Director: Robert Altman
Production: Avenue Entertainment; DeLuxe colour, 35mm; running time: 124 minutes. Filmed in Los Angeles, 1991.
Producer: David Brown, Michael Tolkin, Nick Weschler; screenplay: Michael Tolkin, from his own novel; photography: Jean
Cast: Tim Robbins ( Griffin Mill ); Greta Scacchi ( June Gudmundsdottir ); Fred Ward ( Walter Stuckel ); Whoopi Goldberg ( Detective Susan Avery ); Peter Gallagher ( Larry Levy ); Cynthia Stephenson ( Bonnie Sherow ); Brion James ( Joel Levison ); Vincent D'Onofrio ( David Kahane ); Dean Stockwell ( Andy Civella ); Richard E. Grant ( Tom Oakley ); Sydney Polack ( Dick Mellen ); Lyle Lovett ( Detective DeLongpre ).
Appearing as themselves: Harry Belafonte, Karen Black, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Cher, James Coburn, John Cusack, Brad Davis, Peter Falk, Louise Fletcher, Teri Garr, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Elliot Gould, Joel Grey, Buck Henry, Angelica Houston, Sally Kellerman, Sally Kirkland, Jack Lemmon, Marlee Matlin, Andie McDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Mimi Rogers, Annie Ross, Alan Rudolph, Jill St.
John, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Lily Tomlin, Robert Wagner, Bruce Willis.
Awards: Best Director, Cannes Film Festival, 1992.
Kolker, Robert P., A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman , New York, 1988.
McGilligan, Patrick, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff: A Biography of the Great American Director , New York, 1989.
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Altman, Robert, "Altman on Altman," in Projections 2 , edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue, London 1993.
Cagin, Seth, Born to Be Wild: Hollywood & the Sixties Generation , Boca Raton, 1994.
O'Brien, Daniel, Robert Altman: Hollywood Survivor , New York, 1996.
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McCarthy, T., Variety (New York), 16 March 1992.
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Smith, G., and R. T. Jameson, Film Comment (New York), May-June 1992.
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Danzinger, M., "Basic Instinct: Grappling for Post-Modern Mind Control," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 22, no.1, January 1994.
Sugg, R.P., "The Role of the Writer in The Player : Novel and Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 22, no. 1, January 1994.
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Adams, D., "Thomas Newman's The Player ," in Film Score Monthly (Los Angeles), no. 72, August 1996.
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Movies about the movies are a staple Hollywood sub-genre that's been with us since the dawn of the movies themselves. And it's practically a formula tradition of these Hollywood behind-the-scenes pictures to cast the industry they portray in the most unsavory light possible.
Even such otherwise upbeat and exuberant glimpses into the early days of Tinseltown as the silents Show People and Ella Cinders delivered the cautionary message that stardom isn't all it's cracked up to be—a message that took even darker turns when the talkies arrived in such films as What Price Hollywood? and the numerous versions of A Star is Born. It's a stretch to imagine any other industry but Hollywood turning out a product designed by the manufacturers to trash the very industry that feeds them. But that's the salient quality of most movies about the movies.
Their consistent and self-reviling thematic thread is that Hollywood is a boulevard of broken dreams, a cutthroat business that builds careers only to destroy them, a place that eats its young and casts out its old—a wartorn landscape fueled by an ongoing blood feud between the money men and the creative artist-individual where the latter almost always comes out the loser. This portrait has been reinforced in films from Sunset Boulevard to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Ironically, rather then running the whistleblowers out of town, the industry as often as not has embraced them by showering their scathing exposes with Oscars!
Robert Altman's skewering of the New Hollywood, The Player — itself a multiple Oscar nominee—is but the latest in the long line of Hollywood on Hollywood films to follow this path. Altman even begins the film with a salute to the man who was arguably the most mistreated creative artist in Hollywood history—Orson Welles: a satiric and technically dazzling eight-minute take inspired by the opening scene of Welles's final Hollywood film, Touch of Evil , a movie and scene to which the numerous central characters we are introduced to in the shot make reverential reference.
Altman frameworks his acid satire on the business of Hollywood as a whodunit. Tim Robbins stars as a studio executive who receives a series of threats from an anonymous screenwriter whose career he has put in turnaround. The vengeful screenwriter vows to settle the score and the exec's hash on behalf of every scribe Robbins has shown callous disregard.
Robbins takes the threats seriously and grows progressively paranoid. As writer after writer grovels before him in his power suit pitching story ideas to make a buck, Robbins speculates if this is the one who's got him marked for death—even as he reflexively puts them and their ideas down. He finally settles on Vincent D'Onofrio, a writer whose lifeblood screenplay Robbins had treated with particular indifference, and sets up a meeting to buy the guy off. After talking at cross purposes for awhile, the two tangle physically and Robbins accidentally kills the man. To his surprise, however, the threats continue. D'Onofrio was a writer who hated him, but not the writer; Robbins is guilty of murdering an innocent man.
Faced with staving off a challenge from an ambitious young producer (Peter Gallagher) with an eye on Robbins's job, sidestepping the police investigation into D'Onofrio's death by starstruck detective Whoopi Goldberg, swimming with his fellow Hollywood sharks at the studio, juggling love affairs, and covering his tracks while watching his back as the threatening screenwriter closes in, Robbins finds his problems have only just begun.
It seemed inevitable that the maverick Altman, a director noted for his acerbic takes on America's socio-political scene in such films as Nashville and for his well known hatred of Tinseltown's power structure, would eventually make a Hollywood on Hollywood movie like The Player. That he chose to adapt Michael Tolkin's blackly comic assault on the wheeler-dealer "suits" who run the business as his comeback film, after years of being written off by those "suits," was a brash act indeed. That Altman got just about every contemporary superstar in Hollywood to accept cameos for a fraction of their usual fees just to be in the movie is a measure not only of their respect for Altman's maverick status, but their own ambivalent feelings toward the system that supports them.
But that the movie itself was the most in-demand picture of the year for private screenings by the very studio executives it paints so darkly is probably most amazing of all. But that, it would seem, is show biz'.