Directed By: Robert Altman
Starring: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward
Tag line: "In Hollywood, it's not who you know, it's who you kill"
Trivia: At one point, Robert Altman was considering John Travolta for the lead
With a style that hints at effortlessness, director Robert Altman's films often feel as if they're the work of an observer, whose camera simply eavesdrops on other people's conversations. His 1992 movie, The Player, is yet another example of this natural approach, resulting in a story that's as rich in character as it is ripe with intrigue.
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is one of the most influential men in Hollywood. A top executive with a large production company, Griffin is directly responsible for choosing which scripts make it to the big screen, and which end up on the trash heap. Like many Hollywood big shots, Griffin has people gunning for his job, including Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), who was just hired away from a rival studio to head up the creative department. To add to his problems, Griffin is also being stalked by a writer whose script he rejected, and with so many passing by his desk on a yearly basis, he has no way of knowing the stalker's true identity. After some checking, Griffin believes he’s found the culprit in David Kehane (Vincent D’Onofrio), a writer whom Griffin had alienated months earlier. To prevent the threats from continuing, Griffin tries to buy Kehane off, resulting in a confrontation that ends quite badly.
“It seems to me”, director Robert Altman once said, “that it would be very difficult to do a film in Hollywood about the movie business and not see any movie people walking around or sitting in restaurants”. So, Altman jammed as many celebrity cameos into The Player as he could, with over 60 stars appearing as themselves. Angelica Huston and John Cusack sit together in a restaurant, discussing the new ghost movie they’re starring in together, while at a dinner party thrown by Griffin’s lawyer, Dick Mellon (Sydney Pollack), Griffin chats with Harry Belafonte as his rival, Larry Levy, is standing nearby, schmoozing Jeff Goldblum. Keeping in tune with his style, Altman refused to script any of these cameos, allowing the stars themselves to come up with their own dialogue. As Griffin is on his way to a lunch date with studio head Joel Levison (Brion James), he runs into Burt Reynolds, who's sitting at a table with a friend. Griffin greets Burt, shakes his hand and walks away. As Griffin is leaving, Reynolds turns to his lunch companion and says exactly what he thinks of the man whose hand he just shook: “Asshole”. According to Robert Altman, that one word interjection was 100% Burt Reynolds.
As a thriller/mystery, The Player is effective enough at times to make your hairs stand on end. However, it’s the film’s satirical look at the Hollywood system, especially those who finance the movies, that I found truly frightening. As I watched the various backroom deals play out, where scripts devoid of originality were accepted solely on the basis they were marketable, I couldn’t help but wonder how a filmmaker like Altman, whose unique approach to the art form is completely at odds with studio moguls like Griffin Mill, could even get a project of his off the ground in modern Hollywood? After watching The Player, I got the feeling Altman himself might have been wondering the same thing.