Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Eleven


#11 — The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)
The Player is regularly described as Robert Altman’s poison pen letter to Hollywood. Hell, I’ve probably used that phrasing a few times myself. That sells it short, however, reducing the film’s artistry to an act of cinematic pettiness. It’s true that Altman’s relationship with the studio power structure was forever fraught with mutual animosity. Even when he had the occasional box office success, Altman was simply too iconoclastic of a filmmaker to fit into the movie machinery in a way satisfactory to the suits who undoubtedly still long for the days when creative personnel were locked into lengthy, iron-clad contracts. Certainly those skirmishes inform this dark comedy about an oily producer whose anxiety about his job security is compounded when he winds up in the middle of a murder investigation, but the cynical sensibility of the film is recognizable from any number of the predecessors in Altman’s prolific career. Plainly put, this is how the man made his movies. There’s no more or less viciousness because he’s closer to the culture that he’s made the target of his wrecking ball.

It started as a novel, after all, and author Michael Tolkin stepped up to adapt his 1988 work for the screen. The script has a sharp edge as it tracks the ways that the cutthroat nature of Hollywood deal-making can seep away from the relatively harmless confines of conference rooms lined with movie posters. It can start to eat away at every bit of someone’s life, from interpersonal conflicts to the pursuit of an attractive woman. Gamesmanship never takes an intermission, and a callousness of the soul is the inescapable result. At this point in his career Tim Robbins had primarily played sweet-natured fellas whose bulbs burned a little dim, making his turn as the devious Griffin Mill all the more affecting. His boyish dimples frame a smile made up up jagged shark’s teeth, and his eyes grow colder as the film progresses. He embodies a self-consuming adoration of power and the clout that comes with it, practically shriveling into an unseen shell when his position at the top is threatened. It’s a tricky dance that Robbins is called upon to perform, sidestepping between authority and cravenness, and he accomplishes it with sly ingenuity.

Altman famously filled the movie with celebrity cameos, corralling major talents to appear as themselves, sometimes doing little more than move through the background of a scene. It gives the film a different sort of authenticity but, more importantly, it also emphasizes the social structure built around the nerve-wracking notion that any major figure, any player, can be sitting at the next table or listening in just around the corner. One impolitic comment can put an entire career is jeopardy. To move through these treacherous waters means being endlessly vigilant. Deals are made and lost depending on the effusiveness of greetings, the perception of confidence, and the mood of the decision-maker when they’re finally cornered by a subterfuge pitch in the borderlands of a decadent party. This is captured by Altman with an anthropological eye, details and events shared fully, freely and without adornment. This isn’t Hollywood glamor, given a polish. The Player is the back of the set, all framework and bare plywood. It makes for quite a view.

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