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This 'Goodbye' is also a hello : A UCLA screening of Robert Altman's personal print heralds donation of his material to its archive.

November 13, 2009|Susan King

Director Robert Altman, who died in 2006, always polarized critics and audiences with his maverick, freewheeling, structureless style and determination to reinvent genres.

In the case of 1973's "The Long Goodbye," Altman took Raymond Chandler's 1953 noir novel and cast it with Elliott Gould playing Philip Marlowe as a shaggy dog of a detective, a far cry from the hard-bitten, grizzled portrayal of the famous gumshoe by Dick Powell in "Murder, My Sweet" or the wry efficiency of Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Sleep."

This evening, the UCLA Film and Television Archive is screening Altman's personal print of "Goodbye" at the Hammer theater. The event heralds the donation of Altman's prints and other materials to the archive. Widow Kathryn, Altman biographer Mitchell Zuckoff ("Robert Altman: The Oral Biography") and Gould will appear to discuss the director and the film.

"The die-hards of Philip Marlowe, the purists of Raymond Chandler, had problems with the movie," says Kathryn Altman, adding that fans were always asking her husband to name his favorite of the films he made. "The answer was always: My films are like my children," she remembers him saying. "I care the most about the least successful -- at the moment."

The film garnered mixed reviews upon its initial release. One critic who was not impressed was The Times' Charles Champlin: "He is no Chandler's Marlowe or mine. I can't find him interesting, sympathetic . . . I can't be sure who will."

The reviews weren't the only reason why the film initially struggled to connect with audiences. "When they opened it in Los Angeles, I thought how flattering and glamorous it was to open at the Grauman's Chinese," Gould says. But the movie's one-sheet "had nothing to do with what we were making."

The poster, says Zuckoff, featured Gould in a black suit walking on the beach with the tag line: "Nothing says goodbye like a bullet."

Eventually, when the film was re-released months later it had the ad campaign that Altman wanted all along. "Bob wanted a Mad magazine-like marketing campaign with a poster with cartoonish figures so people would understand that there was a satire here," Zuckoff says.

This time around, the reviews and audience response were more positive.

Altman, says Zuckoff, "knew all the genres, but Bob wanted to take a genre and then reinvent it or subvert it. People weren't often, on the first viewing, prepared for it. People thought they were going to watch a detective movie. . . . They ended up getting something else entirely. It's definitely within the genre, but he was interested in doing something completely new and completely different."

"Goodbye," which also stars Sterling Hayden and Mark Rydell, has grown in stature through the years. "It has certainly endured and retains a life," Gould says. "I think it's special and unique."

The film marked the second time Gould worked with Altman. They first collaborated on 1970's "MASH" and subsequently on 1974's underrated "California Split." "At first I didn't get his style," Gould says. "Finally by the time we got to 'California Split,' I knew exactly how to work with him."

Altman, he explains, "was just totally an artist. His take on things were his take on things. He once said to me that he learned to put it together in chaos and therefore he creates chaos in which to put it together. That wasn't how I had been brought up. But through the process and through our evolving relationship, I loved him. Altman gave me so much freedom."

In fact, they had been hoping to do a sequel to "The Long Goodbye." "It was the last thing Bob and I talked about doing," Gould says. Writer-director Alan Rudolph, who was a second assistant director on "Goodbye," has written a first draft and hopes to direct it, but Gould says, "I can't find two nickels to rub together for it. But at least we have 'The Long Goodbye' and that picture is full of poetry."

Shannon Kelley, head of programming at UCLA, says that the print screening tonight is in "beautiful shape. You'll find it is gorgeous."

The collection includes material from "practically his entire career, missing just a few pieces from when he was starting out," Kelley says. "It's a tremendous honor for us because he remains so relevant."

For information go to www.cinema.ucla.edu

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susan.king@latimes.com

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