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 made 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 is his work so there are plenty of details about how nearly all of his films were made. Whether you’re a fan or not (I’m merely a sometime fan of his work), this is a very enjoyable book, not unlike spending a three-day long bender with the man himself, but without the hangover.
Recommended for film and biography fans. Note that this is a true oral biography with very little connective narrative.