Like all great improvisers, the late Robert Altman kept a repertoire of stock routines handy. Anyone who’s read multiple interviews with Altman can’t help but note how often the director repeated himself, not with the same personal anecdotes—because Altman was stingy with those—but with the same metaphors and analogies. The biggest problem with Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is that many Altman fans will have read just about everything in it before. Between Altman’s usual self-promoting spiel and the litany of familiar stories about his fights with studios, his personal betrayals, and an at-times self-defeating commitment to treating his life and his work as an extended party (with himself as the guest of honor), not much here could be considered news.
The second biggest problem with Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is that it’s so clearly a salvage job. Zuckoff was working on an actual, official Altman memoir when the old Hollywood maverick up and died, so Zuckoff changed gears and called on the Altman family members and collaborators who were willing to be interviewed. (That turned out to be a significant number, although some big names, like Shelley Duvall, are conspicuous in their absence.) Through no fault of Zuckoff’s, there’s a big Altman-sized hole at the center of this bio. Zuckoff relies on quotes from old interviews and DVD commentary tracks to get as much of Altman’s voice into the book as possible, but in his own interviews with the man himself, Zuckoff came away with little, aside from Altman’s standard pocket wisdom about how life is like a river.
That said, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is an easy book to read, and a hard one to put down. It’s less rigorous and incisive than Patrick McGilligan’s essential Robert Altman: Jumping Off The Cliff, but it also leaves readers with a more favorable impression of its subject. Zuckoff doesn’t dodge the topics of Altman’s drunken spite, his affairs, his gambling, his lax parenting, or his professional discourtesies. But he mitigates those stories with reports of how Altman softened in his old age, and made enough amends that his family (and some of his former foes) forgave his past failings. And Zuckoff corrals testimonials from a plethora of actors who describe how Altman’s working methods—which always allowed his casts ample opportunities to surprise and delight him—left them feeling cared-for and respected, like they were in the hands of someone operating on a higher level than other filmmakers. The tales told in this book have been much-repeated, yes. The best ones often are.