Released 20 years ago this week , "The Player" seemed at the time like one of the most merciless lampoons of Hollywood ever made, but director Robert Altman liked to insist that it was "a very mild satire." He meant that it could have been even meaner if he'd made it more realistic.
Altman was working from Michael Tolkin's screenplay, adapted from Tolkin's own novel, but the observations it made about the movie industry's contempt for art and artists were clearly informed by Altman's own decades of frustration as a creative filmmaker with a singular, idiosyncratic vision who repeatedly clashed with executives interested only in profit. Judging by how many Hollywood A-listers he got to do free cameos in the movie -- about five dozen of them -- a lot of the industry's top talent must have felt as he did. So did critics and audiences, who helped make the movie one of the biggest hits of Altman's lengthy career.
You'd think Hollywood would have learned from "The Player" some chastening lessons about the way it does business. Unfortunately, the lessons it learned were all the wrong ones. Instead of taking the movie as a cautionary tale, Hollywood saw "The Player" as a how-to. The practices the movie spoofed most savagely are the ones it has lived by most faithfully over the past two decades. For instance:
Everything should be reducible to a high-concept pitch. Especially during the opening segment, where Altman and Tolkin have a lot of fun crafting imaginary movie pitches that fit the "high-concept" formula: that is, movie ideas that can be explained in 25 words or less, usually with reference to other familiar movies. It's "Ghost" meets "The Manchurian Candidate." It's "The Gods Must Be Crazy," but with a television actress instead of a Coke bottle.
Of course, this approach doesn't allow for much in the way of originality or dramatic complexity, but then, it's not supposed to. Rather, it's supposed to lead to movies that will be easily marketable, especially overseas, where that kind of conceptual shorthand can overcome the language barrier. Simplicity and familiarity are much easier to put on a poster than complexity and originality. Today, even more than 20 years ago, this is the sort of picture Hollywood likes; in the years since "The Player," Hollywood has almost completely gotten out of the business of making serious dramas, character studies, or non-franchise movies made from properties viewers don't recognize right away.
A movie needs a big box-office star to succeed. A running joke in "The Player" has Bruce Willis proposed as the male lead for every film and Julia Roberts proposed as the female lead for every movie. It's assumed that a) these actors are suitable for any lead role and b) that the movie will fail without someone of that stature as a box-office draw. These assumptions are so ingrained that, when "Player" protagonist Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) hears a pitch for a downbeat, star-free movie about capital punishment, he buys it only to sabotage his rival, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), on whom he'll blame the movie's inevitable failure. Of course, by the end of "The Player," the movie has been turned into a formulaic piece of Hollywood hackwork, starring Willis and Roberts (gently sending themselves up).
Today, the insistence on casting stars persists. If studio chiefs could cast Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, or Will Smith in every movie, they would. It's only in recent years, as once-dependable stars like Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford, and yes, Willis and Roberts have faltered with ticketbuyers, that studios have begun to realize that no actor can guarantee a big opening weekend. After all, in modern franchise movies, the concept is the star. No one really cares who stars in "The Avengers" or "The Hunger Games," they just want to see familiar characters in action. Which leads us to the next lesson...
Talent is expendable. At a studio meeting, Mill muses on how much easier it would be for producers if writers, actors, and directors could be eliminated from the process. (This after he has literally eliminated a troublesome screenwriter, killing him in a fit of pique.) Levy goes on to demonstrate how easy it would be to eliminate writers by crafting several high-concept pitches from articles picked at random from the newspaper. In Mill and Levy's world, where formula is king, the writer really is superfluous. We haven't yet reached the stage where actors and directors are superfluous, too, though CGI movies like "Avatar," with their digitally-generated characters, have a lot of actors worried that they'll be cut out of the loop next. Directors, too, have become unnecessary, with visionary artists replaced by technocratic managers and project delegators. Sure, it may have taken a skilled craftsperson like Gary Ross or Catherine Hardwicke to cast, design, and launch a franchise like "The Hunger Games" or "Twilight," but after the first movie, the franchise reins might be passed on to any competent filmmaker.
ABC -- Always Be Cutting. "The Player" famously opens with a tracking shot that lasts for eight minutes without a cut and which includes references to the similarly lengthy shot that brilliantly opens Orson Welles' classic "Touch of Evil." The shot, which introduces most of the major characters and thematic concerns of "The Player," offers a reminder that audiences can stretch their attention spans and assimilate a lot of complicated information if the filmmaker trusts them to follow along. It's also a rebuke to what was then becoming common, the short-attention-span quick-cut editing made popular during the '80s by MTV music videos, TV commercials, and the directors who had graduated from those formats to the big screen.
Aside from a handful of Altman emulators, however (notably, Paul Thomas Anderson, who began "Boogie Nights" with a similar tracking shot that was an apparent homage to "The Player"), Hollywood directors have largely continued to use rapid-fire editing, which creates suspense and excitement, but often at the expense of coherence and logic. Anyone who's seen an action movie recently and wondered who was fighting whom in what space knows that longer takes would be a welcome luxury.
Anything made once can be remade. There are a number of jokes in "The Player" about Hollywood's hunger for sequels and remakes, even to movies that don't need them, like "The Graduate" (whose sequel is pitched in "The Player" by Buck Henry, who wrote the original's screenplay) or "The Bicycle Thief" (which Griffith facetiously suggests remaking). Here, real life has overtaken Altman's satire. A sequel to "The Graduate" (the novel) has been written; a movie seems inevitable. And 2011 saw the release of "A Better Life," an Americanized remake of "Bicycle Thief," transported from postwar Rome to present-day Los Angeles, with a pickup truck as the stolen vehicle. (The movie wasn't a big hit, but it did earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Demian Bichir.) Clearly, Hollywood finds it easier to market a known product, no matter how obscure, than a completely original one.
Characters must be likable. It's hard to imagine more unlikable leads than amoral killer Griffin Mill and June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) -- the dead screenwriter's girlfriend, who falls in love with Griffin and doesn't seem to mind that her old boyfriend was murdered, or that her new boyfriend is the culprit. But Altman places them at the center of the movie and twists viewer sympathy so that you root for Griffin to get away with murder and win the girl. Today, a movie hero can be somewhat amoral but still has to be sympathetic and more blatantly good than the villain; this is true even if the hero is a pirate or a vampire. Hollywood likes its heroes (and its occasional heroine) to be a little bit badass but with, over all, no more moral ambiguity than was permissible in the movies of the 1950s.
Endings must be happy. That's been a Hollywood imperative for a century. "The Player" tweaks it, ridiculing the makers of the capital punishment drama for selling out and letting Bruce Willis rescue Julia Roberts from the gas chamber at the last minute. But then "The Player" itself ends the same way, with the same throwaway joke Willis utters ("Traffic was a bitch"), and with Griffiin and a pregnant June living happily ever after. Earlier, Mill observes that the formula for a successful movie should include "suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart. Nudity, sex. Happy Endings." "The Player" delivers all of these elements, but with a bitter, ironic twist.
Today, Mill's formula still holds, though with less nudity and sex; studios in pursuit of a PG-13 are more prudish now, and sex just tends to slow down the narrative in an action movie. But the happy ending is still key; let the viewers leave the theater on an upbeat note, and they'll recommend the movie to their friends. That hasn't changed since "The Player," and it probably never will.