MASH, standing for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, established Robert Altman as a film director, yet he almost never directed it. The studios never chose him as their first choice; in fact he was number eighteen on the list. The studios wanted a director that could attract huge crowds to the box office and had a list of directors that included Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols and Stanley Kubrick.
When Robert Altman took the job, he constantly struggled with the studio to make it the film he wanted. As a studio, interested solely in making money, Altman’s determination could only come off as annoying and bizarre.
The major annoyance for the studio was Altman refused to have major stars. Altman wanted an ensemble cast with no particular actor or actress standing out. He said he wanted normal looking people instead of the usual Hollywood people. Indeed, due to the large number of unknown actors, the opening credits begin with “Introducing”. Altman then had most of the actors live twenty miles from the from the Fox studio in tents. This created a sense of community among the actors whom were then encouraged to improvise and rewrite their lines.
Today, we view this as a signature of Altman’s film. He used 40 actors in Nashville, 48 in A Wedding, another 40 in Short Cuts, and over 60 in both Prêt-à-Porter and The Player. His ensemble cast allows Altman to deliver multiple narratives that go on in the same space. These narratives can be viewed as discourse or diverging from the main narration.
While, people have accepted Altman’s unique form of telling a story, many people were concerned on the set of MASH at the time. Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland, two principal characters of the movie, complained to the studio of Altman’s direction and asked him to be removed. Screenwriter Ring Lardner proclaimed “You have ruined my picture!” after seeing the outcome of Altman’s encouragement of improvisation for actors. And the producers saw the film as unreleasable due to its weak narrative and failure to mention Korea. Altman had purposely wanted the anti war message to be linked to the war in Vietnam, which the studio opposed.
MASH, eventually, does get released under an X rating. It was the third highest grossing film of the year and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Film, and won the Best Screenplay award.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008