuff, and a lot to admire, but it just isn’t a great movie.

  18. Weird, I just watched this again the other day – perhaps subconsciously inspired to do so by your 1992 retrospective. I absolutely love this film but am not really an Altman fan. I enjoyed The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts but have never been able to make it through Gosford Park, despite it having a cast and plot I should like.

    This was my introduction to Tim Robbins, Fred Ward and a few other good actors. I love that Griffin gets away with murder and leaves his nice girlfriend for a not so nice one (she says her murdered boyfriend was untalented with his coffin in shot behind her). It’s dark and funny and different.

    Whoopi Goldberg has a lot of good scenes too – laughing at Mills and later mocking an eye witness. Love it.

  19. I, too, was one of those EW/Premiere magazine reading kids who read about a movie about movies, so i was primed for this! Saw it twice the weekend it opened wide in my neighborhood (dragging a friend who would’ve been fine seeing Split Second or anything else). Blew my mind as to what a movie could be. (Loved the Night on Earth trailer before it, too. Indie cinema!)

    Years later, I would get a chance to work with Tolkin. He said he ran into the Gosford Park screenwriter at an event, and they spent it commiserating about how their scripts didn’t seem to matter in the end. He said it jovially (and he was always answering my Player and Rapture questions) but I got the feeling Bob didnt care about the words so much.

    I never caught the Altman bug, despite loving this film to no end. I bought the Criterion Blu Ray during one of their flash sales but havent seen it yet. Having been on both sides as audience and film industry worker, it holds up and is hilarious and sad, but definitely feels more inside baseball at the time than now.

  20. “(…) It just sounds like what we now call a “legacy sequel”. And with that new context it actually doesn’t sound terrible.” Fantastic April Fool there, Vern, very subtle! Wait a minute… *checks date*… Oh.
    That “new context” arguably (I mean inarguably of course. Hoo!) spotlights the exponentially *increased* shamelessness of Hollywood – and it isn’t as if Hollywood was ever lacking in shamelessness.
    As to “the blind spot of many dude directors of the ’80s and ’90s…”, well, Altman didn’t *write* it, Tolkien did, but putting that aside The Player isn’t meant to be a *nice* movie and is it totally impossible that a woman might do that? No, it isn’t. Made today there might be the foolish drive to make any given female or male or non-white character a “role model’ but people are people, there is infinite variety but that also mean there are many, many idiots, goofballs, bastards, et cetera. Just because racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and plenty of other hateful evil things exist it does no good to constantly throw terms like “privilege” around and parrot slogans while not allowing that people of any or all given groups are capable of anything, good or bad because they are individuals (“We are all individuals!”, “*I’m not!*”) and as such even when something might be said to be a cliché in a movie or what have you it isn’t necessarily untrue, no matter that it might be unpopular with particular people. The *motivation* behind writing a character a certain way THAT is worth considering but stating or implying something should not be represented at all, just so some can pat themselves on the back for their – often non-existent or back-patting – enlightenment, that’s goofy. One may not like or approve of certain things (I certainly don’t) but there is a big difference between that and implying they don’t exist. Wishing doesn’t make it so.
    Back to The Player, I don’t like it. Ha. I find it’s cynicism too pat, too predictable. I far prefer Short Cuts, regardless of whether it is entirely faithful to Raymond Carver or not. That doesn’t matter. That Altman chose to honour Carver by bringing his work to the screen *does*. Short Cuts is after all a movie, not filmed pages and it’s a very GOOD movie. (More Lyle Lovely to I seem to recall.).
    Altman’s attitude to women in his movies is interesting, I think. Some of the things in his earlier movies would not fly today (even some of the later movies would be deemed problematic by those who feel everything should suit their prejudices, you know the flip side version of right-wing or conservative pricks using some of the same unpleasant methods in attempts to get their way) but most of his movies offered great opportunities for actresses; from Brewster McCloud to A Wedding, 3 Women to Dr T and the Women, Altman gave the likes of Barbara Harris, Shelley Duvall, Julianne Moore, and the great Jennifer Jason Leigh so much with which to work. His personal flaws didn’t detract from his skill as a director, even if there are a few of his films I can’t stomach (watching Kansas City was like receiving cold sick in the face) that doesn’t I don’t think he should have made them, tastes and sensitivities differ (and I don’t think one could really describe Bob Altman as sensitive!).
    M*A*S*H is fascinating, it is still a great movie but while I don’t think The Player was illustrative of “dude” directors of the ’80s/’90s blind spots (I’m not saying that some male directors of that era DIDN’T have blind spots, nor that male/female/whatever directors of ANY era can’t have blind spots) but M*A*S*H is incontrovertibly proof of the blind spots of certain male directors in the 1960s/1970s. The scene in which Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan is humiliated by having her nudity exposed to almost the entire 4077th camp (including watching women!) while showering is excruciating (I first saw M*A*S*H as a teenager and am ashamed to admit that the nudity of an attractive woman caused me to miss the awfulness of the scene. Yes all it took was *BOOBS!* and *PUSSY!* to shut down my nascent morality at that time). The treatment of Hot Dish (yep, that’s her nickname, I suppose Altman/Lardner decided to cut a third major female character Hot C***) isn’t much better, she leaves the camp stunned into ecstatic silence by a big dick. Really. It serves to put complaints about particular female characters because they aren’t superdupermarvelous into perspective. The major (barely) Black male character is nicknamed, uh, Spearchucker. Oy gevalt. Those names come from the original novel by the decidedly not liberal Richard Hornberger but still… (I don’t recall if the shower incident came from the novel) A fantastic piece of cinema it remains (better than any Marvel movie. Shhhh) but some of the attitudes within it are awful, the hipness it wears like a shroud can be poisonous. The complexity of things is interesting, isn’t it? That the same director could make A Perfect Couple (which isn’t as good as a piece of cinema) is more so. Its like Schwarzenegger doing some good and likable things while Steven Ponytail whose early movies had a quasiliberal slant is a Russian shill, racist, creepy piece of ordure. A little bit.

  21. I just meant the new context that actually it can be kind of cool to see the same actor playing the character older and that there have been more ridiculous ideas for movies. In fact if you described POPEYE without having known of the actual movie it would definitely sound way more ridiculous and shameless than THE GRADUATE PART II.

    As for the blind spot, I wasn’t trying to say anything about the morals of the characters. I write frequently about wanting female characters to be allowed to be more flawed. I’m just talking about there being alot of movies where it doesn’t seem like the woman character’s point of view is taken into consideration, it’s just assumed of course she’s gonna follow the main character to the end of the earth even if he’s a cold and vacuous charisma-less hole she barely met (and in this case under very suspicious circumstances). Just an observation about a thing I find distracting.

  22. I first became aware of this when I saw the VHS on a shelf at a local supermarket of sorts in around 2000 when I was 13. I was becoming more of a serious Film Buff, but I’m not sure if I necessarily knew Robert Altman by name, or even was able to recognise Tim Robbins when he rocked a cool pair of shades. At any rate, my impression of the film based on the UK VHS cover was that it would be a lot more, er, how should I put this, like a movie based on an SNL Character or starring an SNL or SCTV actor, than the film is. That’s not really an insult, at least not from 13 year old me, just the impression I got from the image of Robbins smugly standing on a stack of film cans, the fonts used, the fake Griffin Mill quote on the cover (as opposed to all the real life quotes from this fictional character), some of the photos on the back, and the press review pull that assured me I would “cry with laughter”. So I was a bit surprised at home later that day when I booted up my trusty CINEMANIA 95 CD-ROM, or fired up my modem (whatever came first), and found that this was the kind of film that had afforded 4-star raves from Roger Ebert.

    I think I saw the film within a year of that first encounter. It flew above my head a bit at the time, but for whatever reason I’ve seen it a few times since and do rather like it now, though I think there are some fair points made here. The “Mike Nicholls gives an inane pitch” stuff perhaps seems a little hackneyed after so many similar jokes on THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, the awful (don’t @me) EXTRAS, Orange Mobile ads, Albert Brooks’ THE MUSE (“hey Martin Scorsese wants to make a film like RAGING BULL but the boxer will be really thin this time!”), the very similar opening gag in FREE ENTERPRISE where Eric McCormack pitches a movie about a serial killer with a BRADY BUNCH-fixation called BRADYKILLER etc. Plus stuff like “they’re talking about how nobody does impressive tracking shots any more while doing a really impressive tracking shot!” can seem a little smug.

    It’s true that critics and Hollywood can overate films that are effectively about themselves, and I think this also had a long life because for a long time it was the easiest way to describe certain movie business things (“a pitch, you know like in THE PLAYER”). That said, there is a limit to that, so I think THE PLAYER got some of that esteem on its own merits too; THE BIG PICTURE a few years earlier hadn’t got the same kind of heat. THE PICKLE and MISTRESS (the DEEP IMPACT to THE PLAYER’s ARMAGEDDON? Or Vice Versa? Or the VICE VERSA to THE PLAYER’s LIKE FATHER LIKE SON?) didn’t ride PLAYERmania to becoming huge critical darlings (I like both of them though). And of course BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN is widely considered one of the worst majorish movies of the last 40 years, not undeservedly (I’m sure Joe Eszterhas would like to think it’s because it was too real, but that ain’t it chief). On the other hand, there was a time when critics considered ENTOURAGE “one of the smartest shows on television”, so…

  23. This was one of those reviews where I stopped reading halfway through so I could watch the movie and come back. I admit I barely knew what THE PLAYER was about (for some reason I always get it mixed up with THE PIANO), but this sounded up my alley. Somehow this is only the third Altman movie I’ve seen in its entirety.

    I agree that Hollywood loves itself, but for me its self-satires are almost always duds (example: WHAT JUST HAPPENED?, which also features Bruce Willis). I liked this one, though– most of it, anyway. I didn’t have any problems with Robbins as the lead. He does play it a bit more laid-back than one might expect. The ending felt flat for me while watching it, though looking back I like that it subverts one’s genre expectations while playing into the meta-current running throughout the movie.

    I’d be interesting in an even meaner remake. There’s a lot less sexual harassment in this than there seems to be in the actual Hollywood. Though this film does understand correctly that certain folks can get away with anything.

  24. I quite liked WHAT JUST HAPPENED?, although I quite liked an awful lot back then.

  25. Just revisited this on my DVD; the featurette reveals Patrick Swayze shot a cameo (along with Jeff Daniels) that was cut from the final film! He and Daniels were on the lot filming some kind of medical drama; Swayze shows what I think is Fred Ward how to do some kicks.

  26. I liked this one just fine. Maybe I was the right age for it but I credit it for disillusioning me off the Hollywood dream at a young age. It also got me interested in more of these meta narrative movies overall. Creating a fondness for yet another subgenre of film I could really appreciate. SHORT CUTS is the one I never really got but maybe I was just too young for that at the time. Now that I’m in my late 30s I should probably revisit it.

  27. THE PLAYER manages to have it both ways. On the one hand, it has a Hollywood-style “happy ending,” because Griffin Mill doesn’t get caught, defeats his rival, gets his boss’s job, gets a bigger house, and lives happily ever after with his new wife. On the other hand, that’s not really a good thing, because he’s evil, an innocent writer is dead, and Bonnie is fired, so at the same time it also has a depressing Tom Oakley “That’s reality!” ending.

    I wonder how THE PLAYER’s ending would have tested in Canoga Park.

    Also, we find ourselves subsconsciously rooting for Griffin even though we shouldn’t, either because he’s the protagonist and thus the viewpoint character, or because we find it hard not to empathise when someone is afraid of getting caught. We get caught up in his anger when the cops are laughing at him in the police station, and we feel his relief when the tracksuited lawyer tells him he’s home free after the failed police line-up.

    Vincent D’Onofrio looks great as David Kahane. He’s lost all the weight from FULL METAL JACKET and he has great hair. He looks good with glasses.

    Also, thank you for standing up for Lyle Lovett. I never thought he was unattractive either. Some people don’t like that he’s asymmetrical, but I’d say he’s handsome. It must have been because people thought Julia Roberts was too good-looking for him, so they got angry like they did at David Copperfield for landing Claudia Schiffer. Gilbert Gottfried had a joke where he was upset because Roberts married Lovett for his sense of humour, which meant that as a comedian, Gottfried could have been dating supermodels the whole time.

    Hollywood does love movies about Hollywood, especially if they make fun of Hollywood. And the comment Hollywood insiders always have about these movies is that the real Hollywood is even worse, which is a depressing thought. Worse than Blake Edwards’s S.O.B.? Worse than AN ALAN SMITHEE FILM BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN? Well at least now that we know about it we can fix the problem, right?

    There’s a little meta-humour in Brion James’s character complaining about the D.O.A. remake: Brion James was in it.

    Chevy Chase would have been an interesting choice because he’s so unlikeable that it would be crystal clear how evil Griffin is. Whereas we have to remind ourselves not to root for Tim Robbins, we’d be actively hoping Chevy Chase got caught. On the other hand that would make it much more upsetting when he gets a happy ending.

    I miss 1980s/1990s fashion, like the baggy suits. The tight form-fitting suits of today look really weird to me. Hopefully the pendulum will swing back the other way.

    I saw a few minutes of POPEYE on TV when I was a child and found it scary.

    Alan: Cynthia Stevenson is great. My friends and I just saw her in a CHEERS rerun as Norm’s adorable secretary. We didn’t recognise her at first because she had jet-black hair. SWIMMING WITH SHARKS was a depressing experience. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind at the time. There are some good scenes and lines and it’s stayed with me enough that I’ve talked about it to people over the years, though.

    CJ Holden: Chevy Chase already thinks of himself as a Bill-Murray-style intellectual. Imagine his ego if he had any credits to back it up.

    Broddie: I saw THE PLAYER when I was 19 and did rewatch it recently and found I liked it less this time. Maybe being older and more damaged by life made it harder to enjoy.

    There’s two other things about THE PLAYER:

    1. The Thomas Newman soundtrack really got to me the first time I saw it. It has the quirkiness he showed in THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE and the theme to SIX FEET UNDER, and it ends with a sweeping grandeur in the final shot that also adds in melancholy. Stayed with me for a long time after the movie. I still love it.

    2. There seems to be some question about whether we ever find out the identity of the real stalker. It seems to me like it’s Phil, the writer giving the eulogy (Brian Brophy). He says “shitbag producer” at the funeral and on the phone to Griffin, which I think is supposed to be the giveaway. It doesn’t really change the story either way, though.

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