Robert Altman made quite a few movies that could qualify as masterpieces (and a few duds, like everyone does), and this is one of the best of them. There have been quite a few movies made about Hollywood and the movie business, too, most of them at least a little satirical, and I can’t think of any one of them that was as good as this one.
The plot: Someone is sending death threats on postcards to Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a studio exec. He tracks the man (Vincent D’Onofrio) down, and he turns out to be a writer who pitched an idea to Mill six months ago, and who Mill promised to get back to. Mill confronts him, and there is a fight in which Mill kills the writer. The rest of the film concerns his efforts not to get charged with the murder.
All that is fun, but the real delight here is the picture of the movie business itself, going on in the background. The main cast is really star-studded, and there are twelve movie stars who appear briefly, playing themselves. And that’s just the ones who have lines to speak. There were a total of sixty-five celebrities whose faces we see briefly. It became a fun game for me, like one of those drawings for children: “Can you spot twelve monkey hiding in this picture?”
The film goes out of its way to remind you that it is a movie, and I love that, too. The opening shot, which runs seven minutes and forty-seven seconds without a cut, is terrific, and is made even better with Fred Ward and Buck Henry (as himself) walking in and out of the shot discussing famous long tracking shots in the movies, like the one by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. During the shot the camera moves in and out of Mill’s office, where writers are making pitches. One of them is Buck Henry, who of course wrote The Graduate, trying to sell The Graduate, Part 2. “It’s twenty-five years later. Ben and Elaine are married and living with Mrs. Robinson, who has had a stroke.” I broke up laughing. (To my horror, Rob Reiner did make a sort-of sequel, forty years later: Rumor Has It. It stunk.)
SPOILER WARNING: I’ll reveal major plot points here, so if you haven’t seen it, you’d better stop.
One of the sub-threads concerns Dean Stockwell and Richard E. Grant trying to sell an idea to Mill. It’s a film to be called Habeas Corpus, and will be about a woman wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to the gas chamber. The D.A. in the case was deeply in love with the woman, but did his duty. Then it turns out she was innocent! He races to San Quentin … but it’s too late. She’s already been gassed. “It’s real! No stars, no Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.” Mill thinks this is such a terrible idea that he allows his rival at the studio to “steal” it from him, figuring it will sink the man’s career. So at the end we see a screening of the end of the movie … and who should it be getting the last rites from the priest (Ray Walston, and I almost didn’t spot him) but Julia Roberts? And when the gas envelops her, who comes bursting in at the last minute to blow out the glass with a shotgun and carry her away? None other than Bruce Willis! And the writers are fine with it. The original ending tested real shitty in Canoga Park.
Then at the end, a witness fails to identify Mill in a line-up. (She “swears on her mother’s grave” that she has the right one, after picking out Lyle Lovett, a detective. Whoopi Goldberg, as the other detective, turns to her and says “Where the fuck is your mother buried?”) A year later, he is driving home in the new Rolls he has traded his Range Rover in for. Someone is pitching an idea to him over the phone. The story sounds familiar, something about a movie executive murdering a writer and getting away clean. “What’s the title?” he asks. “The Player.” “Sounds good. Let’s green-light it.” And he pulls up at home and hugs his pregnant wife June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) who used to be the dead writer’s girlfriend. Who says nice guys never win?