Robert Altman likes to say things he knows will get him in trouble. He speaks his mind, and he does it on purpose. You have to give him credit for not kowtowing to Hollywood.
Nominated for the best director Academy Award for Gosford Park, Altman gave me a rare interview recently for the premiere issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine. The issue will be on sale next Monday in New York and Los Angeles, but I thought I'd give you a little preview.
Altman — who is my all-time favorite director and my personal choice this Oscar season to win the top directing honors — met me with much reluctance.
He is fond of reminiscing, but not keen on official interviews. The one book about him that's available, he says, is "full of [expletive]." He says he will never write one of his own.
"I make the movies," he said. "That's enough."
I asked Altman — who's been nominated for best director four times — if he'd seen a lot of recent Oscar winners. I mentioned Titanic.
He replied: "Titanic I thought was the most dreadful piece of work I've ever seen in my entire life. Another film that I think is equally bad was American Beauty. So badly acted and directed. But people like that."
Altman also reveals that he and Warren Beatty didn't get along very well on the classic film McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
"Warren and I don't like each other very much," Altman said. "I think he's certainly a good actor. He was great in McCabe. But I wouldn't go through that again. It's no fun."
Altman also let me in a little secret of his: consciously duplicating scenes from one movie to another. Of course, at 76 years old, with dozens of films behind him, that's bound to happen.
"In Gosford Park — you know the scene where Elsie — Emily Watson — comes out and picks the dog up and gives it back to Michael Gambon?" Altman asks. "He says, 'You've got ashes on your chest,' and brushes her off. It always gets a laugh. I did that exact same thing in A Wedding with Howard Duff. I said, I'm going to do that again. So I consciously lifted that from myself."
Altman has already announced his next movie, with an ensemble cast, about a New York skyscraper getting built. But he told me plans for the one after that — a "a Mata Hari story with Cate Blanchett. I don't think there's anybody better."
The Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild Award winners were announced over the weekend. Do they have any bearing on the winners of the Academy Awards? We'll see.
The biggest surprise last night at the SAG Awards was Halle Berry's best actress win for Monster's Ball. Certainly the betting money was on Sissy Spacek, and I think that will bear out in two weeks at the Oscars.
But that doesn't take anything away from Berry. She's obviously mounted a very successful late campaign for the Oscar after seeing yesterday's New York Times. Her picture was featured not once but twice, on the covers of each of the Arts & Leisure sections.
On the other hand, it was no surprise that Russell Crowe won best actor for A Beautiful Mind. The twist there would have been if Denzel Washington had taken home the statue for Training Day.
Will that happen in two weeks? I still think there's a chance it might. Despite Crowe's enormous talent, the Academy may feel that he just won last year, and so far only Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks have won back-to-back Oscars. The question is: Does the Academy want to put Crowe in that pantheon so soon?
Over at the Directors Guild, Ron Howard picked up the best director award for A Beautiful Mind. Howard's only real competition at the Oscars, I think, is Altman, whose Gosford Park got SAG's best ensemble cast award. Howard has already been through the grueling experience of winning the DGA and losing the Oscar (in 1995, for Apollo 13 — the Oscar winner was Mel Gibson for Braveheart.)
The DGA Award for best documentary went to my pals, Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim, for StartUp.com. This may be news to Artisan Entertainment, which has handled StartUp as an afterthought. It might also be a revelation to the documentary committee for the Academy Awards, which rejected StartUp in the preliminary round.
This story of two boyhood friends who leave their jobs to launch an Internet company captured the zeitgeist of the last year perfectly, though. I'll bet Billy Joel is kicking himself now for not letting the filmmakers use a ten second snippet of "Piano Man" play as background music.
Just FYI, Hegedus and her husband/collaborator D.A. Pennebaker are not even members of the DGA. That's what I call an egalitarian group.
So now what in Award Land? Basically: eight more days before Oscar ballots must be returned to the Academy.