Broadway’s Majestic Theater is home to The Phantom of the Opera, but yesterday, the phantom at the theater was Robert Altman. Though the filmmaker died in November, he was very much present at the raucous memorial tribute staged by the Directors Guild of America on what would have been his 82nd birthday. It’s often been said that Altman film sets — from M*A*S*H to The Player to A Prairie Home Companion — were like family gatherings or star-studded parties, and yesterday’s event was both, as various relatives, famous collaborators and friends, and ordinary fans gathered for an afternoon of songs, jokes, anecdotes, and homages to the iconoclastic director, his artistic vision, and his infectious enthusiasm. A solemn wake it was not.
Many of the speakers — Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, director Alan Rudolph — noted how Altmanesque the afternoon was, with its all-star cast and raucous humor. (Among those present: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Neal, Sidney Lumet, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Joel Grey, Kurt Vonnegut, Glenn Close, Keith Carradine and daughter Martha Plimpton, Cynthia Nixon, Richard E. Grant, Harvey Keitel, Sally Kellerman, Brian Williams, and Susan Sarandon — and that was just in the audience.) Julianne Moore recalled the story of how she jumped at the chance to play her infamous bottomless role in Short Cuts, noting how much bawdier the tale grew over the years as Altman retold it over and over. Jazz great Annie Ross (who also appeared in Short Cuts) sang a hilarious tune called “One Meatball,” a song she said was a favorite of Altman’s from the Depression — “my depression,” she added. Closing speaker Harry Belafonte brought the house down with a long, intricate tale of a movie project about minstrelsy that Altman had envisioned for him but never made; Belafonte’s remembrance ended with a fantasy of meeting Altman again in heaven, where they would be delighted to see everyone strolling around in blackface.
There were some moving and poignant moments, too, particularly fromAltman’s sons, who were not polished speakers but who fondly rememberedworking with their father in the crew of many of his films. Kevin Klineclaimed the dubious but wondrous honor of appearing in the last sceneAltman ever shot, the scene where Kline improvises a musical narrationat the piano in A Prairie Home Companion. And saddest of allwere the tales of the movies Altman didn’t get to make. BesidesBelafonte’s story, there was E.L. Doctorow, talking of Altman’s grand,epic plan to make a miniseries of his novel Ragtime. Wren Arthur and Joseph Astrachan, Altman’s producers for the last decade or so, nearly cried as they talked about Hands on a Hardbody,the ambitious, all-star satire Altman had been preparing to shoot atthe time of his death. All of those are movies I would have been eagerto see.
But we could all be thankful that Altman was so prolific and did getto make so many great movies, highlights of which closed the event in amontage by Chuck Workman, who does the clip reels at the Oscars andother awards shows. There were so many unforgettable moments — thewinged Bud Cort flying in the Astrodome in Brewster McCloud, the Last Supper tableau in M*A*S*H, George Segal and Elliott Gould trying to remember the names of the Seven Dwarfs in California Split, the assassination in Nashville, Philip Baker Hall’s Nixon ranting in an empty White House in Secret Honor, servant Emily Watson committing the unpardonable sin of speaking with indiscreet honesty in Gosford Park. Some moments were lyrical, some were hilarious, some were horrifying,and all were part of the glorious, messy, chaotic, panoramicexpeerience of being human. “I think all my films are just one film…. They’re just chapters,” Altman told EW last year, and after an afternoon like this one, it washard to walk outside and not see the stars mingling on the rain-slicksidewalk, the teeming masses milling about Times Square, and the wholeworld going about its business as if nothing extraordinary had justhappened — as one big Altman movie.