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Robert Altman: The Oral Biography Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 20, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Exclusive: Wes Anderson Reviews Robert Altman: The Oral Biography

Wes Anderson is the writer/director of the films Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited. His latest film is an adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Read Anderson's exclusive Amazon guest review of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography:

I just spent a very full Saturday with Robert Altman: An Oral Biography, eavesdropping on a group of the most interesting people sharing in one of my absolute favorite topics of conversation--and I just now put it down feeling heartbroken but happily and deeply inspired by him (the topic) once again. I congratulate Mr. Zuckoff on this book which is destined to become an essential part of the permanent record--and is wonderful. Also, he doesn’t mind including some of the real dirt here and there. I liked that choice, and I speculate that Robert Altman would have, too. --Wes Anderson

(Photo © 2007 Twentieth Century Fox)

A Q&A with Mitchell Zuckoff

Question: Do you think there’s any director who blazed the way for Altman or was he just a maverick, a complete original?

Mitchell Zuckoff: In a technical sense, Bob was always quick to credit to his predecessors. When people talked about his innovative use of overlapping dialogue, for instance, he’d tell them to look at the films of Howard Hawks. But the real answer to your question is no, there isn’t anyone you’d call a model or a trailblazer for Bob. In terms of his approach to filmmaking and his relationship with the business, Bob earned the titles people hung on him--maverick, renegade, iconoclast, you name it. Even during the years when he was pretty much working inside the Hollywood system--the 1970s, mostly--he did things his own way. Think of it like this: Hollywood runs on genres--comedy, romance, war, westerns, etc.--with certain fairly narrow, clearly defined expectations for each, based on successful films that have come before. In one film after another, one genre after another, Bob knew the rules then purposefully inverted and subverted them, as only a true original can.

Question: If you had to choose one film as Altman’s "masterpiece," which would it be and why?

Mitchell Zuckoff: I’d rather pick three, or five, or seven, but if I had to choose one I’d say Nashville. Before I explain why, though, I’ve got to tell you why Bob hated the word "masterpiece." He felt--rightly, I think--that it turned away audiences, making them think of a pile of vegetables they should eat because it’s good for them. So if we use the masterpiece label, let’s agree that Nashville is nothing like that. It’s an enormously entertaining movie that happens to be an absolutely brilliant portrait of America. Without using any of these terms, or laying it on too thick, it gets underneath and exposes the peculiarly American nature of power, fame, race, sex, violence, and character. Think of a painting you’d consider a masterpiece. You appreciate its beauty on the surface the first time you look at it. But why do we keep looking at it, again and again, for hours at a time? It’s because the deeper we engage with a masterpiece, whether in oil or marble or on film, the more it touches what Bob called "deep down in the dermis"--the layers of ourselves far beneath the skin. Nashville does just that.

Question: What do you think is Altman’s most underestimated film and why?

Mitchell Zuckoff: A few fit the bill, but I’d have to go with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. It was the complete opposite of what people expected, it painted a bleak portrait of an American icon at a time when Americans were celebrating the bicentennial, it played Paul Newman against type, and it took a jaundiced eye to popular history and show business. But if you set aside your expectations and take another look, you’ll see a movie that never got credit for what’s really there on the screen.

Question: What was your reaction when you first saw M*A*S*H?

Mitchell Zuckoff: It was a long time ago, but I remember it perfectly. I had this wonderful, furtive, guilty feeling of, "Are we gonna get caught?" It was so wild, so funny, so subversive--in short, so in tune with my adolescent heart--that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As great as the actors were, it was the first time I had a sense of a director, someone moving all these amazing pieces around the set. Even still, that first time I loved it purely on the surface. Only later did I figure out what was really going on--the way Bob was commenting on war (Vietnam specifically)--and then I got even more excited because that meant you could make a serious, powerful, important statement in a way that was still hilarious. I felt like I was learning a new language. Not too many people remember this, but there was a series of paperbacks that followed the movie--M*A*S*H Goes to London, M*A*S*H Goes to Las Vegas, and on and on. Bob had nothing to do with them, of course. But as a teenager I read the whole series, hoping to feel the same way I did in the theater the first time I saw the movie. It didn’t work.

Question: How do you think a director like Altman would fare in today’s Hollywood?

Mitchell Zuckoff: I’m not sure there’s anyone like him, or ever will be. But the real answer is that I don’t think it’d be remotely possible for a director like Bob Altman to operate in today’s Hollywood. He couldn’t stand "the suits" back in the days when directors were enormously powerful in their own right. Nowadays, with power, money, and control so thoroughly concentrated in the studios, there’s no way someone like Bob Altman could survive there, at least not for long. And since Bob was never willing to abandon his vision in the interest of making a popcorn-friendly blockbuster, I don’t think Hollywood would care terribly about his absence. On the other hand, someone like Bob might have a chance to thrive as a true independent, as long as he or she had the talent, the spine and the willingness to repeatedly take potentially career-ending risks.

Question: What is Altman’s ultimate legacy to film-makers, film-making, and film audiences?

Mitchell Zuckoff: Bob was fearless when it came to making movies, and fearlessness is a quality that is in short supply. Plenty of good directors can paint by the numbers and succeed commercially. Bob is an icon because he wouldn’t play by the rules. And isn’t that where all great art comes from? I like what Martin Scorsese said when I asked him this same question. He said: "His legacy? His spirit. His spirit was to make pictures, to say what the hell he wanted to say on film. It may have angered people, it may have unsettled people, but he did it." He did it. Not a bad epitaph for Bob Altman. Other people might have talked about it or dreamed about it. He did it.

(Photo © Suzanne Kreiter)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this fitting tribute to one of Hollywood's greatest directors, journalist Zuckoff (Ponzi's Scheme) chronicles Altman's remarkable life both in and out of the spotlight. Though it's arranged roughly chronologically, Zuckoff wisely chooses to reflect the director's nonlinear approach to storytelling in crafting the biography. Interspersed with Altman's own words—from interviews with Zuckoff near the end of his life—are memories from his large family and extended circle of cinematic collaborators, and excerpts from critics' reviews of his almost 40 films. More interested in character than traditional stories, Altman put his own spin on everything from war films with 1970's M*A*S*H—which Pauline Kael dubbed the best American war comedy since sound came in—westerns with 1971's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and English murder mysteries with 2001's Gosford Park. Despite his artistic achievements, Altman's personal life was often rocky, with philandering and a penchant for alcohol, aspects that Zuckoff's interview subjects confront with refreshing frankness. The myriad stars who worked with Altman and share their reflections with Zuckoff include Lauren Bacall (Prêt-à-Porter), Julie Christie (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), Paul Newman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians) and Robin Williams (Popeye). A rebel to the end, Altman's spirit is perfectly captured in this fascinating read. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (October 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307267687
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307267689
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #602,963 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Michael Beane on March 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a big Altman fan and a big fan of the oral biography form, it's not surprising that this book had me at hello. What an enjoyable read! Even the early life, slow sledding in most biographies, is vibrant and entertaining. Robert Altman is remembered in vivid detail by those who knew him, loved him, worked with him, sometimes didn't like him. In some cases the witnesses who comprise this book (including Altman himself -- the project started out as an authorized biography) disagree in their memories, or perhaps in what they choose to say. In a way it's like an Altman movie -- a cacophony of voices, sometimes talking over each other, full of images. And very funny. This is no eat-your-peas biography. When is the last time you didn't want to put a biography down or found yourself rationing the remaining pages to prolong it? He was a complex character, that is for sure. This book captures him as well as could reasonably be hoped for.

One striking thing is how many of the actors and (especially) actresses say essentially the same thing: the reason they are so grateful to him is he trusted them and let them spread their wings. He said let it go, trust yourself, and I won't let you be embarrassed. He didn't, and they delivered many of the shining moments in his movies. There is one great scene where a young Matthew Modine keeps wanting to go over his big scene with Altman, talk it through, and Altman kept putting him off. Then before Modine knew it the scene had been shot. Afterward Altman put a hand on his shoulder and said look, kid, you're the actor; if it was my interpretation of your character I wanted I would have cast myself. After a while word got around and a who's who of star actors were in Altman movies, sometimes at scale rates.
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Format: Hardcover
Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography" is a very comprehensive look at the man. It actually makes a lot of sense to do an oral biography of Altman, as his films often presented an amalgam of voices, just as this book sets out to do.

While Altman receives the well-rounded treatment, with one person (David Pinker) expressing almost wholly negative views of the man, there are several drawbacks to the oral biography form. For one, the content is wholly dependent on the people who agree to be interviewed. Consequently, there seem to be some gaps in the narrative of Altman's life and some movies seem to be discussed rather cursorily, eg, "3 Women."

On the whole, though, this work does an excellent job of presenting Altman the man and artist, warts and all, and you walk away with a strong impression of his special brand of genius. But, like many Altman works, it is kind of a mess as well, but a glorious one. In fact, I think this is about the best biography we're going to get of Altman, and I think he would be very pleased with it.
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Format: Hardcover
Hard to think of a director in Hollywood who's made more of an impact but got less credit than Bob Altman. After all, his movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player were never really considered to be box-office blockbusters. Nor was Altman ever honored with an Oscar for producing or directing, although his films received many nominations throughout the 70's, 80's and 90s.

No, Robert Altman was an outcast, a scalawag; a rapscallion of film directors.

That's what makes his story so great.

In "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography," author Mitchell Zuckoff captures it all. From Altman's early days kicking around Kansas City (a place he would later base a feature film on) to his war years, to his roguish romantic escapades to his eventual landing in California (working for among others, the legendary Alfred Hitchcock) Zuckoff's assemblage of the autuer's story covers all the bases.

As colorful as the oral history is of the director's early dating and family life, his military service and his career beginnings in both industrial films and, once in Hollywood, television (`Combat,' Whirlybirds,' etc.) the best portions are reserved for his relationships with the actors he loved and the studio bosses he loathed. When actors would add a line to the dialog, most films expected a visit from the studio brass. When Altman's actors wanted to add a line, he encouraged them to do more. (M*A*S*H's Sally Kellerman (`Hot Lips'), practically wrote her way into the whole movie from what was originally slated as a naked shower scene.) In the final analysis, Altman was the master of the ensemble film; his indelible mark comes from the inner workings of the casts he assembled, not necessarily from the stories themselves.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
If you've seen even one Robert Altman movie you know that this is a man who would want his story told as an oral history. Altman's use of overlapping dialogue forced the audience to choose which voice to listen to in a cacophony of sound. Mitchell Zuckoff invited a multitude of voices telling about the Robert Altman they knew allowing readers to sift through the stories to find the man himself.

It helps that those speaking are an articulate, amusing bunch unafraid to tell embarrassing stories in which they feature or to call Kevin Spacey the "Norman Bates of Show Business", for instance. No amount of wit would make the first half dozen chapters fly by, however. It's admirable that Zuckoff wants to document the whole of Altman's life but I would have been satisfied with fewer stories of Bob's adventures at summer camp. Once Altman starts making movies Zuckoff's pacing spot on, mixing details about the financing of MASH with choice gossip like Altman's affair with Faye Dunaway. I'm still in awe of that revelation - wouldn't have pegged those two in a million years.

The picture that emerges is of a well-loved if not entirely likable man. Zuckoff shows why so many actors were devoted to Altman but he also shows that Altman was just another nasty, loud-mouthed drunk on occasion. One minute you find yourself fascinated by the loyalty Altman engendered, the next you're appalled at the loyalty he insisted upon. Like so many artists Altman put his work above any human relationship and that can be hard to take in large doses.

This isn't a critical assessment of Altman's work or an interpretation of his films. It's Altman's life story and critical to that is the story of his work so there are plenty of details about how nearly all of his films were made.
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