Robert's Rules of Fashion

Slimmed down and back on top, Robert Altman's having a fine time

"Oh, this is a stag party," Robert Altman jokes as he enters a room full of male journalists gathered round a table for a Ready to Wear press junket at New York's Waldorf-Astoria. And if it were a stag party, Altman, impressive looking in a dapper gray suit and emerald-green tie, would be the best dressed for the occasion. "I changed my own self-image totally," Altman says, introducing his take on his new movie, "because I lost about 60 pounds after 30 years of ..." he pauses and playfully grabs the shoulders of a rather portly journalist seated next to him.

Given that Ready to Wear, set within the world of Parisian haute couture, sends up the fashion industry, it's understandable -- if not exactly expected -- that Altman would be concerned with his physical appearance. Proud of himself, he announces, "If somebody says, 'Come on over and wear your old clothes,' I can't go, I don't have any old clothes."

Clothes, of course, figure largely in Ready to Wear. Leading designers allowed Altman to shoot their fall 1994 fashion shows as backdrops for the movie; some even appear on film as themselves, among them Sonia Rykiel, who Altman cites as his inspiration for the movie. Altman first met Rykiel ten years ago at one of her shows and was so bowled over by the spectacle that he knew he had to use it as the basis for a movie. "The majority of the designers are truly artists," Altman says, pointing out that he admires them partly for their showmanship and partly for their stamina because "the minute they finish their product, they're onto something else. They have to change what they did before. Even if what they did they think is the best thing they ever did, they all say, 'I have to do something different now' to actually erase that."

That wouldn't be a bad way to describe Altman's approach to his work either. A 1970s directing idol who churned out groundbreaking film after groundbreaking film from M.A.S.H. to McCabe and Mrs. Miller to The Long Goodbye to Nashville, for almost a decade he seemed to disappear from the minds of moviegoers. Following the 1980 disaster of Popeye, Altman settled down to make some half-dozen film adaptations of plays by such writers as Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard. Though he was never without work, Altman rarely had much of an audience. Then as the '90s began he seemed to catch on again, first with a well-regarded look at Vincent van Gogh and his brother, and then with the critical hits The Player and Short Cuts.

Both of those films went back to what many consider Altman's main strength, and his main contribution to the art of filmmaking: ensembles, improvisation, overlapping dialogue, multiple and interconnecting story lines, a documentary feel and cameras that roam and eavesdrop to create something that seems real, less than real and more than real all at once.

Younger filmmakers over the years have definitely gone to school on Altman, with even the likes of television (Hill Street Blues and E.R., most notably) copying his style. But it wasn't until recently that he appeared willing to take back that style himself, and it's that seems-to-be-real, ensemble approach that's on screen again in Ready to Wear. While it might seem that Altman wouldn't have been happy watching others co-opt his ideas while he wandered in the filmic wilderness, he says he never minded his imitators. It was their validation of him, Altman says, that gave him the freedom to continue making films the way he wanted. "The kids who are making decisions now and who are actually handing me the money to make these things now look at the whole history of what I've done," says Altman. "They have a different look at it than Jack Warner had. It gives me a chance to continue to be experimental."

Ready to Wear, he says, continues that experimental track, with its mix of what's real and what's not. In the film, for instance,

Kim Basinger plays a ditsy fashion reporter who works for "FAD-TV," which, though it sounds like it's made up, is an actual television channel -- the Fashion And Design channel -- that, at the time of filming, had all its logos and equipment in order but had not yet gone on the air. Letting Altman use it gave the fledgling channel publicity, while it gave Altman, he says, "more reality than if we made up a channel."

Perhaps not so experimental at this point, but still distinctly Altman, was the director's decision to allow his large -- 30-plus character -- cast to become involved in the creative process, depending on them to create their own characters and, in some cases, dialogue. This was not always a plus, admits Sally Kellerman, who's worked with Altman on a number of pictures. The problem, Kellerman says, is that "if you don't think of something clever, you won't make the cut." Or, as Anouk Aimee remarks, likening Altman to Fellini, "You can do what you want, but you end up doing what he wants." When asked about this fight for screen space -- a fight in which there's a real possibility that, by the time editing is done, some of the talent could end up with merely one line of dialogue, or none -- Altman is philosophic.

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