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You’re Going After Hollywood?

April 12th, 2009 · 3 Comments

The Player (1992)
Screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel
Directed by Robert Altman
Produced by Avenue Pictures
Running time: 124 minutes

The Player 1992 U.S. poster The Player DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?

Moving through a movie studio lot in a single take, several stories unfold. Executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) listens to a pitch from screenwriter Buck Henry for The Graduate Part 2. The banker who owns the studio has dispatched his playboy son (Randall Batinkoff) to appraise operations, sending nervous ripples across the lot. Security chief Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) chats with Henry on his way out about the greatest single takes of all time (“My old man worked for Hitchcock. Rope was a masterpiece. Story wasn’t that good; shot the whole thing without cuts. I hate all this cut, cut, cut.”) While listening to a pitch from director Alan Rudolph for a political thriller, Griffin receives a threatening postcard in the mail. Development executive Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson) dresses down her assistant (Gina Gershon) for having coffee with Rudolph, while Griffin hovers outside the office of his boss (Brion James) upon hearing rumors that Griffin might be on his way out of a job.

Griffin and Bonnie are a couple, but rather than spend quality time with her, he takes his girlfriend to a power party at the house of his attorney (Sydney Pollack). As Jack Lemmon plays piano and Harry Belafonte is among the movers and shakers, Griffin confides to his attorney that he’s been receiving ominous postcards from “some writer I must have brushed off.” He arrives on a suspect and after snooping outside the home of the writer’s girlfriend, an artist named June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), Griffin tracks down the tempestuous David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) at a theater in Pasadena showing The Bicycle Thief. Griffin offers Kahane a development deal, but the writer displays nothing but contempt for the corporate hatchet man. When a scuffle breaks out in the parking lot, Griffin is overcome with rage and kills Kahane. Before fleeing the scene, he makes it appear as if it was a mugging gone awry.

The Player 1992 Tim Robbins

Walter discovers that Griffin may have been the last person to see Kahane alive and preps the executive for his interview with a wily police detective (Whoopi Goldberg). Her suspicion of Griffin intensifies when her kooky partner (Lyle Lovett) tails him and discovers that he’s romancing Kahane’s icy ex-girlfriend. But without motive, evidence or a reliable witness, the detectives are unable to tie him to the murder. Griffin is much more concerned that a young executive named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) is after his job. Hatching a Machiavellian scheme, Griffin pursues a death row tearjerker titled Habeas Corpus from a hack director (Richard E. Grant) and pestering producer (Dean Stockwell). Their insistence on “no stars, just talent” and a realistic ending convinces Griffin that the movie will be a colossal disaster and backfire on Levy, enabling the player to rescue the studio.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Michael Tolkin had show business in his blood. His father was an Emmy Award winning writer for Your Show of Shows, while his mother was senior VP of legal affairs at Paramount. Tolkin struggled as a writer, starting with Delta House – the short-lived TV spin-off of Animal House – in 1979. It took a decade for him to get credit on a feature, the Christian Slater skateboarding flick Gleaming the Cube. Tolkin recalled, “I must have been in a couple of meetings when I was looking at producers or the executives of producers and I saw how bored they were with me. And I realized that they had hard jobs; that they had to listen to a lot of bad ideas. I wasn’t happy in there and I was uncomfortable and I think that they could see that and I wasn’t helping them. And they were desperate for good ideas, because they couldn’t advance if they didn’t have them. I was listening to all of us complain. And I thought we were complaining just because we were frustrated. And we weren’t necessarily right; maybe our ideas weren’t as good as we thought they were. And somehow in that, this idea began to take hold.”

The Player 1992

A motion picture executive whose morals – or lack thereof – empower him to murder a screenwriter became the basis of a novel Tolkin started writing in 1984. “When I finished the book, I sold it to Atlantic Monthly Press, and then an editor at a magazine called Manhattan Inc took the book and went through the manuscript and took out the whole Larry Levy story, and put just a little bit of editing and a little pasting, put together the Larry Levy story as a short story and published it in Manhattan Inc. Ned Chase – who was a book editor and is Chevy Chase’s father – read that and was interested in who I was, he liked the writing. And somehow, talked about this to David Brown, the great producer, and one day, my agent told me David Brown had called and wanted to talk to me about buying the novel.”

David Brown – producer of Jaws, The Verdict and Cocoon – recalled, “I have been an avid magazine reader ever since I began as a magazine editor. There was a magazine I was reading called Manhattan Inc and inside there was a little story called The Player, which was an excerpt from a novella. I read it and felt that the author, Michael Tolkin, really knew what he was talking about in relation to Hollywood. I had read many stories, spent decades in Hollywood and felt that this was the real stuff. Unfortunately, I felt it was impossible to make because of all the internal monologue of the characters. I hadn’t given it any further thought until I had lunch with a publisher at Time Books who said, ‘We are publishing a little book that might interest you called The Player.’” Brown read the book and still didn’t think it would translate into a movie. No one else in Hollywood did either, which enabled Brown to option the film rights for a pittance of $2,500.

The Player 1992 Cynthia Stevenson Tim Robbins

David Brown brought Michael Tolkin on board The Player as a producer and commissioned him to adapt his novel to a screenplay. Tolkin recalled, “To my surprise it only took about six or eight weeks to write the script, which was in the fall of – I guess – probably by now we’re probably talking about 1989. And then I finished the script, with David’s notes, back and forth, after about three months I think we were really done and then the script went out into the world. And David tried to set it up.” Brown recalled, “Tolkin and I had a series of humiliating meets at studios with people one-third my age. They said, ‘We don’t do stories about Hollywood. You’ve got a totally unsympathetic character here, a man who gets away with murder.’ I said, ‘Doesn’t everyone?’” Sidney Lumet spent several weeks attached as director, but wanted more money – for the budget and his salary – than Brown could afford.

Around the time that producer Cary Brokaw and Avenue Pictures stepped up to finance The Player, director Robert Altman signed with the William Morris Agency, which also represented Michael Tolkin. The acclaimed director of M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville had gone sixteen years between hits and had hit a brick wall trying to get a personal project off the ground. Altman recalled, “I’d written Short Cuts, based on Raymond Carver short stories, and I was trying to get that picture financed. That’s what I was really working on; I just couldn’t quite get the financing to make the film. The Player was offered to me as a picture they were gonna make. I was a director for hire. I needed the job. I saw it as an easy shoot and I kind of liked the idea of it, so I did it.”

The Player 1992 European poster

Brokaw had mixed feelings about Altman. “I had known Bob when I was a marketing guy at Fox and he was tough to deal with. He was brash. When things didn’t go well, it was inevitably our fault. He always had the studio earmarked as the enemy and, from the corporate, conventional Hollywood point of view, Bob was a kind of loose cannon.” Altman stated, “All this thing about me being outside of Hollywood is simply, the truth of the matter is, I can’t make the kind of movies they wanna make, and the kind of movies I can make and like to make and make are not the kind of films that they know how to distribute. So we just basically aren’t in the same business. There’s no point in calling me to make a pair of gloves for you when I make shoes.” Brokaw added, “We talked very openly about how we would work together. We talked about how this was a structured thriller at heart. My concerns were overcome. This is, after all, a movie that Bob was born to direct. He’s a very charismatic guy who, once he began casting, got just about everyone he wanted.”

Within a month, Tim Robbins agreed to star and in June 1991, shooting commenced in Los Angeles on a budget of $8 million. Altman felt that instead of fabricating celebrities, it would be more realistic to populate The Player with the real deal. “I began calling movie stars. Calling and saying, ‘I’m doing a film about a movie executive who murders a writer and gets away with it.’ They laughed when I said it was a happy ending. They said, ‘You’re going after Hollywood?’ and I said, ‘No, but I’m certainly going to give Hollywood the opportunity to go after itself.’ They said, ‘I’m in.’” To play the couple in the climactic movie-within-a-movie, Altman contacted Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis. To his surprise, without asking to read a script, both said yes. At least 64 more celebrities joined the production. Some – like Cher – appeared only as faces in the party scenes, while others – Angelica Huston & John Cusack, Andie MacDowell, Lily Tomlin & Scott Glenn, Burt Reynolds – had speaking parts, which they were left free to improvise. Each received scale wage for a day’s work and donated their salary to the Motion Picture Home.

The Player 1992 Cher Tim Robbins Greta Scacchi

When The Player began screening for distributors in the winter of 1992, it became the talk of Hollywood. David Brown kidded to Newsweek that Barry Diller – then chairman of Fox – laughed so hard that Brown thought he might go into cardiac arrest. Universal’s chairman Tom Pollock was equally boisterous. Studio executives pleaded with Altman to run the film for them at their homes. The director flatly refused, but was tickled by the reaction in the executive suites. “The fact that we came out and said it, it’s like the fool in the court of the king; you can get away with real criticism. And of course it gives them a chance to talk about themselves, their favorite topic.” The only row Altman got into was with Mark Canton – chairman of Columbia Pictures – when the executive reportedly asked a projectionist to skip to the last reel. All but two of the major studios put in a bid to distribute The Player. Fine Line – the specialty division of New Line Cinema – won out.

Opening April 1992 in the U.S., The Player drew some of the best critical notices of Altman’s career. Vincent Canby, the New York Times: “As a satire, The Player tickles. It doesn’t draw blood. It says nothing about Hollywood that Hollywood insiders don’t say with far more venom in their hearts. Mr. Altman’s most subversive message here is not that it’s possible to get away with murder in Hollywood, but that the most grievous sin, in Hollywood terms anyway, is to make a film that flops.” Steve Davis, Austin Chronicle: “From its brilliant and sublime opening sequence to its self-reflexive ending, The Player distills everything that’s wrong with the American film industry with the precision of someone who’s been there.” Variety: “Mercilessly satiric yet good-natured, this enormously entertaining slam dunk quite possibly is the most resonant Hollywood saga since the days of Sunset Blvd. and The Bad and the Beautiful.”

The Player 1992 Tim Robbins Greta Scacchi

Five years later, Michael Tolkin mused, “When I wrote The Player, I had absolutely no intention of selling it as a movie. I thought the book was too internal and that since the whole novel really takes place in Griffin Mill’s head, and since it’s about a killer who gets away with murder, I didn’t expect it to sell to the movies and I didn’t intend to sell it to the movies. Everybody said that Hollywood was too tough a topic and that like baseball that was just one of these things that you’re not supposed to make a movie about because nobody wants to see it.” The industry praise culminated in three Academy Award nominations: Best Director (Robert Altman), Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Tolkin) and Best Editing (Geraldine Peroni). Though The Player enabled Altman to direct nine more features – including Short Cuts – before his death in 2006, audiences steered clear of the movie, buying only $21.7 million in tickets at the U.S. box office.

While Robert Altman maintained that Hollywood had given him more than his fair share of breaks, no love was lost between the director and the Griffin Mills of the world. “The Player is my take on a lot of things, but Hollywood, what is Hollywood, anyway? A guy like Paul Newman starts a company, makes $54 million in profits last year, and it all goes into a charity; you don’t hear a lot about that. A guy like Steve Ross makes $63 million a year, a guy like Michael Eisner, Lee Iacocca, Barry Diller, these guys don’t feed that money back. They gather as much as they can, and the profits don’t have any real meaning. They can’t spend that money. All they’ve got, they can say on their record they have the most chips in front of them when they die.” Altman added, “Hollywood doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t exist anymore. My film, nobody’s even upset about it. One guy, Mark Canton, is the only one who got pissed off, because he’s a fool. Most of these guys, they’re sitting there doing a job, they’re making money – they don’t even have a sense of shame.”

The Player 1992 Tim Robbins Dina Merrill

Why Should I Care?

The TV pilot it inspired in 1997 – starring Patrick Dempsey as a moodier Griffin Mill and Jennifer Garner as his boss’s daughter – may have been too dry for ABC to pick up, but over on HBO, The Larry Sanders Show, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm all gleefully ran with the conceit of celebrities spoofing themselves and Hollywood with terrific success. The Player is nowhere near as barbed or as funny as any of those sitcoms proved to be, and they also seem to have a lot more conviction than Robert Altman’s cool take on Michael Tolkin’s droll source material. What neither director or writer manage to do is get a handle on Greta Scacchi’s character, who comes off as vaguely superficial with little or nothing to add to the story. Equally flat is director of photography Jean Lepine’s smudgy lighting, an unfortunate reminder of how poorly funded this movie actually was.

Even if The Player doesn’t stand up all that well, it still has to be respected as a statement, as a reminder of what movies can achieve both in technical craftsmanship and moral resonance. The masterful opening tracking shot – which at 8 minutes 5 seconds is one of the longest in film history – is a small work of art, while the movie-within-a-movie that climaxes the film is as clever as Griffin Mill’s curtain call. Altman gets excellent mileage from his cast, with Tim Robbins, Dean Stockwell and Richard E. Grant virtually disappearing amid the silly power brokers they portray. The novelty of the celebrity cameos tilts disproportionately in favor of faces from the ‘70s, and also seem passé when viewed today, but in 1992, The Player was terrifically innovative. Its strike against an economic system that places corporate profit above personal decency still has bite.

© Joe Valdez

The Player 1992 Tim Robbins Richard E. Grant Dean Stockwell

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Hollywood Is Talking” By Jack Kroll, David Ansen and John Leland. Newsweek, 2 March 1992

“When Hollywood Is a Killer” By Bernard Weintraub. The New York Times, 1992 April 5

The Player (Special Edition). New Line Home Video (1997)

Robert Altman: Interviews. Edited by Davd Sterritt. University Press of Mississippi (2000)

Movie Moguls Speak: Interviews with Top Film Producers. By Steven Priggé. McFarland (2004)

Tags: Based on novel · Bathtub scene · Black comedy · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Paranoia

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Apr 13, 2009 at 10:04 am

    THE PLAYER had one of the greatest laserdiscs of the laserdisc era. It was by Criterion, and had a feature with a group of screenwriters, talking about their experiences in Hollywood. As funny as anything in the film.

    I’m not surprised to read it doesn’t hold up too well. While I watched it many times in the 90’s, I’ve yet to see it since DVD was created.

  • 2 J.D. // Apr 13, 2009 at 11:07 am

    I think that THE PLAYER holds up quite well after all these years. It certainly is one of Altman’s more playful films but the targets that it goes after and things it is trying to say are still valid.

    That being said, it is not an Altman film that I watch all that frequently so, go figure.

    At any rate, this was a really wonderful write-up, loads of fascinating production info and I enjoyed how you also provided the critical reaction to it at the time. Great stuff.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Apr 13, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Jim: I wish I had that laserdisc. Your comment reminds why it’s never a good idea to throw out your laserdisc, VHS or Beta tapes. While New Line’s 1997 DVD of The Player has a suitable audio commentary with Tolkin and Altman, I would have liked to have seen the screenwriter round robin. Thanks for commenting.

    J.D.: The statement The Player makes against the executive suite is more valid than ever. I just don’t think the actual movie holds up as well as some of Altman’s better stuff, like M*A*S*H or Short Cuts. While I can accept that Michael Tolkin has never really been funny, ever, in his work, I found the movie a bit tedious to sit through recently. As always, I appreciate your insight.

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