The Player (1992)

*. Hollywood is a cynical place, which is a quality that makes it ripe for satire. And The Player stands in a long tradition of such satires, presenting Hollywood as a ruthless business that crushes dreams while not caring a whit about art.
*. I would have thought that an obvious enough reading of the movie, but listening to the commentary track on the Criterion DVD with director Robert Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin (who also wrote the source novel) I don’t recall hearing them use the word satire once. Instead, they seem to have had something different in mind.
*. To get at what that something different might be I’d like to quote from a couple of critics. Here is David Thomson: “As written by Michael Tolkin, and adapted from his novel, The Player is shrewd, general satire — shrewd because it picks on no real villains or no one really responsible. And if no one is hurt or offended, then the satirist can hope to stay in work. Nevertheless . . . this is a very good, tart portrait of Hollywood attitudes to others and the self. Indirectly, therefore, it is a lucid explanation as to why the films coming out of the system are so compromised, and negligible.” Then: “In the end, despite its wit and smarts, The Player is similarly neutralized.”
*. I want to flag a couple of points. First: this is a movie with “no real villains.” Second, it is only a “general satire,” tart without being offensive and so neutered and compromised.
*. Now here is Sam Wasson in his Criterion essay, saying much the same thing but even more approvingly: “That right there is the secret to this movie: Robert Altman got a kick out of Hollywood. Far from making the trenchant, bitter satire so many critics would describe even after they saw the movie, Altman bypassed The Day of the Locust for Our Town and actually made a charmed, even gleeful movie about his so-called nemesis. That’s why so many people in Hollywood love The Player. Rather than insulting the native hedonisms with the tired, myopic clichés actual outsiders (i.e., New Yorkers) have been leveling against Hollywood since its inception, Altman caresses them, guilt-free.”
*. This is not the way I viewed The Player the first time I saw it, and it’s not the way I see it today. My difference of opinion with its creators can be focused on the presentation of Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). For Altman it would have been too simplistic and uninteresting to just present Mill as a villain. He wanted the film’s message to be more ambiguous. He isn’t a bad man but the product of a corrupting system. Tolkin is even more defensive of his (anti?)hero, declaring flat out at one point “I like him.” “He is us,” according to his creator, someone who embodies our human flaws.
*. Here is something else from Tolkin: “if the book and the movie are about anything it’s about a person who becomes a better man for having killed.” This struck me as such a bizarre claim I had to really think about it. What does Tolkin mean by “better”? Better off? Well, certainly. Whatever else you want to say about Mill, he’s no Silas Lapham.
*. I don’t understand where this determined inoffensiveness is coming from. My own interpretation of the film is that Mill is, in fact, a villain. I don’t think it’s enough to call him a heel for things like his ruthless brand of office politics and the way he treats his girlfriend Bonnie. A young man, I don’t think he’s been corrupted by Hollywood. Like most people who come to Hollywood I assume he knew what he was getting into and wanted to swim with the sharks. I also fail to see any redeeming qualities in him. He is dishonest, self-righteous, cynical, and he uses everyone.
*. It’s also true that he’s a murderer. Altman seems to suggest that it’s more of an accident, but I don’t see where that’s coming from. Apparently because Kahane dies by drowning then Mill is only indirectly responsible? I’m having trouble seeing that. I’m also wondering why I should even want to excuse such an act of savagery.
*. In short, I don’t like him. I don’t see myself in him. I prefer Roger Ebert’s take, where he says The Player is “about an industry that is run like an exclusive rich boy’s school, where all the kids are spoiled and most of them have ended up here because nobody else could stand them.”
*. The flipside to excusing Mill is the damnation of Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson). On the one hand she is clearly “the film’s conscience” (Tolkin) and “the one person we care about” (Altman). But then (I’m still quoting from the commentary here), she is “of course doomed” (Tolkin) and “a buffoon” (Altman). Why should her good qualities, or just her innocence and naivete, make her a buffoon? And why is she so obviously doomed? Well, because of the evil of the system I suppose. But if the system is evil, and the one good person has to be, or even deserves to be destroyed, then doesn’t that say something more about Mill? Surely to triumph so spectacularly in an evil system one must be evil oneself.
*. Put another way, the adage has it that we’re not to hate the player but the game. I’ve never understood this. Can’t we, indeed shouldn’t we, hate both? Griffin Mill isn’t a product of the system but someone working within it.

*. I don’t usually go in for this sort of moral analysis but in the case of The Player I think it’s invited. At the beginning of his commentary Altman refers to it as an “essay,” which suggests something to be argued over. He also repeatedly refers to it as not being realistic, or having “movie reality.” This strikes me as right. The cameos are the most authentic thing about it. The plot, and many of the characters we meet, are pure fantasy. Richard E. Grant’s screenwriter, for example, is pure caricature. And then there’s poor Greta Scacchi.
*. David Thomson thought Scacchi wasted here. Which seems to have been the plan. Altman wanted her to play June as Mill’s ideal woman, a figure who doesn’t exist except in his (Mill’s) imagination. This sort of limits her performance, as she can’t give June any depth. Altman could present real women in his movies, but here he falls back on stereotypes, with Bonnie as the victim of abuse (something he had a real fascination with) and June as the dream girl of the fairy-tale happy ending.
*. Altman had come to the project as a hired gun. The movie he really wanted to do was Short Cuts. That said, he made the material his own. The layering, not so much this time with the sound but with the scrolling through foreground to background and back again is nicely handled. This is an acutely visual movie, asking us to pick up on cues we are quietly directed to from the mise en scène more than from cluttered voices. In such a film the casting of Lyle Lovett was a masterstroke. He doesn’t need to open his mouth.
*. Wasson calls it a film “absolutely of its time”: “After the savings and loan scandals, after Michael Milkin, after junk bonds and stolen pension funds, here is a movie that uses Hollywood as a metaphor for the avarice of the 1980s. It is the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities wanted to be.”
*. This may be right, and Altman did intend the movie to be a metaphor for a system gone mad with greed. But in being a movie “of its time” I wonder how much of it still applies. Is Hollywood the same place it was thirty years ago? I’m sure the cynicism and greed is the same, but I think the nature of the business has changed, and that, remarkably, for the worse. I can’t imagine a film like The Player being made today, or one as genial in its satire registering. Though perhaps there are nicer people working in Hollywood today. Nicer, wealthier, more damaging, and less offensive.

2 thoughts on “The Player (1992)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Like you, I feel that this film wouldn’t be made today, but it’s Altman’s jam, and only he would be allowed to make it. If this is a satire, then plenty of people didn’t get the gag; the use of the studio ‘x meets y’ formula is meant to make fun of Hollywood thinking, but actually just popularised it. I think most people just sat back and enjoyed the cameos and in-jokes.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yes, I think it’s interesting how satire just bounces off some institutions. University satire, in the form of academic novels, is often accepted in the same spirit: no matter how bitter or angry it is people just seem to roll with it as being all in good fun. I thought The Player a pretty dark movie but the industry seemed to just get a chuckle out of it.

      Reply

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