The ‘80s were not kind to Kansas City native Robert Altman.
The filmmaker’s biggest hit (and one of his earliest films), M*A*S*H, was more than a decade behind him. His subsequent output, while often earning critical raves (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville, Popeye) were usually money losers.
Moreover, the cantankerous Altman was outspoken in his disdain for Hollywood and the empty suits who ran it. This did not make him popular among the people with money to invest in movies, and as a result the usual sources of funding dried up.
What’s an outcast director to do? Altman turned to the stage.
He acquired the rights to theater pieces that nobody else was interested in turning into movies and went to work filming versions of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, David Rabe’s Streamers, Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s Secret Honor and Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy.
Though his budgets were small and he was often limited to a single set, Altman’s reputation among actors was such that he attracted top-notch talent willing to work for a pittance: Glenda Jackson, Sandy Dennis, Jeff Goldblum, Matthew Modine, Cher, Julie Hagerty, Tom Conti, David Alan Grier, George Dzundza.
Certainly Altman’s most publicized film from this period was Fool for Love (1985), based on Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-nominated off-Broadway hit. Set in a rundown motel room, it featured brawling lovers who learned too late in their affair that they share the same philandering father.
Opposite him Altman cast former Bond girl/model Kim Basinger. There was no arguing with Basinger's beauty, but some questioned whether the had the acting chops for such a heavy-duty story.
Rounding out the principal players was Harry Dean Stanton, playing the Old Man, who sits in a rocking chair observing the couple’s on again/off again relationship. In the play it was obvious that this was the spirit of their father...in the film it’s much less clear.
Fool for Love is in some ways a cautionary tale of the pitfalls in adapting Shepard to the screen. On stage a Shepard play comes at the audience like an angry pit bull. People do things in Shepard plays that you almost never see in live theater.
In Fool for Love it was physical combat. In the original stage production Harris and Baker literally threw each other around the cheap motel room set, bouncing off walls and smashing furniture. It was hair-raisingly violent.
But of course the movies have always depicted violence...having a man and woman knocking each other around in a movie isn’t exactly cutting edge.
So Altman and Shepard focused more on spiritual/emotional violence, with the woman, May, on the run from her smothering cowboy lover, Eddie.
They also expanded the cast (their weirdest addition was one of Eddie’s old flames, known only as The Countess, who drives up to the fleabag motel in a limo), and tossed in several flashback’s to May and Eddie’s childhood.
Audiences and critics were fiercely divided:
“A strange but effective, startlingly imaginative movie.”
“The kind of movie that will stay lodged in some part of your brain/soul.”
"A somnolent experiment.”
“Good theater doesn't guarantee a good movie.”
“Nowhere near as entertaining as the play.”
Altman never worked again with Shepard, but he directed Basinger again in Prêt-à-Porter (1994) and cast her in Kansas City (1996). Basinger had to drop out of that production, announcing that she and then-husband Alec Baldwin were expecting their first child.
British actress Miranda Richardson took over Basinger’s role in the film, which was shot right here in River City in 1995.
Of course the Robert Altman story ended happily. In the '90s and well into the oughts he once again established himself as a cinematic force to be reckoned with, giving us The Player, Gosford Park, Short Cuts and A Prairie Home Companion.
See Bob's general introduction to the Fool for Cinema film series.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.