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MOVIES : ON LOCATION : The Rules of His Game : 'The Player' marks Robert Altman's return to Hollywood--and his stature makes an expose of the town's deal making more pointed

September 29, 1991|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times

TWO BUNCH PALMS — It's late afternoon in August. The air is windless and hot, and the desert around this luxuriant little resort--where Robert Altman is shooting his latest movie, "The Player"--stretches out like some vast blank hell: an ocean of sand sweeping up to the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains.

Altman is working on what may be one of the most wounding and satirical of all Hollywood exposes: as dark and mordant as "The Loved One," savage and morality-driven as "The Big Knife," cynical and "inside" as "Sunset Boulevard." Based on Michael Tolkin's 1988 novel, it's a portrait of life among the high-rollers and deal makers of a major Hollywood studio in the post-Golden Age, post-sexual revolution, post-"Jaws" Hollywood. It's approach is unnerving, a nightmare rendered with icy dispassion.

"The Player's" main character, Griffin Mill, is a production vice president who's turned himself into a success/survival machine, and also someone who's juggling the usual studio intrigues with a much darker secret: his killing of a screenwriter. Beneath Griffin's cryptically composed surface--as he moves through an equally superficial world of car phones, teleconferences and power lunches, chilly glamour and false camaraderie--beats a heart ridden with inexpressible guilts and doubts. Is this really a world, as it sometimes seems, where you can get away with murder?

Tolkin's scrupulously detailed novel, published to good reviews and a nearly instantaneous movie sale in 1988, evoked a world light years from "The Bad and the Beautiful," "A Star Is Born," or even "Barton Fink." It was cooler, more contained, more programmed and less overtly emotional: obsessed with money, status and the constantly shifting three-dimensional chess of The Deal, just like Griffin Mill.

Griffin is such a dread-filled enigma it seems almost strange that his tale--seemingly opposed to the immorality of deal making--somehow survived the process itself. But when Altman was hired, "The Player" assumed another, symbolic importance: Backed not by one of the "majors" but by tinier Avenue Pictures, it marks this famous rebel's definitive return to Hollywood, after a decade of outsider status, of filmed plays, cable TV and offbeat independence, the post-"Popeye" decade of "Secret Honor," "Tanner '88," "Beyond Therapy" and "Fool for Love."

If Two Bunch Palms isn't another new-style Hollywood icon, maybe this movie will make it one. A chic hideaway for studio types and others, it's in the middle of a show biz-desert arena that seems indifferent, absurd. As you buzz down the road from Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage to Desert Hot Springs, from Frank Sinatra Drive or Gene Autry Drive, or glance up a hillside at Bob Hope's peculiar Astrodome-shaped mansion, there's an air of parodied glamour: glitz in excelsior.

In the midst of all this, the resort itself is high style, restful. A mix of modern condominiums and '20s-style bungalows--including one allegedly used by Al Capone--are casually spread over the spa's gentle hillocks and slopes. The harsh sun is filtered through a latticework of tamarisk trees (a kind of desert pine), oleanders and eucalyptus. As Altman's crew lays cables and lugs Luma cranes and sound carts, little pools and waterfalls bubble all around us: artesian mineral water, whose 144-degree temperature has been artificially cooled to about 100 degrees.

"I couldn't win a war with this army," Altman mutters, in a "Vincent & Theo"-style straw hat and work shirt, looking something like a jolly Buddha/burgermeister ready for a round of golf. But it's just reflex gruffness, a way of letting off steam. From a distance, his eyes seem dark and piercing, but up close they're liquid and blue. And with a movie this dark, and logistics this complex, he may need a soft demeanor--along with all his celebrated ability to turn a movie location into a party.

Tolkin's novel was chilly, spare and lean: It zeroed right into Griffin's skull. Altman, predictably, has enriched the milieu and built up a huge community around the cipher at the center.

"The Player" is all about Hollywood and it's been filmed in a variety of landmark or buzzword locations: The St. James Club, the Columbia Bar and Grill, Geoffrey's in Malibu, the old La Ristorante. Through these locations, and Altman's enrichments and embellishments, it seems to be evolving into a blend of satire, morality play and hip celebration, of bile and bemused affection.

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