Los Angeles, 18 December 1943, son of actor and film/TV director Oscar
Rudolph; sometimes credited as Gerald Cormier.
Studied accounting at UCLA.
Began work in the Paramount Pictures mailroom, mid-1960s; joined the
Directors Guild training program, 1967; worked as an assistant director
for TV and films, late 1960s; directed his first feature,
, 1970 (released 1972); worked with Robert Altman at Lion's Gate,
from 1973; Altman produced
Welcome to L.A.
Remember My Name.
Los Angeles Film Critics Association New Generation Award, 1984; Berlin
Film Festival C.I.C.A.E. Award, for
Trouble in Mind
, 1985; San Sebastian International Film Festival Alma Award for Best
Screenplay, Aspen Filmfest Audience Award, for
15760 Ventura Blvd., Encino, CA 91436, U.S.A.
Premonition (+ sc) (released 1972)
Terror Circus ( Barn of the Naked Dead, Nightmare Circus ) (+ co-sc, pr)
Welcome to L.A. (+ sc)
Remember My Name (+ sc)
Roadie (+ co-story)
Endangered Species (+ co-sc)
Choose Me (+ sc); Songwriter
Trouble in Mind (+ sc)
Made in Heaven
The Moderns (+ co-sc)
Love at Large (+ sc)
Equinox (+ sc)
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (+ co-sc)
Afterglow (+ sc)
Breakfast of Champions (+ sc)
Trixie (+ sc, co-story)
Investigating Sex (+ co-sc, pr)
The Rocket Man (Rudolph) (ro)
Riot (Kulik) (asst d)
The Long Goodbye (Altman) (asst d)
California Split (Altman) (asst d)
Nashville (Altman) (asst d)
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (Altman) (co-sc)
The Hollywood Mavericks (Dauman) (appearance)
The Player (Altman) (appearance)
Would You Kindly Direct Me to Hell: The Infamous Dorothy Parker (doc) (short) (as commentator)
Buffalo Bill and the Indians; or, Sitting Bull's History Lesson , with Robert Altman, New York, 1976.
Interview in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1977.
"Add Romance and a Crazed World," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), August 1985.
Interview with Brian Baxter, in Films and Filming (London), September 1986.
Interview with Karen Jaehne, in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), vol. 24, no. 2, 1988.
Interview with Richard Trainor, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1988.
Interview with Richard Combs and Tom Milne, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), March 1989.
Interview with Louise Tanner in Films in Review (New York), April 1990.
Interview with Gavin Smith in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1993.
"The Producer as Gambler," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1994.
Milne, Tom, ". . . As Suggestive as a Neon Orchid," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1985.
Farber, Stephen, "Five Horsemen after the Apocalypse," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1985.
Garel, A., and F. Guérif, "Alan Rudolph," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1985.
Rensin, D., "The Man Who Would Be Different," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1986.
Jaehne, Karen, "Time for The Moderns ," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1988.
Taylor, Paul, "Meet All the People—Alan Rudolph," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1990.
Nordstrom, V., article in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 33, no. 1, 1991.
Orman, T., "'Everything Means Something, Cynthia': Alan Rudolph's Mortal Thoughts ," in Cineaction , Fall 1992.
Appelo, Tim, "Finding Dorothy Parker's Voice," in Entertainment Weekly , 23 December 1994.
* * *
Alan Rudolph's films are populated by mysterious wanderers, musicians, painters, and journalists, people who have flirted with success without ever achieving it and who exist in a timeless, bohemian limbo. It is clear that he identifies with his protagonists. Never as trenchant a satirist as his early mentor, Robert Altman, Rudolph imbues his work with a strong romantic streak. At his worst, he is simply trite and maudlin. At his best, he weaves elaborate fantasies as colourful and eyecatching as anything Coppola ever managed at Zoetrope.
Stunned by Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller , the young Rudolph quickly attached himself to the shirttails of the great director, co-scripting Buffalo Bill and the Indians , Altman's bicentennial savaging of Wild West mythology, and also working on The Long Goodbye. Altman's film company produced Welcome to L.A. , Rudolph's first important feature as a director. While the film was not a particularly scathing critique of Californian social mores, it nevertheless introduces themes and motifs which would be further explored in subsequent Rudolph works. For example, the film features a Kerouac-like lonesome traveler as hero. Keith Carradine plays a whiskydrinking songwriter, just arrived in town, who dresses—somewhat incongruously—like the straw man in the Wizard of Oz, with a goatee beard and a tweed hat. But despite his unlikely garb, he manages to seduce everyone from Lauren Hutton to Geraldine Chaplin. Rudolph has spoken of the importance of music to his films. Welcome to L.A. boasts a truly awful soundtrack, comprising the songs which the Carradine character is supposed to have written. This may be an elaborate joke on the director's part. After all, Carradine is ostensibly a failed songwriter, and his music isn't meant to be any good.
Rudolph's second feature, Remember My Name , bombed at the box office. Undeterred, he geared up to start work on a third project, a long-cherished movie chronicling the lives and fast times of the American artists and literati in 1920s Paris. Five weeks before the cameras were due to roll, though, the financiers pulled the plug on The Moderns , and Rudolph was cast out into the wilderness of work as a contract director.
Between 1978 and 1984, Rudolph was employed on several "routine" movies, directing Roadie , a vehicle for the overweight American rocker Meatloaf, and making a romantic melodrama about cow killing in the U.S. Midwest, Endangered Species. He also found time to direct a highly provocative documentary, Return Engagement , which records a staged encounter between two disgraced figures from the recent American past—Timothy Leary, the psychedelic Harvard academic, and G. Gordon Liddy, mastermind behind the Watergate break-in. Although seemingly from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Leary and Liddy turn out to have a great deal in common. They are bona fide American anti-heroes, not at all dissimilar from the fictional characters with which Rudolph fills his films. As such, they hold an obvious attraction for the director.
Choose Me , based on a radio show and shot in less than a month for under $750,000, is quintessential Rudolph, and its success marked his return to the independent cinema mainstream. It centers on a singles bar where glamorous strangers strike up acquaintance. Genevieve Bujold, a Rudolph regular, plays a DJ agony aunt, offering solace and advice to the town's yearning and heartbroken populace. There is something theatrical and stylized about the movie: for example, the sets could be from a Minnelli musical. But Rudolph manages to create vivid and memorable characters, even as the movie risks becoming an exercise in glamorous facades. In spite of the rain, the neon and the mist, and the soul music soundtrack, this is an absorbing story about sexual jealousy, and it is also genuinely mysterious: all in all, quite a coup for under a million dollars.
The follow up, Trouble in Mind , involves quite a bit of tampering with Keith Carradine's coiffure: the actor, playing a young married delinquent making his first steps in organized crime, sports a lanky 1950s quiff. This contrasts with Kris Kristofferson's beard and the bald pate of a villain played by Divine, on leave from John Waters. A meticulous stylist, Rudolph is one of the few directors capable of portraying character through hairstyles. A camp film noir , not that far removed in its narrative from Big Heat , Trouble in Mind manages again to blend visual extravagance with downbeat subject matter. The same cannot be said for Made in Heaven , a flimsy and mawkish love story, which in spite of its passing nods to the Sturges/Capra vision of small-town America, and its celestial chicanery (early parts of the film are set in heaven, for this is yet another variation on Heaven Can Wait ) seems toothless and bland in comparison with its two predecessors. Again, Rudolph didn't have full artistic control: "The writerproducers said they wanted me but it turned out they didn't want the darker touches I would have added."
Finally, ten years later than scheduled, Rudolph managed to make The Moderns in 1988. This was not the simple-minded evocation of Gertrude Stein's tea parties and Hemingway's alcoholism that some critics presumed. Based on "memoir, gossip, innuendo and lies," it attempted to question the premises on which aesthetic judgments are made. What is originality, and what constitutes forgery? These rather obvious questions seemed especially relevant in a decade when art prices were shooting through the roof. The Rudolph repertory company turned out in force, with Bujold, Carradine, and Geraldine Chaplin all cast. Playing on stereotypes of 1920s modernism and caricaturing American attitudes toward Europe ( The Moderns recreates Paris in Montreal), this was a far more tongue-in-cheek creation than its detractors realized.
Rudolph's films are like those of his mentor Altman in that, taken as a whole, they are always interesting and consistently crammed with style. Occasionally brilliant, in the final analysis they are widely—and maddeningly—uneven. Take Love at Large , the story of a private detective and his various encounters after he is hired by a mystery woman. As much as you try to like the film because the characters are, on their surfaces, so intriguing, the result is more chaotic than coherent. The same can be said for Mortal Thoughts , about a murder investigation, and Equinox , about two lookalikes—one a powerless car mechanic and the other a gangland thug—whose lives coincide.
One of Rudolph's most interesting 1990s films is Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle , a recollection of life among the 1920s New York intelligencia. At its core is the character of the writer-humorist Dorothy Parker, portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh. For all her surface cynicism and tenacity, Parker is depicted as a fragile, sensitive lost soul, a woman who gained a certain measure of professional success but who found elusive any level of personal contentment. The "vicious circle" of the title is the daily luncheon gathering of fabled writers, editors, and wits at the Algonquin Hotel's Round Table. Parker is one of the regulars. Others include Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), with whom Parker shares a close friendship and an unconsummated sexual attraction, and Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick), with whom she has an ill-fated affair. Flitting in and out of the story are Alexander Woollcott, Edna Ferber, Robert Sherwood, and Marc Connelly, among many others. It is Rudolph's contention that these celebrity scribes frittered away their talents on drink and idle chatter, while the true and lasting writers of the generation (such as Hemingway and Faulkner) were devoting their energies to their work.
Parker aficionados criticized the facts as presented in the film, contending it was unlikely that Parker and Benchley (who was less physically attractive than depicted onscreen) lived with a sexual tension between them. As the on-screen Parker reads her poetry and sits with her friends at the Algonquin, she often appears as a sad sack, an alcoholic bore. Yet in fact she was a true wit, with people flocking to be in her company. Onscreen, her voice is grating and slurring; it is the voice of a drunk. Yet in the biography You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker , she is described as "possessed of a voice surprisingly rich and full for so small a person."
Rudolph's Mrs. Parker follow-up was one of his more engaging films: Afterglow , a deeply personal, tender, and riveting drama that tells the story of two couples, one younger and the other middle-aged, and the manner in which they become intertwined and linked by fate. Phyllis Mann (a resplendent Julie Christie) is a former B-movie actress who lives with her philandering handyman husband Lucky (Nick Nolte); the scenario follows what happens when he commences an affair with Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle), a frustrated yuppie who is married to Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller), an arrogant corporate climber. Afterglow is a film for mature adults, which is not to say that it should have been rated NC-17. Its characters are finely drawn—disconnected and dissatisfied, and undeniably poignant. Unfortunately, Rudolph's next film was disjointed and uninvolving (however well-intentioned): Breakfast of Champions , a stale adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut social satire.
Rudolph's wildest—and best—film to date remains Choose Me , a comedy-drama with an evocative from-midnight-til-dawn feel. Choose Me serves as the best illustration of themes which remain constant throughout his work, exploring how some individuals choose to play different roles as they relate to others, and how chance acquaintances and occurrences affect peoples' lives forever.
Rudolph is something of an anomaly among contemporary American filmmakers. In spite of his extravagant visual sense, he seems to work best on small budgets. Although his films seem destined for art houses, the cheerful, upbeat romanticism of some of his stories and his insistence on creating happy couples suggest he is a populist at heart.
—G. C. Macnab, updated by Rob Edelman
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