A stubbornly independent filmmaker, director Robert Altman was known for making films that no one else dared to touch. MASH, one of Altman’s biggest successes, had been passed over by over a dozen other filmmakers. It was a difficult shoot, but Altman took on the challenge. In an admission that was decidedly un-Hollywood, Altman said he actually aimed to have his film rated R by the MPAA so as to keep children out of the audience – he didn’t believe children have the patience his movies required. This sometimes spawned conflict with movie studios, who wanted children in the audience for increased revenues.
Altman tended to make films that examined the interrelationships with various characters. Intricate plots weren’t particularly important. Altman rarely wrote a complete, steadfast screenplay. Instead, he sketched out the basic plot of the film, referring to the screenplay as a “blueprint” for action, and allowed his actors to improvise dialogue. As a result, Altman was seen as an actor’s director, a reputation that helped him work with large casts of well-known actors. All of this brings us to 1992’s The Player, a film that features cameos by more than 60 well known Hollywood figures.
From a screenplay by Michael Tolkin and based on his (rather lousy) 1988 novel of the same name, The Player is the ultimate satire about Hollywood and the film industry. The story centers on a studio executive named Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) who we meet during a brilliant eight-minute unbroken tracking shot as he’s discussing famous lengthy tracking shots in other movies with others. In this world of Hollywood, all anyone talks about is films and making money.
During that opening shot, Buck Henry pitches The Graduate: Part 2, which is presented as the story of Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson, who, twenty-five years after eloping are living with Mrs. Robinson. “I like it, I like it,” says Griffin. When I first saw The Player in theaters, not only did I think the premise sounded vaguely intriguing, but I found myself wondering if Hollywood just might do it.
Despite his success, Griffin’s life is precarious. There are rumors that a new young genius named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) is being hired with the obvious intent of replacing him. If that isn’t bad enough, someone is sending him threatening postcards. Through a series of convoluted circumstances, the latter event leads to murder. Despite the fact that Griffin claims to have approved only 12 out of about 50,000 scripts and we know he committed murder, Tim Robbins makes him seem somehow vulnerable and impossible to hate.
Dean Stockwell and the noted English actor Richard E. Grant show up as tough screenwriters whose movie idea becomes a story within the story of the film; Fred Ward plays the studio’s head of security, whose job it is to keep Mill’s involvement in the murder quiet; and, as the detectives assigned to investigate the murder, Whoopi Goldberg and country singer Lyle Lovett make a perfect, if unlikely, pair of cops. Even director Sydney Pollack turns up, as Mill’s sleazy studio attorney. Further, Jeremy Piven, Gina Gershon and Dina Merrill all have roles as secondary characters. If you want to people watch, the following folks are scattered in various scenes casually playing themselves: Steve Allen, Rene Auberjonois, Harry Belafonte, Karen Black, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Cher, James Coburn, John Cusack, Peter Falk, Louise Fletcher, Terri Garr, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Elliot Gould, Joel Grey, Angelica Huston, Sally Kellerman, Jack Lemmon, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Martin Mull, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze, Lily Tomlin, Robert Wagner, and Bruce Willis.
Truthfully, The Player doesn’t offer up too much of a story, but what’s there is smart, fun and engrossing. At times, the film feels like a big Hollywood party where big stars dropped in to be seen with other stars in a movie. There’s little doubt everyone had a great time. Whether their roles were large or small, it’s clear all the actors respected Altman and responded to his generosity and directorial style. After all, he got some pretty big names to appear in a movie that had a relatively meager budget of $8 million.
Though a maverick, Altman didn’t bite the hand that fed him. As satire, The Player goes for laughs, rather than attempting to draw blood. The director’s most blatant message may be that it’s possible to get away with murder in Hollywood; It’s a far worse sin to make a movie that tanks at the box office.
The Criterion reissue features a brand new transfer based on a recent 4k scan of the film negative. The results are a noticeable improvement over Warner Bros. 2010 Blu-ray release. Presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this version simply looks more robust. The colors look accurate throughout and the contrast spot on. Flesh tones appear natural and detail is impressive, offering far more depth.
Criterion’s DTS-HD Master 2.0 Audio sounds crisp and offers plenty of depth. Dialogue is clear, and Thomas Newman’s score sound excellent. Ambient noises are represented well when called upon.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Commentary with Robert Altman, Writer Michael Tolkin, and Cinematographer Jean Lepine from 1992: The three participants are recorded separately and edited together to form one commentary track. They come across as a bit dry, and there are some long pauses throughout, but when Robert Altman does talk he is quite interesting with regards to defending some of the plot points in the film. Tolkin and Lepine are featured less frequently, and talk about his original novel and some of the differences between the book and film, as well as how different shots were achieved.
- An Interview with Robert Altman (HD, 21:00) Recorded exclusively for Criterion in December 1992, Altman discuses numerous topics including: the structure of The Player, the use of different elements from other films, how the large number of actors that played themselves were managed in different parts, the casting of Tim Robbins and his terrific performance, the significance of Greta Scacchi’s character, etc.
- Planned Improvisation (HD, 45:53) Filmed exclusively for Criterion in 2016, screenwriter Michael Tolkin, production designer Stephen Altman, associate producer David Levy, and Tim Robbins discuss the novel The Player is based on, Robert Altman’s initial attachment to the project, the visual style of the film, the locations, etc.
- Cannes Press Conference in 1992: (HD, 55:51) Director Robert Altman, Tim Robins, Brion James, Whoopi Goldberg, Dina Merrill, writer Michael Tolkin, and production designer Stephen Altman and others answer questions from the press. This was moderated by Henri Behar.
- Robert Altman’s Players (HD,15:48) A short documentary shot during the filming of the celebrity fund-raising scene.
- Map to the Stars (HD) An interactive map that identifies all the stars that appeared in The Player.
- Six Deleted Scenes/Outtakes (HD, 14:00)
- Opening Shot (HD, 8:11) The opening shot with alternate commentary from Robert Altman or Michael Tolkin and Jean Lepine.
- U.S. Trailer (HD, 2:04)
- Japanese Trailer (HD, 1:58)
- TV Spots (HD. 1:53)
- Leaflet: An illustrated leaflet featuring Sam Wasson’s essay “The Screenplayer.”
Portions of this article first appeared in our review of the 2010 Blu-ray release of The Player.