March 18, 2002 12:00 PM

Believe it or not, filmmakers try to avoid having their work slapped with an R rating. By banning (at least in theory) unchaperoned teens, the R automatically stunts its box office potential. But Robert Altman is different from most filmmakers. When he heard that Gosford Park, his 1930s comedy of British manners and murder, had earned an R for its expletives, his reaction could be summed up with a four-letter word: Cool. “I wanted that,” says Altman, relaxing in the living room of his New York City penthouse. “I put the language in to force an R. I didn’t want the film to attract teenagers. I wanted the audience the film was made for.”

Independent, contrary, unwilling to surrender control of his films, Altman, 77, has built a career on aiming to please one critic: himself. Which is why, despite a résumé that includes 36 films (among them classics like M*A*S*H and Nashville) and five Oscar nominations—including a Best Director nod for Gosford Park—Altman rarely works with the Hollywood studio system. Not because he’s some indie-chic poseur: The late New York Times film critic Vincent Canby ranked him “one of America’s most brilliant, most engaging filmmakers” and A-list actors frequently waive their seven-figure fees to work with him. He just won’t be told what to do. “Bob’s the quintessential anti-Establishment director,” says his friend, the thoroughly Establishment director Sydney Pollack. “Hypocrisy is part of our business, and he’s never had the patience for it.”

Nor would major studios have the patience for Altman’s ways. Two-thirds of the way through shooting Gosford outside London last spring, for instance, he revised the plot, making two characters sisters when he noticed over lunch one day that actresses Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins looked alike in costume. “That gave us the film’s last scene, its catharsis,” says Altman. “That’s what can happen when decisions are made without a committee saying ‘no, you can’t.'” Lack of studio funds makes his artistic survival more rain dance than Sundance. “I barely get my films off the ground,” says Altman, who often spends his own money before he secures backing from small studios and film distributors. (Gosford was financed in part with money from a U.K. lottery fund.) “The big studios are looking to protect their investment, not create a work of art.”

That aspiration makes actors among his biggest fans. “I’d rather work with Bob in a flop than a lot of others in a hit,” says Cher, who worked with him on the 1982 Broadway play Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Farrah Fawcett paid for a jet to make it to the Dallas shoot of 2000’s Dr. T and the Women. Altman’s sets are “totally egalitarian,” says Dr. T‘s Richard Gere. “No money. No big trailer.” And no big speeches: The director keeps his instructions to a minimum. “I’m looking for something I’ve never seen, so how can I tell them what to do?” Altman says.

That may be music to the ears of his stars, but former off-camera partners admit Altman can rub folks the wrong way. Elliott Kastner, who produced 1973’s The Long Goodbye, called him “narcissistic” and “utterly contemptuous.” Producer David Brown (The Player) says, “Bob is unfriendly toward visitors from the financial community. He believes they’re his natural enemies.” And he can be withering to those who don’t share his esthetic. He calls action hits “hardware films,” found Pretty Woman “terrible” and Titanic “ridiculous.” In January, with Hollywood stumbling over itself in displays of patriotism, Britain’s Times quoted Altman as saying, “When I see an American flag flying, it’s a joke.” The comment was picked up by radio talk show host Oliver North and hate mail poured into Altman’s office. He says his remark was taken “out of context” (the writer says it wasn’t); Altman says he was referring not to the flag itself but to its post-Sept. 11 ubiquity: “I don’t think it should be put on brassieres.”

Whether his contrary ways will deter Academy voters from granting him an Oscar on March 24 remains to be seen. Does he want to win? “Absolutely,” he says. “An Oscar is power. But if you take these things too seriously, you’re in trouble.”

Spoken like a Hollywood director with heartland roots. Robert Bernard Altman was born on Feb. 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Mo., the first of three children of insurance salesman Bernard Clement “B.C.” Altman and homemaker Helen. B.C., Altman says, “was a terrific father” but often out doing business around town. Altman was coddled by his mom and sisters. The result, he says, is that “I’m comfortable around women. I put a lot of women in my films.”

A fair student at Catholic schools, Altman was thumbing his nose at the Hollywood studios even as a kid. “We’d pull up this manhole cover,” he says, “go three blocks underground and come out in the Plaza Theater basement and sneak in.” After two years at Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., in 1943, the 18-year-old enrolled in the Army Air Corps, piloting 46 bombing runs on B-24s in the Pacific. He was hit once. “The windshield was shot out, we had 200 holes from flak and a guy was hurt,” he says. For six hours Altman guided his plane and 10-man crew to a safe crash landing.

After the war Altman rejoined his family in L.A., where his dad then worked. Encouraged to pursue writing by a cousin who had read his wartime letters, Altman wrote short stories and film outlines. In 1946 the romantic British film Brief Encounter showed him “the emotional possibilities” of celluloid, but when he was unable to get ahead in Hollywood, Altman landed a job in 1948 with a Kansas City firm that made industrial films. “I passed myself off as a film writer,” he says.

He was soon directing as well, making more than 60 such films until the mid-’50s. When his 1955 feature debut, The Delinquents, caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock, Altman was hired to direct TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957. Then 32, he had married twice—in 1947 and 1954—and produced three children: Christine Westphal, now 54 (with first wife LaVonne Elmer, who died a few years ago), and Michael, 47, and Stephen, 45 (with second wife Lotus Corelli, 77). “I wasn’t a reliable husband,” he says. “I was ambitious.”

In 1959 he met single mom Kathryn Reed on the set of TV’s Whirlybirds. She was there because a friend on the show wanted her to meet Altman. “He asked, ‘How are your morals?'” she recalls. “I said, ‘Shaky, how are yours?'” Four months later they eloped to Mexico.

By the mid-’60s Altman had written and directed for some 20 series (Bonanza, Kraft Mystery Theater, Combat), but his brashness got him sacked several times. Hitchcock, for example, quickly axed him when he refused to direct a script. When Kraft rejected his own offbeat dramas he told a trade paper, “their taste in scripts is as bland as their cheese.” Even in debt, says film editor Dan Greene, “Bob turned down jobs if he didn’t like the material.”

Altman’s big break didn’t arrive until 1970’s M*A*S*H, which he was offered only after 14 other directors had passed. In his hands it became a hip antiwar classic that grossed $73 million. But his style so rattled stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, says Altman, that they tried to get him fired. Not so, says Gould, 61, who admits, “Bob’s uninhibited. But we overcame our limits.” (He made three more films with Altman.) The ’70s showed Altman to be prolific, if uneven. His 12 films ranged from artful (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 3 Women) to awful (Quintet, H.E.A.L.T.H.). His 1980 flop Popeye was his last studio effort. Altman spent the ’80s directing plays, living in Europe and making small films. The Player, a 1992 film-business satire, proved an apt comeback.

Since then he has made 10 films, including 1993’s Short Cuts and 1994’s Ready to Wear, with mixed success, but he shows no sign of slowing down. Aging, he says, is like “dogs snappin’ at my ass. I don’t want to get caught.” On location he hosts cast dinners and invites everyone to view that day’s work. “If you can’t go,” says Julianne Moore, “you apologize. Bob’s hurt.” He throws bashes: Bastille Day in Paris, a cruise on the Thames, a July 4th jam by singer-actor Lyle Lovett. All of which are tamer than in years past. Altman’s aging-hippie aura once bore the strong scent of pot. At one party Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon (who appeared in 1985’s O.C. and Stiggs) recalls him as “a whimsical hep cat over in the corner, twinkling.” And possibly drinking. “If I was in my chair and said, ‘Bring me a scotch,'” says Altman, “everyone knew it was the last shot of the day.” And his first. “Bob,” says Kathryn, “was a very hard nighttime drinker.”

By the early ’90s doctors told Altman his vices were killing him. (He had quit smoking cigarettes years before.) Today he sips only wine but won’t say if he still inhales. The Altmans shuttle between Manhattan and a Malibu condo. In the city they see plays, entertain friends and hold court at the restaurant Elaine’s. The L.A. base makes family time easier. Kathryn’s daughter Konni Corriere, 55, and three Altman sons are there. (Michael does his dad’s postproduction; Robert, 42, his son with Kathryn, is his cameraman; Matthew, 35, whom they adopted at 10 weeks, is a prop man.) Christine lives in Missouri, Steve in Paris. There are 11 grand-kids, five great-grandkids. Family has been part of Altman’s ballast on his long, rocky ride. “If he gets down,” says Kathryn, “it’s not for long. He’s elastic.”

And hopeful. “When I finish a film,” says Altman, “I feel it’s as good as any ever made, and that they’ll come beating down my door with wheelbarrows full of gold.” And then? “I’m just shocked when that doesn’t happen.”

A haul of heavy gold on Oscar night would, no doubt, be a fine substitute.

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