It’s not often, in Hollywood, that our heroes find a second wind. It’s true that everyone loves a happy ending, but they love a devastating tragedy just as much, if not more. Some of the industry’s most treasured pioneers spent the later halves of their career languishing out in the cold, and after more than a decade of relative isolation from the bigwigs in California, it seemed like that same familiar fate was destined for Robert Altman, too. But in 1992, Altman had his comeback, and in such a way that couldn’t have been more perfect for the man who spent his entire time in the sun bucking the profit-driven conventionality of the Hollywood system. The Player was an incisive mockery of Hollywood using the tools of its myriad stars and rote ideas against itself, and it was a resounding success. Because even more than a happy ending or a tragic downfall, Hollywood loves to be cynical about itself.
Throughout his career, Altman had always prioritized an interest in his actors, and that reputation now returned its favor in a career-saving way. Everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with Altman, and so when the time came to enlist a gargantuan cast of Hollywood’s most famous names, everyone came on board, solidifying the inside-nature of The Player while also building its audience appeal for an artistic swing that couldn’t miss. Altman carried over this clout and size to subsequent projects throughout the ’90s, following up his massive hit with an amalgam adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories in Short Cuts (1993) and a comic exposé of the Paris fashion scene in Prêt-à-Porter (1994). He returned to his roots with a jazzed-up gangster flick set in his home town, Kansas City (1996) before trying something completely new by making a conventional no-frills thriller. The Gingerbread Man (1998) was adapted from an incomplete John Grisham novel, and its failure to impress either audiences or critics dampened the high Altman was riding from his nominal comeback, already on the downslide thanks to the middling reception of his previous two films.
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