It’s no secret that politics seeps its way into every industry, and that the doings, dealings and personalities all behind them can be purely toxic. Though we’d like to buy into the romantic fiction that major Hollywood studios are fully committed to the art of filmmaking, and hell, perhaps they all are, if there’s anything that must come first, it’s the bottom line. Filmmaking is a business and studios need to make money; that much is understood and accepted lest we have another situation like the studio system collapse of the late ‘60s, which in fairness led to arguably the greatest decade of American cinema.
Enter novelist Michael Tolkin, whose 1988 novel “The Player” tells the story of a studio executive relentlessly covering his tracks and trying to remain sane after murdering a writer whose pitch he rebuffed. Four years later, a film adaptation written by Tolkin, directed by Robert Altman and starring Tim Robbins was released. When novelists pen the adaptations of their own work, it’s a pretty safe bet that the end product will stay true to the source material, and with The Player, none of the biting, cynical satire gets lost in translation.
Based upon his career trajectory up until the early ‘90s, it seems a poetic coincidence that Robert Altman directed a satirical comedy-thriller lambasting the lack of art-conscious peoples in major executive roles. The ‘70s was undoubtedly the height of his directorial prowess, seeing notable works like M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville in an era when a wider range of auteurs could be at their most commercially prominent. After the ‘80s saw his stock continue to slide with the fiasco that was the Popeye production, The Player suggests a director with a renewed confidence, and arguably at his most playful.
Everyone talks about the opening long take when referencing Jean Lépine, an admittedly impressive feat of camera and actor staging as we’re introduced to all the key players – pun sort of intended – at our fictional Hollywood studio, but the voyeuristic nature of his cinematography puts the audience in the driver’s seat while unashamedly admitting the awareness that the viewers already know what the film’s cast and crew do about the industry. Not only is it refreshingly transparent, but also quite curious, especially when the camera captures Robbins’s Griffin Mill trying to flip the script and become the voyeur himself. Not only is the film humorous, but also Lépine’s camerawork and Altman’s direction make for effectively Hitchcock-inspired film noir.
Additionally, the film sets up some interesting parallels between the mise-en-scène and its bevy of cameo appearances. Aside from its main cast, The Player features such modern performers as Cher, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Jeff Goldblum and many more. At the same time, the set decoration is often littered with reminders of cinema’s past, with posters of classic films and pictures of legendary personalities referencing a golden era of studio filmmaking. With its critique of modern Hollywood, Altman and Tolkin are actively telling us that those making cameos are part of the problem.
At the same time, they aren’t trying to say that those figures representing the past were flawless; such an implicit argument would be irresponsibly false. Rather, they hang over Griffin and his colleagues like ghosts haunting their every move, though some are not as bothered by their presence as others. Altman and Tolkin clearly do not fall in the ‘bothered’ category, as they use both the cameos and set decoration as a means of politely beating into our heads the idea that greedy studio executives with eyes only for the dollar sign figuratively get away with murder by bastardizing writers’ visions. It’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude that has minor characters referring to Griffin as ‘Mr. M’ just moments after the camera pans on a poster for the 1931 Fritz Lang classic.
The system’s broken, no one’s doing much to fix it, and though we may know this already in spite of Altman and Tolkin’s incessant preaching to the choir, they still let us have some fun along the way. And considering this particular film about Hollywood, it’s even more of a thrill if you’re able to pick out all of the visual and verbal references made. The Player may be a satire made in good fun and cheer, but then even from a 21st century perspective, one realizes not much has changed and that likely from now on, the film and its source material will remain depressingly timeless.