NEW YORK (February 20, 2007) — As a swirling mix of family, actors, directors and producers remembered Robert Altman in a Manhattan service Tuesday, the overlapping, communal atmosphere reminded more than a few of the kind of scene the filmmaker reveled in documenting.
“There’s a hilarious new movie in preproduction up in heaven,” said Tim Robbins, adding the title: “The Memorial.” “He’s watching the people on stage, yes, but there are other cameras lurking around the theater today (observing) the subplots, the subterfuge, the silliness, the whispered comments, the backstage preening.”
The service was held at the Majestic Theater (usually home to “The Phantom of the Opera”), on what would have been Altman’s 82nd birthday. It was filled with luminaries: Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Kevin Kline, Harvey Keitel, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Harry Belafonte, Glenn Close and Steve Buscemi among them.
Several generations of filmmakers were also in attendance, from Sidney Lumet to Paul Thomas Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. His wife, Kathryn Reed Altman, looked on from the audience, and four of his six children were among the many speakers.
Altman, who died of complications from cancer at the age of 81 in late November, was remembered as a maverick director and a joyfully combative “Hemingway-esque” figure who refused to compromise in pursuing films like “M-A-S-H,” “Nashville,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Player” and his last film, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“He did not like conformity. This is an understatement,” said Bob Balaban, who acted in and co-produced Altman’s “Gosford Park.” “Bob never met a status quo he didn’t hate.”
A number of Altman’s oft-repeated phrases were summoned. Anderson remembered how Altman would respond to an idea he didn’t like: “Yeah, let’s not do that”; producer Joshua Astrachan recalled him repeating: “Just get to the verb”; and Stephen Altman said he was overwhelmed by the memorial, but admitted his father would have merely been “whelmed.”
Like many, Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote “Nashville,” said the director’s realistic filming style of overlapping dialogue and organized chaos paralleled Altman’s own expansive, sociable life.
“He loved when things that shouldn’t come together, did — chance and serendipity,” said Tewkesbury. “His definition of truth was that it was fluid and subject to change — that if it got nailed down, it wasn’t truth anymore — just someone’s opinion.”
Tuesday’s memorial was also filled with music — that of the Kansas City Orchestra, jazz singer Annie Ross, composer and pianist William Bolcom and soprano Lauren Flanigan. A West Coast service for the Kansas City, Mo. native is scheduled for March 4 in Los Angeles.
The cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who collaborated with Altman on the miniseries “Tanner `88” and again on 2004’s “Tanner on Tanner,” recalled first meeting Altman, who told him with a smile: “I eat writers for breakfast.” Trudeau said that as a speaker at the service, he had the last laugh.
“I just talked about my old friend for several minutes without interruption, with no overlapping dialogue, without him being able to change a word,” said Trudeau.
“He would have hated it.”