What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Robert Altman (1925-2006) on the Air

Well, news is spreading fast these days; and by now anyone within reach of a computer will have learned that film director Robert Altman has died on Monday, 20 November 2006, at the age of 81. Since my own web journal can do little to propagate this message, it will provide instead an addendum to the small number of long-prepared and oft-copied obituaries currently circulating in the blogosphere. I have attempted as much on previous occasions by sharing a lesser known aspect of the careers of Don Knotts, Shelley Winters, and composer Cy Feuer, all of whom had connections to the world of radio to which broadcastellan is largely dedicated. As it turns out, Robert Altman is no exception. Indeed, his debt to the medium was far more profound than that of the other artists aforementioned.

To be sure, Altman’s name is already being closely linked to the so-called golden age of radio by virtue of what would be his last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), a filmic realization of a world evoked by radio romancer Garrison Keillor. Altman was greatly influenced by 1940s radio. He revealed as much in a National Public Radio documentary broadcast in May 1995 (a recording of which you may find here). In a tribute to Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph,” Altman made the following statement:

“Anything I know about drama today comes more from Norman Corwin than anybody. If I had to list my mentors, I would say Norman Corwin, David Lean, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, and then a countless number of people whose names I forget where I learned what not do.”

Now, what could Altman have learned “about drama” from Corwin, America’s foremost radio playwright (whose first letter to me I cheered recently)? As a film director, Altman did not fare well on the stage. His production of Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues earlier this year was widely panned; indeed, the reviews were so unfavorable that, while in London at the time, I decided to pass on it, despite my interest in the career of Miller, a former radio writer (one of whose works I discuss here). Perhaps, what Altman did take from Corwin—and what he could do on film more readily than on a stage—was the idea of an ensemble piece comprised of a large cast, a sprawling drama of many voices (such as The Player and Gosford Park). Everybody‘s in it, you think, when you look at the cast for an Altman production.

The same can be said for the signature pieces written and directed by Norman Corwin—plays with a vast number of characters, their stories intersecting, their voices adding up to something, to an idea, a statement, about Hollywood, for instance, about politics, about the state of American society. Corwin’s seminal On a Note of Triumph was such a piece, a play for voices; not a choir, mind you, but a cacophony; not a traditional drama of linear storytelling, but a fictionalized documentary, a record of a moment. Of this play, Altman said, some fifty years after its initial broadcast: “I can recite 40% of On a Note of Triumph from memory,” having listened to it “time and time again.”

I had not been aware of Altman’s admiration of Corwin’s work, until today. Come to think of it, both Corwin and Altman were belatedly honored at the Academy Awards this year, Altman receiving a lifetime achievement award, and Corwin being the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary about the making of “On a Note of Triumph.” Now, when I watch Altman’s films, I will look for Corwin and “Anything” he might have brought to the craft of the late director.

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