Altman's fortune

Robert Altman finds his Paul McCartney in screenwriter Anne Rapp.

Published June 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Director Robert Altman and screenwriter Anne Rapp make their partnership sound as complementary as Lennon and McCartney's. It sparked with the current art-house hit "Cookie's Fortune," and continued with their collaboration on the forthcoming "Dr. T and the Women," which stars Richard Gere, in Altman's words, "as a pussy-whipped Dallas gynecologist."

"Basically, Bob and I have a similar sense of humor and sensibility," says Rapp, "and we stay in the same arena of how to tell a story. But I get a lot sappier and he gets a lot more cynical; I need hardening and he needs softening." When it comes to form, I think the reverse is true. Altman conjures atmospheric breezes so redolent in color and in meaning that they waft off the screen; Rapp creates structures that focus and intensify them so they keep on whistling through your mind.

Rapp's script for "Cookie's Fortune" is a marvelous contraption -- both firm and porous. It plunks down a multiracial olio of characters (played by the likes of Courtney B. Vance and Liv Tyler and Lyle Lovett) in the middle of unique farcical situations, such as an Easter church production of "Salome" and a homicide investigation that plays like a Dixie division of the Keystone Kops.

What Rapp and others see as Altman's genius for improvisation, he simply views as common sense. "I've got to think of it this way," he says. "I want to see something I've never seen before. I try to keep the arc of possibilities as broad as I can for the actors; if I say something, it will narrow them down. I make the cast work. They became actors in the first place to create, and that's what I want to see them do."

Since Altman himself calls the film "a non-murder mystery," perhaps it doesn't give the plot away to say that it centers on the suicide of a long-grieving widow, Cookie (Patricia Neal), a fixture in the small town of Holly Springs, Miss. Cookie's niece, Camille (Glenn Close), ashamed of having a suicide in the family, tries to cover it up; Cookie's best friend, a black man named Willis (Charles S. Dutton), gets jailed on suspicion of murder. At first, Camille, the director of "Salome" (starring Cookie's other niece, Julianne Moore's hilariously cowed Cora), comes off as a pillar of the community. But it doesn't take long to see that Willis is a beloved figure and that the sheriff (Danny Darst) and his deputies (Ned Beatty, Chris O'Donnell) won't let the out-of-town investigator (Vance) lay a hand on him.

This contemporary but old-timey movie has some witty topical references: Easygoing Willis says he won't take a drink "before Tom Brokaw," for instance. But as Altman lays bare the crossed love connections in a quiet Southern hamlet, he restores the humanizing gentleness of a pre-media era. A lifetime of authority -- both in filmmaking and in actual experience -- has gone into making this bittersweet comedy hilarious and compelling. Three decades ago, Altman said that in his early years in Kansas City, Mo., he didn't regret mundane rituals like washing his car on Sundays. Even then, he was soaking up everyday details that would give his films vibrations at a time when studio-bred filmmakers routinely flushed real life away. He directed industrial films and dozens of TV shows before he broke through at age 44 with his second feature, "M*A*S*H" (1969). His attitude is as fresh and his technique as deft as ever in "Cookie's Fortune" -- a film that stands out just as vividly from the ruck of Hollywood (and off-Hollywood) "product" as "M*A*S*H" did in its day.

This movie has all the Altman trademarks. His performers feint, waltz and flop; their words echo and rebound. The director orchestrates musical moods and images to draw audiences in and activate, not coerce, their emotions. But rarely has each figure in an Altman film been this multidimensional and sharply drawn, with deeds so surprising yet inevitable. And that's partly a tribute to Rapp, whose talent Altman values so highly that he put her under contract two and a half years ago after reading her first published short story.

Throughout his career, Altman has oscillated between treating scripts as jumping-off points and probing them as respectfully as any stage director. (In the mid-'80s, he became the director of filmed plays, notably "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" and "Secret Honor.") Promoting "Prjt-`-Porter (Ready to Wear)" several years ago, he described the script solely as "a blueprint." But shortly after "Nashville" (1975) he told Playboy, "My work is not really as loose and frenetic and unorthodox as everyone seems to think."

These days he's in his "Nashville" mode. He told me that "Cookie's Fortune," still holding strong in theaters, will return at award season, precisely because he and his co-producers "hope the script gets recognized." Although Altman himself comes from the Bible Belt and made "Thieves Like Us" in small-town Mississippi, he gives Rapp credit for creating the film's organic community.

Of course, the movie's town didn't start out with the name Holly Springs, and the story didn't begin as an intricate ensemble piece. Rapp told me that the kernel of her script was the quizzical event that took hold of her mind: "a suicide, and covering up a suicide, and having the coverup backfiring."

Once the script evolved into a piece where the town became a character, Altman's production people (including his production-designer son Stephen) went looking for locations all through Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. They locked onto Holly Springs. "It fit everything," Altman says. "It has 7,000 people in it, half black, half white, and there must be 20 churches in it. We had very little money to make the picture [$8 million for 36 days]; normally you would shoot one little town for one section, another town for another. But not when we found Holly Springs. We rewrote the script, not to make any changes in the dramaturgy, but to be able to use the town as a set. We didn't even have to change the signs."

Funny he should say that. Altman turns the town's various memorial signs into a fond comic motif, capped when a liquor store desk plaque states, "On this site in 1897, nothing happened."

For Altman, the whole point of directing on location is not to predigest a milieu, but "to go to a place like Holly Springs, and move into it. That way, nothing slips by you in terms of any uniqueness." It also allows actors and technicians to relax and pool resources in a bracing new environment. Close loved the looseness of biking to work, gaily waving back at fans on the way. Altman would host big dinners for cast and crew twice a week at his place "and we'd all go on the porch and shoot fireflies."

But what made it possible for Altman to exploit the settings was Rapp's evocative writing. "Bob's so visual," says Rapp, "that as soon as you lay a story out in front of him you see the wheels start turning. He finds ways of capturing a place that are both honest and unusual. If you give him material where the setting is already strong, he really can take off with it."

The South shown in "Cookie's Fortune" is the opposite of that portrayed in movies like "Ghosts of Mississippi" and "Mississippi Burning," in which the divisions between blacks and whites -- and between poor whites and puffed-up gentry -- are static and menacing.

In this movie, a self-styled grande dame like Close's Camille may look down her patrician nose at everyone. But the rest of the village bases its relationships on practical and instinctive grounds -- like who would be fun to go fishing with. Neither Camille nor Cora is close to their aunt Cookie; her nearest and dearest are Tyler's Emma, her wild grandniece, and Willis, who lives in Cookie's guest room and hangs out at the local juke joint/blues bar.

Filming in Holly Springs helped give Altman and Rapp the feeling that they had gotten things right. Says Altman: "The chief of police and the mayor are both black, and though the population is split down the middle, black and white, there isn't any racial turmoil that one can see. I'm not saying there's no separation down there, but people do mix freely." The specifics of the script proved to be spot on. Delta bluesman Junior Kimbrough's legendary juke joint was a mere eight miles out of town. (The film's composer, David A. Stewart, had gone there for the shooting of Robert Mugge's "Deep Blues" documentary eight years before.) And if Rapp worried that the catfish industry had grown too massive for small businesses like the one she'd envisioned, Altman's team discovered a one-man operator from 20 miles away, who taught Lovett how to clean his catch as the head of Manny's Wholesale Catfish.

For all the film's documentary veracity, Holly Springs was foremost a fictional town in Rapp's mind -- a compound of a portion of the Texas Panhandle and the Mississippi hamlet where she went to fulfill an adult dream. Rapp's family had a cotton farm near the minuscule West Texas town of Estelline, and she attended Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, Texas, on a basketball scholarship (although, she says, she's "what people in the South would call 'a chicken-eating Methodist'"). Her ex-husband, another onetime athlete named Ned Dowd, entered Hollywood's ranks as a bit player (a hockey player, he appeared as one in "Slap Shot," written by his sister Nancy) before becoming an assistant director (twice for Altman) and finally a producer. Rapp and Altman knew each other vaguely when she was married to Dowd and working as a script supervisor for directors like Sydney Pollack, which she did for 15 years.

During the shooting of Pollack's "The Firm" (mostly in Memphis), she fell in love with William Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Miss. It had a great bookstore (Square Books) and a university where one of her favorite authors, Barry Hannah, taught creative writing. She wrote Hannah a note; he let her into his class. She ended up turning out short stories and staying in Oxford for two and a half years. In that time, a film editor of Altman's read a story she had published in Gordon Lish's Quarterly and gave it to the director. He called her up and asked if she ever thought of writing movies. "I only moved back to L.A. when he hired me; I thought if I was going to do this, I'd have to do it right and be in Bob's face."

The solidity of Rapp's scripts may stem from her love of the short story. "You can't make any mistakes when you work in that form," she says. Indeed, her best-loved writers are still short story writers. They include Lee K. Abbott ("His stories touch me so much, when I pick up a new collection and read one, I don't want to taint it with something else; I read a story a night, and stop") and Larry Brown (a former Oxford firefighter who took up fiction and by example "gave me the courage to do it myself," she says; "he made me see that if you write with your heart, with honesty and with a keen eye for observing the absurd details of life, you'd don't have to have a huge literary background").

Rapp's intuitive mastery allows a movie like "Cookie's Fortune" to skitter through a full social cross-section without seeming show-offy or arbitrary. There is purposefulness beneath the sprawl. In Rapp's words, "You can trace every element in it to the good and bad results of family pride."

She and Altman take an enormous risk when they begin the film with a lovely, leisurely ode to Cookie and Willis' friendship -- as full an expression of family bonds in the face of mortality as anything I've seen since John Huston's "The Dead." They knew they'd get reactions like "The film started off slow and then got good," Rapp says, but they were convinced that before Cookie commits suicide and Willis is thrown in the clink, "You needed to know who she was so you could understand how her suicide affects him and her nieces. Anyhow," Rapp continues, "the rhythm of the film fits the way I see life. You know: the day starts slow, then something happens and it builds and snowballs. Everything was worth it when Paul Newman went to a screening and told Bob, 'I love the patience of the movie.' When you have Paul Newman on your side, who needs MTV?"

According to Rapp, the patience Newman loves comes most of all from the man beside the camera. "Bob wants us to go out on a limb -- we know he'll catch us if we fall, and that only if you go to the end of the limb do you get to where the berries are."

She relishes the berries the actors pick, too. She came up with a killer line for Beatty as the deputy who says he knows that Willis is innocent "because I've fished with him." But it has even greater impact because Beatty and Sheriff Darst have been ad-libbing fishermen's talk from the opening minutes of the movie. And when Willis is jailed, Beatty caps the scene by asking Willis if he's heard that a mutual friend "landed a 14-pounder." Rapp says, "You relax the moment you hear it: You know that Willis isn't going to fry."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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