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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

Meanwhile, Tim plays the scene with that weird, somber tempo he's caught: a passive-aggressive, swallowed-up rhythm, pushed deep, deep inside. She tones down. He stays level, a sinister metallic hum of a man. Over and over, with part of the crew sequestered beyond the lights, they replay Griffin's successful pitch, Altman always patiently asking for another angle, another nuance. Lepine is steady on the camera, the swingers keep slipping naked back into the pool; the seduction, endless, takes until near dawn. Light seeps above San Jacinto almost before before Griffin and June consummate their . . . deal.

In the parlance of Hollywood, a "player" is someone who's sitting at the table, who has his/her chips in the game. But a question remains: What's the game? Who wins? Who loses? Presumably, the "players" control the action or take part in it--yet the nomenclature itself suggests it's all a gamble. And isn't that what's wrong with the movies these days? Don't they assume too much the psychology and methodology of a huge casino: executives and moviemakers alike vainly trying to break the bank?

If that's so, Altman is someone who knows the beast's belly. He's a constant game player; gambling and gaming are often in his movies, especially "California Split" and the apocalyptic "Quintet." A month later, at his Santa Monica production headquarters, it's not surprising to see the filmmaker and game player whiling away time between moviola viewings, in an apparently endless game of low-stakes backgammon with son Steve, while co-producer Scottie Bushnell kibitzes.

In the Two Bunch Palms rushes and some others--including an eerie, Pirandellian ending Altman has suggested--Robbins is wonderfully empty, calculated and bleak. Greta, for all her qualms, is warm and lovable. Their scenes have an eerie, dislocated anxiety and wistfulness, a twisted romance.

"You know, I think all you people are wrong," Altman says, shifting the backgammon markers. "Everybody keeps saying there's no one to root for in 'The Player' . . . but I think there's a possibility you're going to root for Griffin. Then, when you get to realize what an ass he is, you'll also realize he's not really a person at all--so it doesn't make any difference."

Someone mentions Oscars. Altman's mood shifts. "The Academy Awards," he muses acridly, "are strictly a money thing. It's about 'the industry' and its image. Awards should not be given by the group getting them. They say, 'Oh, we're getting this from our peers! ' That's bull. You get hate from your peers: Jealousy, competition . . . and sometimes a friendship kind of thing, because you're working together.

"That's why a film like 'The Player' can never even get into those categories. It can be a great film--and I think it could be--but it won't get Oscars. The writing's the only thing that could get it . . . but nothing else could."

Because it's too intellectual?

"Right. It's a movie about a movie that's about movies. . . . But the funny thing is, we've given them absolutely everything else. Remember that speech of Griffin's about what makes a successful movie? 'Sex, nudity, suspense, hope, violence?' Everything he talks about is in my film."

"Plus a happy ending," I remind him.

Altman, bending over the backgammon board, beams his Buddha/burgermeister smile. "Yeah. And a happy ending!"

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