The Secret to Success
by KARINA WOLF
Jack Nicholson supposedly said that he will commit to a script if it has just three outstanding scenes. The Player, amid its poison asides and insider jokes, has two standout sequences and one knockout one.
The seduction of June Gudmundsdottir is as effective as any scene from the '40s films name-checked in Altman’s picture. Griffin Mill, a beleaguered studio exec, receives increasingly threatening notes from an angry writer. If he quiets this unnerving threat, Mill reasons, he’ll be able to quell his other troubles. Griffin drives to the house of the disaffected writer and rings the scribe while standing outside. But instead of reaching the writer, Mill engages in a lengthy phone flirtation with Kahane’s girlfriend.
June is a wonderful creation, all icy self-involvement and paradoxical reply. She’s the only character who doesn’t work in the film industry or like movies at all. “I like words,” she allows. “I don’t know if I like complete sentences.”
Tim Robbins nearly becomes appealing as he peers through Scacchi’s window. They make small talk while she constructs aloof mixed media paintings. The pure invention of the character makes her more compelling than the stock types (producer, writer, executive, detective) we’re asked to follow when Altman puts the noir plot through its paces. Greta Scacchi imbues her role with latent sensitivity. I think through her, the film suggests the nature of all narcissistic characters — there’s an unreachable sympathy at their core, and a monomania that passes for a while as integrity.
Certainly, by the end of the film, June’s complicity in her boyfriend’s murder and her love for the callow Mill eclipse the promise conveyed in her introduction. The entire movie sags when June succumbs.
I'm always mystified how rubber-faced Tim Robbins became the leading man of early '90s satires. Maybe it was his activism or his alignment with social crusader Susan Sarandon (she has a non-speaking role in the film). Maybe it was the fact that he could keep up with Altman’s roving cinematic eye. (The other terrific scenes in the film follow Mill’s disorientation when he commits murder and is humorously interrogated by Whoopi Goldberg).
Altman seems to be viewed as a social critic as well as an actor’s director, and his ensembles have the same cache as those of mid-period Woody Allen. The difference between the two auteurs is instructive. Allen’s films are arguably responses to Bergman and the great Russian novelists. Altman’s work is more in the vein of British social satire and French comedy of manners. That is to say, one director measures the nature of a moral universe; the other proceeds from disbelief in it.
Too often Altman’s films revel in their superiority. The film’s bravado ending, with Mill squelching a blackmailer by sealing a film deal, feels too triumphant. Another of Altman’s characters explains the secret to success: he gets ahead by taking advantage of other people's insecurities. Altman’s finest moments arrive in The Player when the director exposes but doesn’t profit from human weakness.
Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. She tumbls so hard right here for your reading pleasure.