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Come next year, when I am trying to devise a list of the best films of the
90's, Robert Altman's "The Player" will be near the top of my list. This
film skillfully creates a central plot around Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins)
(who hears about 125 movie pitches per day), a studio executive who is being
threatened by a writer whose script or idea he likely brushed off. But what
is even more brilliant about "The Player" is everything going on
peripherally to the main plot; all the references to studio techniques of
film-making, foreign film movements, homages and Old Hollywood vs. New
Hollywood. The film is multi-layered, yet everything that we view falls
neatly into the formula which Hollywood film-making survives by. What we see
in the duration of "The Player" would potentially make a perfect pitch for a
movie. This may sound confusing, but watch the entire film, and you will
immediately know what I mean.
The film begins with a stunning homage to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope", an approximately eight minute long take where the camera moves freely around a studio encountering many people in the midst of their everyday routines. For example, we come across a couple discussing how Hollywood film is now much like MTV "cut, cut, cut". One of the characters even uses the example of "Rope" to illustrate his point. "Rope" is approximately a ninety minute film that appears to have been shot all in one take. Of course, it wasn't done in one take, as reels of film at that time were only ten minutes long. If one watches the film very closely, it can be determined where the cuts are made.
In the duration of the same take, we encounter Griffin Mill conducting business in his office. People walk into his office pitching movie ideas. It is here that we begin to learn about populist Hollywood film-making. Ideas, not stories or scripts are pitched to executives "in 25 words or less". Almost always, the ideas thrown out are based on previous films (e.g. "someone always gets killed at the end of a political thriller") and even combinations of previous films (e.g. "It's Pretty Woman meets Out of Africa"). When we see the usual films that are released into theaters each week, it is not difficult to believe that this is the way in which they are conceived. The usual Hollywood formula entails sex, violence, familiarity and most important of all "happy endings, a movie always has to have a happy ending".
"The Player" is filled with loads of Hollywood stars, most of them playing themselves. Jeff Goldblum, Malcolm McDowell, John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Burt Reynolds to name a few. Many of them are encountered at restaurants during lunch and at night time Hollywood gatherings, where the topic of conversation is always movies. Near the beginning of the film, Griffin suggests that he and his lunch guests talk about something else. "We're all educated adults". Of course no one says anything. Their lives are so indoctrinated by Hollywood, they do not know what else to talk about.
Right from the beginning Griffin receives numerous postcards threatening his life. He begins to suspect a certain writer and goes to his house one night to confront him. The man turns out not to be home, but there is an incredible scene where Griffin talks with the man's girlfriend on the phone while voyeuristically watching her through the window. This is an extraordinary symbolization of the voyeuristic essence that goes along with watching a film, or the notion of scopophilia to be precise. The idea behind the concept of scopophilia is that the cinema constructs the spectator as a subject; the beholder of the gaze, who has an intense desire to look. The cinema places viewers in a voyeuristic position in that the viewer watches the film unseen in a dark room. While Griffin is watching the girl as he speaks with her, it is night time and he remains unseen to her. This scenario metaphorically represents the theater and the film.
In the duration of Griffin's conversation on the phone, he finds out that the man he is looking for is watching "The Bicycle Thief" in an art-house theater in Pasadena. This film in itself represents the first contrast to Hollywood that we see in "The Player". Vittorio DeSica's "The Bicycle Thief" was part of a movement that lasted from 1942 to 1952 called Italian Neo-Realism", whose other main exponents were Rossellini and Visconti. Rossellini called neo-realism both a moral and an aesthetic cinema. Neo-realism, to a great extent owes much of its existence to film-makers' displeasure at the restrictions placed on freedom of expression. This film movement is quite different from the modern Hollywood formula of film-making. When Griffin first meets the man he suspects is sending the postcards, he suggests that perhaps they could do a remake of "The Bicycle Thief". The man responds with "yeah sure, you'd probably want to give it a happy ending".
Also interesting in "The Player" is one of the studio executives suggestions to newspapers as a source for script ideas. This serves to contrast Old Hollywood versus New Hollywood. In the older days of studio film, Warner Brothers (one of the studio's of middle-class America) would produce films with ideas seemingly drawn from real life or from the headlines of major newspapers. This gives us the sense that often Hollywood is stuck for original ideas, so ideas from the past re-circulate themselves.
I have touched on only a few of the many interesting references that run peripherally to the main plot of "The Player". The great thing is that even if you do not catch all the film references that I have been discussing, it is still enjoyable. When I first saw the film, I was really young and did not know much about movies, but yet I enjoyed it thoroughly. Now, it is one of my favorites. I definitely recommend it to anyone who has a keen interest in film.
**** out of ****
Griffin Mill is a young hotshot producer who everyone bows and scrapes to
because he has the powers to get a movie made. However he starts getting
bugged by a dissatisfied writer which leads to all kinds of deadly
Just when I thought Altman had gone totally off-the-boil he suddenly jumps back with his most perfectly realised film. While hardly unapplauded on its release (and in short retrospect) this is a movie that will be regarded by future generations as a classic. It is so smart, sassy, funny and has a beginning, a middle and an end. The kind of tragicomedy that gets the best of both worlds.
Robbins is perfect as the lead. He doesn't do much or emote much. As Robert De Niro once said "most people don't show their emotions, they hide them." Occasionally we get behind the shield of human indifference, but only occasionally. We don't like him much - nor should we - but he is not so bad that we can't bare him. Indeed he is merely someone whose selfish world gets out of control. Whoopie Goldberg makes the most of her unlikely casting too.
The appearance of stars in guest parts adds a bit of icing, but that is all. I loved Altman's directions to the stars who had to play walk-ons (who else could have got that?) "remember, you are responsible for who you are on screen. You are playing yourselves!"
The sexy Scacchi plays the love interest with great skill. While just a muse she is a far better actress than most and this shows in her short screen time. Shame she hasn't more involvement in the main plot.
Like breaking a car down in to its competent parts, taking The Player apart only leaves an ugly mess of oil and metal. Together it drives a tight little film that has insight, drama and comedy. I would hesitate to call this a masterpiece, but it is a mini-masterpiece that however farfetched never reaches the point of being totally unbelievable.
The pay off at the end is one of the best belly-laughs any film buff could ever get. I doubt I will see a better film about modern day Hollywood in my lifetime. Like Pulp Fiction, a film that is as enjoyable the second time of viewing as the first.
"Players only love you when they're playing." --Stevie Nicks
Griffin Mill, whose name has a kind of ersatz Hollywood feel to it (cf., D. W. Griffith/Cecil B. De Mille), is not a player with hearts so much as a player with dreams. He is a young and powerful film exec who hears thousands of movie pitches a year, but can only buy twelve. So he must do a lot of dissembling, not to mention outright lying, along with saying "We'll get back to you," etc. This is what he especially must say to writers. And sometimes they hold a grudge. In this case one of the rejected writers begins to stalk Griffin Mill and send him threatening postcards. And so the plot begins.
Tim Robbins, in a creative tour de force, plays Griffin Mill with such a delightful, ironic charm that we cannot help but identify with him even as he violates several layers of human trust. The script by Michael Tolkin smoothly combines the best elements of a thriller with a kind of Terry Southern satirical intent that keeps us totally engrossed throughout. The direction by Robert Altman is full of inside Hollywood jokes and remembrances, including cameos by dozens of Hollywood stars, some of whom get to say nasty things about producers. The scenes are well-planned and then infused with witty asides. The tampon scene at police headquarters with Whoopi Goldberg is an hilarious case in point, while the sequence of scenes from Greta Scacchi's character's house to the manslaughter scene outside the Pasadena Rialto, is wonderfully conceived and nicely cut. Also memorable is the all black and white dress dinner scene in which Cher is the only person in red, a kind of mean or silly joke, depending on your perspective. During the same scene Mill gives a little speech in which he avers that "movies are art," a statement that amounts to sardonic irony since, as a greedy producer, he cares nothing at all about art, but only about box office success. His words also form a kind of dramatic irony when one realizes that this movie itself really is a work of art. As Altman observes in a trailing clip, the movie "becomes itself." The Machiavellian ending illustrates this with an almost miraculous dovetailing. This is the kind of script that turns most screen writers Kermit-green with envy.
Incidentally, Joe Gillis, the Hollywood writer played by William Holden in Sunset Boulevard--personifying all unsuccessful screen writers--actually does call during the movie, but Mill doesn't recognize the name and has to be told he is being put on, further revealing the narrow confines of his character.
In short, this is a wonderfully clever, diabolically cynical satire of Hollywood and the movie industry. This is one of those movies that, if you care anything at all about film, you must see. Period. It is especially delicious if you hate Hollywood. It is also one of the best movies ever made about Hollywood, to be ranked up there with A Star is Born (1937) (Janet Gaynor, Fredric March); Sunset Boulevard (1950); A Star is Born (1954) (Judy Garland, James Mason); and Postcards from the Edge (1990).
I must add that in the annals of film, this has to go down as one of the best Hollywood movies not to win a single Academy Award, although it was nominated for three: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. I suspect the Academy felt that the satire hit a little too close to home for comfort.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
During Robert Altman's "The Player" the criteria for a good Hollywood
movie are established by the lead character: "Suspense, laughter,
violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, and happy endings, mainly happy
endings". If you look close enough you'll find all of them in the film,
as well as some in the film within this one. "The Player" is a
scathing, smart, and funny attack on the Hollywood studio system and
doubtless one that will be enjoyed more by those who have prior
knowledge of the studio system, or are simply just movie fans. This
film is packed with cameos, specific references to film history and
only a truly dedicated movie fan could catch all of them.
The film opens with an eight minute long continuous shot which follows the lives and discussions of several executives and other personnel at a movie studio. This shot establishes several important characters as well as the cynical tone of the film (we hear a pitch for "The Graduate 2" set 25 years after the original among other ridiculous discussions). It also pays tribute to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, even mentioning Welles' "Touch of Evil" and its similar opening shot as well as Hitchcock's "Rope". Soon we meet Griffin Mill, a studio executive whose job is basically to hear pitches and either approve them or turn them down. His job isn't to pick the good movies, it's to pick the moneymakers (later in the film a character talks about "The Bicycle Thief", a product of Italian Neo-Realism and says: "that's an art film, it doesn't qualify. We're talking about movie movies"). One of the writers Mill turned down starts to send him threatening postcards and he assumes this person is David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio), so he tracks him down and semi-accidentally kills him, leading to a rather typical police investigation into the matter. Mill begins a romance with Kahane's widow, further adding to the convoluted Hollywood thriller plot.
In a wonderfully funny subplot Mill approves a pitch for a bleak, dark drama in which an innocent woman is sent to the gas chamber. The pitch is for the film not to include a happy ending and also 'no stars, only talent'. The subplot is developed alongside the main plot and used mainly for pure comic relief (nothing in "The Player" is serious drama, but the main plot is played straight and is mainly satiric in its ridiculousness, mostly avoiding big laughs in favor of more subtle humor). Over the course of the film the criteria for a good Hollywood film are all met. There's suspense (suspense in the Hollywood sense), laughter, violence, hope and heart (we manage to feel supportive of Griffin Mill even though he's mostly heartless and cruel), some nudity thrown in for good measure, and even an utterly idiotic sex scene which of course has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot. The brilliant double-ending is played for laughs and remains one of the best I've ever seen.
The screenplay by Michael Tolkin (who also wrote the book) is pitch-perfect in its balance, it manages to be satiric without descending to farce and scathing while remaining good-natured. The acting is excellent all around, particularly from Tim Robbins, who is perfectly capable of a strong performance (see Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River"), but plays his role here like any bland lead in a Hollywood thriller. He doesn't even bother emoting for the majority of the film, which only makes the satire stronger.
With "The Player" Robert Altman returns to form and makes a worthy addition to his impressive filmography (which includes films like "Nashville", "Gosford Park" and "MASH"). The film is funny both in a traditional manner and also in a dark, satirical manner. By including all of the elements of typical Hollywood in his film Altman has crafted a crowd-pleaser as well as a tribute to film and film fans everywhere. One of precious few films that are truly perfect.
Robert Altman gets under my skin. His films are worthy of great
respect, yet they are frequently as irritating as they are brilliant.
The Player is, as much as Short Cuts, a quintessential Altman film. It
is also one of the best roles Tim Robbins has ever enjoyed.
This film is about Hollywood's dark underbelly. The Player eviscerates its subject by twisting justice, political gamesmanship and artistic integrity into new configurations. For non-film-buffs or non-professionals some of the humor may seem too subtle to notice. To film buffs and insiders, the humor is totally over the top.
Robbins plays a young studio exec who is playing the game to win and seems, at least part of the time, to have a conscience. Everything is going along fine for him until he starts receiving threatening calls and letters from a writer whose screenplays he has rejected, and an arch-rival is promoted to a position just above his own. Paranoia and real danger seem in the periphery of every scene in his life, as the make-believe of his industry and the reality of his life begin to blend freely.
Robbins makes a character who could easily have been totally unlikeable somehow sympathetic. Despite his amazing performance, liking the character makes you feel as if you should go stand in a shower and exfoliate for an hour or so. He is supported by excellent supporting work all around. Especially good are the two major women's roles - played by Greta Scachi and Bonnie Sherrow, and veteran camp character Dean Stockwell.
The photography is liberally and amusingly lifted from several classic thrillers, mysteries and dramas, and comes off fresh and original - not at all like a DePalmaesque bit of visual plagiarism. And the pace is brisk.
The Player is probably my favorite Altman film, and it is easily my favorite Tim Robbins film. It's entertaining, intelligent and, well, it has a bad attitude. See it some night when you're angry and you need a good dark laugh.
I just went back and watched this again after many years and still find it one of the best movies ever made about movies. This "movie within a movie" has it all. Suspense, drama, comedy, great and numerous cameos, and some "inside Hollywood" jokes. One highlight is at the start where the actors are describing the best long opening tracking shots of all time while Robert Altman skillfully is showing you one at the same time! The Burt Reynolds cameo is very funny, sounds unscripted, and is one of many brilliant uses of this device. Favorite line: "waiter, this is a wine glass. I'd like my water in a water glass". The line comes from Tim Robbins, who is excellent as studio executive Griffin Mill.
Once The Player's end credits rolled, I was shaken, but in the kind of
way that you are when you hear a really sly, long joke by someone who
knows what they're telling is not hysterical but still has a wicked
knack that will stay with you or gnaw at your side. Robert Altman's the
Player, one of his very best films (maybe his best) made since the
1970's, is as much about the detached, perfunctory nature of these
characters as it is a story of a murdering writing executive. It's not
a satire in the sense of Dr. Strangelove; there's nothing that's over
the top for the audience. But it does get in some notes, practically
without any pretense of going about it otherwise, about the sterility
of modern Hollywood. As a film buff, while watching this movie I'm not
even bowled over by the numerous cameo appearances by Hollywood's main
stars and wonderful character actors. That's because Altman, while
being un-obtrusive of what the actors are doing on screen, has his
focus set very carefully, and it's in this precise kind of mode that it
It's not to say Altman's style doesn't have its own voice, and some of the shots in the film- self conscious no doubt- bring out the anti-Hollywood while Hollywood ideas. And working in the framework, not the dependence, of the story lets some interesting things of reality go on. When you see this 8-minute long take at the start of the film, it's getting the music of the film going right away, of the 'money-talks, BS-continues' attitude of a Hollywood studio, not just of the main character Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). It may be 'just a movie', but it's also one with this constant feel of life going on, as Altman, through Tokin's screenplay, is a fly on the wall as it were. We see Mill, a writing executive, go through a rough patch with a certain writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) who hasn't heard back from him in a while. When a harsh accident occurs, Mill has to keep moving, not just with his job or his details of the night the two had, but with the writer's girlfriend (Greta Scacchi) who start an affair.
Altman once said, quite famously, once casting is complete 80% of his work is done. The Player is one of those major examples in Altman's career, and despite the fact that most, if not all, of the supporting actors (who may or may not also be in their cameo roles) are sublime in their roles (Goldberg, Scacchi, Lyle Lovett, and especially Cynthia Stevnenson), it's a key Robbins turn. His career has often had roles where he can lay in a naturalness that other actors might not have gone for. He also fits the role of Griffin Mill much as he did for Andy Dufresne and Dave in Mystic River. Here he has a perfect quality in this character to, as Ebert pointed out, not be un-likable even as he is not a good person. I loved the little facial gestures, the seemingly controlled stares, and the small moments where his upper class facade starts to wear down beneath the bloodless business of making movie deals. His could be for some the only reason to see the film, and rightfully so, as I really don't think Altman would've been able to pull it off with another.
It does almost add to what could be frustration for some by the end of the film to see what happens to him, but it actually is after thinking about it more even more satisfying an ending. A question the film ponders for this character is- if he can survive the reality when all he wants is a happy ending in the stories he hears? And through this simplicity some compositions and scenes are quite remarkable; that one single shot of a certain close-up of a sex scene not only plays brilliantly off of a script description earlier, but is one of the best scene-shots I've seen in recent movies. Very well done, if not for everyone.
Robert Altman performed a great service to us movie fans with this
movie. We are able to see the brutish way the studios treat their
writers....and don't find it difficult to believe that some writer
would want to murder the producer.
The many homages paid to other movies is great: the execution scene from "I want to Live" is replayed, and Bruce Willis jumping in the midst of the cyanide fumes to rescue the damsel in distress makes the contrast with the Graham movie even more poignant (especially if you believe she was innocent). Watching the various emotions play across Tim Robbins face makes you understand what a great actor he is.
The convoluted plot makes the movie more interesting, even as we see a Palm Springs lovers' rendezvous where some lovers swim in the nude in front of others dancing. You don't know what's true and what's not, even when the producer's ex-girlfriend is left sobbing on the steps. It seems too melodramatic for reality, but melodrama is what these people are all about!!!!! Altman's favorite trick of having everybody talk over each other is, while realistic, disconcerting. I still wish I could have heard what Burt Reynolds was saying, nothing complimentary, when Robbins walked up to him at the restaurant. Watching the writers become sycophants, prostituting their 'art' just to get the movie made rang QUITE true. He backs down on both 'no stars' and 'no Hollywood ending'. The only one with morals involved in the movie business gets fired, of course.
One of the movies you need to have on your shelf. Now I've got to go back and watch for Robbins' many references to different brands of water, pointed out by the NYTimes just today.
Screen writing is a craft, one of many in Hollywood that builds or
supports the towering edifice upon which our glamorous "stars" ... sit.
Without a screenplay, actors, directors, and others in Hollywood might
otherwise grovel for beans and potatoes at the local soup kitchen.
And so, director Altman gives us "The Player", a film about a screen writing executive (well played by Tim Robbins) who listens to story ideas, and makes decisions about what you and I see, and don't see, at the local multiplex. For every idea that evolves into a film, billions and billions of other ideas wither and die, along with the careers of the writers who conceived those ideas. Inevitably, some of those writers get miffed, and that is the premise of "The Player".
It's actually a weak premise, because in reality the business of screen writing is fairly bland, and the conflict, which exists mostly in people's heads, is fairly tame. To rev up the drama, and to qualify the film as a "thriller", the filmmakers here insert some contrived conflict, in the form of threatening postcards. If you watch this film for the "thriller" element only, you may be disappointed.
This film works, not so much as a thriller, but rather as a classy, semi-inside peak into the back rooms of Hollywood decision making. There's lots of humor, some obvious, some subtle. And the film's plot is filled with satirical irony. In addition to Robbins' fine performance, Whoopi Goldberg is great as a tampon obsessed detective.
The best approach to "The Player" is to absorb the Tinseltown setting, and watch the characters as they maneuver for selfish advantage. I really liked the inclusion of dozens of real-life Hollywood celebrities, just being themselves. You get to see them in their natural habitat. This element adds texture and authenticity, and thus helps to prop up the weak story.
Although the contrived plot falters somewhat in the middle Act, it's the overall Tinseltown setting and real-life ambiance that make "The Player" an entertaining and insightful film.
What I mean by my tagline is that you will get the most out of this film if you've watched a lot of old classic and understand how the Hollywood system works. If you're more or less a casual film fan, who watches movies once in a while, you might not like this too much. As for me, I'm sort of in a transitional stage, so I enjoyed myself without understanding everything. Considering that this film comes from Robert Altman (look at his profile, click on some links for his movies if you don't know who he is. His movies are weird and usually have good casts), you can expect it to have some weird features. The story follows Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a Hollywood executive that has a million and a half mediocre ideas thrown at him every day. One day, he has a couple of drinks with a writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) and ends up killing him. The movie is basically plotless, and yet complicated. Griffin goes paranoid and thinks everyone is after him, including a pair of cops, played by Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett. The movie is splendid, right from the opening shot played as an homage to Hitchcock'S Rope. The opening shot is eight minutes long, without a single cut. It just pans all over the place as people talk. The performances by the main cast are pretty good, especially Robbins. But the part that's really worth seeing is the ton of celebrity cameos. Just about the whole world shows up here. Bruce Willis, Cher, Elliot Gould, Rod Steiger, Julia Roberts, Anjelica Huston, Lily Tomlin, Burt Reynolds, Mimi Rogers, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte,Marlee Matlin and Jeff Goldblum are just some of the cameos. The in-jokes are very funny if you can understand them, and the whole pace of the movie is good, if a little overlong. (It's not really that long,either.) If you think you know enough about movies and Hollywood, then take a crack at The Player. You won't be sorry. 8/10
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