When the grand pooh-bahs of the motion picture academy decided to present 81-year-old director Robert Altman with an honorary award at this year's Oscar ceremony, they had to be thinking that they had failed, time and again, to give him awards for such masterworks as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park, Nashville, The Player, The Long Goodbye, Short Cuts, Thieves Like Us, California Split and Secret Honor.
They must also have been thinking of their failure to honor him for M*A*S*H, which, among its other glories, contains the second-most famous shower scene in movie history (after the one in Psycho, of course). A group of army surgeons (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Tom Skerritt), who spend much of their time making mischief, arrange to have their camp's shower tent collapse, revealing the unclothed body of a hot and Hot-Lipped but annoyingly priggish nurse (Sally Kellerman). The sequence, like the film, is classic Altman: impudent in its humor, intuitive in its staging and ultimately unforgettable.
M*A*S*H (1970) is one of four DVDs contained in the Robert Altman Collection, and the only one of those that ranks with the filmmaker's best. The other three A Wedding (1978), A Perfect Couple (1979) and Quintet (also 1979) belong near the bottom of the Altman barrel.
A Wedding shows us the ceremony and lavish reception for the nuptials of Dino (Desi Arnaz Jr.) and Muffin (Amy Stryker), whose eminent families include characters played by Carol Burnett, Lillian Gish, Mia Farrow and Vittorio Gassman, among others. This film is mildly entertaining, thanks in no small part to Howard Duff's performance as a doctor who is both a lush and a lech.
A Perfect Couple casts Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin as unglamorous singles who manage to find one another. It's a clichéd idea presented as if it were fresh and stretched out over 111 minutes. On a featurette included in the collection, Altman calls this exercise in limp whimsy "as good a film as any I've made," and, good Lord, he actually seems to mean it. For all his greatness, Altman is the sort of filmmaker who can never bring himself to disown one of his babies.
Quintet, starring Paul Newman, is set in a frigid future world where the inhabitants play an impenetrable board game. This borderline-unwatchable motion picture evokes a genuinely creepy, Godot-like atmosphere for a half-hour or so before it collapses in on itself.
"The only tough thing about Quintet, really, was trying to make the slow pace … acceptable to the audience," says the movie's all-too-honest editor, Dennis M. Hill, in an included featurette.
Altman cultists and completists will want to own this box set. Others are better advised to pick up M*A*S*H alone, or, really, any of the true Altman classics mentioned near the start of this review. Chances are that the academy pooh-bahs were not thinking of Quintet, A Perfect Couple or A Wedding when they selected Robert Altman for their honorary award.
Robert Altman Collection
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment