john b. cribbs

In this nine-part series, The Pink Smoke will be plumbing the murky depths of the filmography of legendary director Robert Altman, a master of le cinema who in his wildly inconsistent career created not only some legendarily awful movies, but at least a dozen films overlooked and half-remembered even by his admirers.

We'll be skipping consensus "secret masterpieces" like California Split or Secret Honor in order to focus on his most polarizing, universally despised and simply forgotten films.

robert altman, 1979.

"Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?" This musing, as insightful and self-deprecating as it is insecure and desperate, comes from Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. His character in that classic is bitter, cynical, mean to the point that he could almost be considered the film's disgruntled villain were he not objectively ethical (and unobjectively head over heels in love with Holly Hunter's fierce TV news producer.) He's unwilling to sell out, but his moral high ground over the loose journalistic integrity of pretty boy anchor/romantic rival William Hurt makes him impossibly trenchant to the point that he isolates everyone around him. As an onscreen personality, he's a disaster. Although his co-workers respect him, he's constantly clashing with the corporate executives and being ignored by the network's celebrity reporter. This makes him one of history's most courageous losers: he believes in what he does, but lacks the personality to back it up with superficial success. He's outwardly adorable but at the drop of the hat turns surly and gruff. (Incidentially, the character's last name? It's Altman.)

I bring up Brooks because, going into A Perfect Couple, I expected it to be like Modern Love - they're both L.A. stories that pair a shlubby character actor with a stringy actress whose name nobody remembers. In Altman's film, Paul Dooley's divorced video dater pines for love, but unlike your basic Albert Brooks character his strength is his indefatigable confidence, which masks a largely shallow interior. He rationalizes a relationship for himself that is hopelessly idealized, but rather than self-involved second-guessing a'la Brooks it comes from a genuine, unrealistic romantic expectation. He's not neurotic because he can't afford to be, clearly seeing himself as a beggar rather than a chooser, but you wouldn't know it from his tireless self-assuredness and determination to join the "choosers" by accessing the profiles of L.A.-based dating service Great Expectations as "Alex 207." Through the agency he finds "Sheila 312," played by Marta Heflin, and his loving nature and inner-battle against total despondency keeps drawing him to her despite an obvious incompatibility. Over the 110 minute running time - shorter if you were to remove what must be at least 15 minutes worth of music sequences - these two meet, break up and make up at least five times, the excuse for each reconciliation seemingly nothing more than their mutual recognition of the other's insecurity and desperation. There are no big sappy speeches on Dooley's part to win Heflin: he just has to get her to accidentally whack him over the head with a fireplace poker, or repel her rejection so adamantly that he ends up wearing her down with pure persistance. Their miserable first date ends with an unexpectedly charming sequence in which Dooley, so desperate for a goodnight kiss, first escorts her to the steps of her building, then the front door, then the entrance of the elevator, then into the elevator for an awkward ride up after which she attempts to physically barricade him from the apartment. Undeterred, Dooley literally sticks his head through the closing gate to seal the deal - the surprise is that it turns out to be a deep, long, sweet kiss that she clearly enjoys and his effort, albeit overreaching, has been worth it. She finds herself going to the window to watch him get into his car; when he assuredly shouts "I'll call you tomorrow!" you want to applaud his sheer brazenness.

I won't remind everyone who Paul Dooley is - for that, you can hop over and read the first paragraph of Funderburg's thoughts on A Wedding, although I will refute Chris' assumption that the earlier Altman film is Dooley's most visible role. That part, downplayed thanks to the film's large ensemble, was more of the standard doting, disapproving dad Dooley special, but back when Jules Feiffer referred to Altman giving Dooley "some of his best roles" he couldn't possibly have meant Snooks, Wimpy or Mr. Schwab. This has to be his biggest part: between A Perfect Couple and Breaking Away, 1979 to 1980 were big years for Dooley (his star power spanning two decades!) It has to be said that if this movie works it's because of Dooley, who strikes the right balance between helpless and resentful and is just lovable enough not to be excessively creepy. He somehow manages to avoid caricature despite showing up for dates in searsucker suits armed with cheesy puns and pick-up lines. His face lights up so wonderfully that his sunken bulldog eyes become expressive; you can see why Heflin would fall for ol' puppy dog Paul Dooley despite his tacky approach and unattractive over-enthusiasm. Which is saying a lot for Dooley's performance, because Heflin - apparently most famous for being Van Heflin's niece - is largely a dud. She just doesn't seem like much of an actress, and really only comes alive when being charmed by Dooley.* Otherwise, she makes a frustratingly ambiguous character even harder to read. She has an inward disposition, doesn't really talk much (rare for Altman female characters who aren't dead or pretending to be mute), seems generally unhappy for no apparent reason and has moments where she freezes as if hypnotized (like the female iguana's defense mechanism in Rango) that goes entirely unexplained. The part was written for Shelley Duvall** and seems like it would have better fit her flighty personality, although if the ultimate goal was "mismatched duo" Dooley and Heflin more than fit the bill. To further highlight their lack of chemistry, Altman adds a recurring "ideal" twosome, a cooing man and woman with no lines or awareness of their flagrant PDA, as contrast. This actual "perfect couple" first turns up at Dooley and Heflin's first date at an outdoor concert which, like The Company, is under the threat of being rained out. Which it is, causing Dooley to clumsily escort Heflin to his car while the other couple remain enjoying their picnic under the shelter of an umbrella in their matching pink outfits, the first instance I can think of where the font color of the movie's opening credits is visually linked to a set of characters who never speak a word of dialogue between them.

With this couple rematerializing throughout the film, Altman states his clear intention: to make an anti-romantic movie about an atypical, unconventional couple starring actors who normally wouldn't play these kind of roles. That makes it a hard movie to judge. Since its grand scheme is to defy the conventions of a romantic comedy so that it purposely hits false notes in terms of tone, rhythm and plot resolution, everything that seems wrong is theoretically right. But that just seems like letting it off the hook, and there's an undeniable arrogance on Altman's part to pointedly counteract everything that's supposed to make a romantic comedy fun and charming. On the other hand, since the director doesn't do romance or comedy very well, this was probably the right way to go.*** You don't see many characters fall in love in Altman's early films, and his couples are generally doomed (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Quintet), unfaithful (3 Women, A Wedding) or end up maiming, killing or imprisoning each other (Buffalo Bill, Images, That Cold Day in the Park.) The obvious exception is Bowie and Keechie in Thieves Like Us: although they too are ultimately doomed, Altman takes us all the way through their relationship from the first night they spend together, listening to a dramatization of Romeo and Juliet on the radio. Like in the play, Bowie's commitment to Keechie is threatened by loyalties to his own "family" - one of crooks and bank robbers - and it's family issues that constantly pull Dooley and Herflin apart. But as a couple they're more likely to engage in spontaneous shouting matches throwing unfounded accusations at one another than indulge in several long, unhurried scenes enjoying each other's company as Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall do. The closest these two couples come to being alike are when the respective female lead tends to her man's wounds, only in the case of A Perfect Couple, Heflin was the one who inflicted them! Anti-romance, while not as aesthetically pleasing, turns out to be a better fit for Altman's sensibilities and the things that make up actual relationships - jealousy, irrationalism, resentment, insecurity and desperation - are what he understands very well. Adding a pleasant, entertaining factor like Paul Dooley into the mix does half the director's work for him; since he's so good-natured and his desire for happiness so relatable, it never feels like Altman is making fun of him. He's rooting for him, like the audience should be.

In my recent Frustrating Filmographies article, I said that Altman may be one of the most difficult directors in terms of what about his movies actually works. I think a better way to phrase that might be, it's sometimes nearly impossible to guess what he intended to work. The director's auteurism was based on his natural instinct to explore, so that fresh ideas frequently enter the filmmaking process and obliterate any semblance of formula. As I said in my previous writing, people seem to give movies like A Prairie Home Companion a pass because they feel like the common conception of an Altman classic; I think it's more interesting when he takes risks and tries something different so that the completed project turns out a little less recognizable (which is what I like about Quintet.) A Perfect Couple's title suggests Altman's sarcastic objective, but it also signifies an attempt to try something different. The movie's original title was A Romance, the change most likely a result of A Wedding's box office failure but possibly a decision by the director to distance himself from the "Altman comedy" feel of the previous film. Several of the leads (Dooley, Heflin, Allan F. Nicholls, Dennis Franz, Belita Moreno, Ann Ryerson, Margery Bond) were in A Wedding but get more room to develop memorable characters since it's not a cluster of cast members. Having just sat through the earlier movie, it's also satisfying that A Perfect Couple doesn't go for broad satire - although it does tend towards broad farce, it doesn't target dating or romantic ritual the way A Wedding is a clear attack on the pompous formality and forced familial connections of ceremonies and receptions (although I am curious how Altman feels about the Great Expectations video dating service - he's obviously fascinated by it and its portrayal doesn't seem particularly mean-spirited; even noted cynic Harlan Ellison wrote a gushing article on the company back in 1978, a year before the film was released.) The movie's target, if it has one, is the Hollywood love story, from which Altman drains all passion (the relationship is never officially consummated, i.e. there's no sex scene) and mushy sentimentality (even when the couple are finally together, she spits out a grape he lovingly tries to feed her.) And while the characters' on-off, love-hate affair is firmly in the tradition of slapstick rom-coms (The Awful Truth, Twentieth Century, The Lady Eve) it veers so suddenly and often inexplicably from one extreme to the other it's almost like Altman set out to sabotage any attempt by the script to attempt to develop a believable relationship between them. At the same time that he's violating the rules of the romantic comedy, Altman has the same fondness for the two main characters that he did for Bowie and Keechie and can't help but romanticize the idea that maybe they are the "perfect couple." So there's a little bit of uncertainty going on as far as what direction Altman wants to take the film; there's evidence of his honest intentions conflicting with his snide mockery in Dooley's response to the question of what he's looking for in a companion on his taped interview with Great Expectations: "I'm interested in having a relationship that's, uh...well I don't like to say meaningful, because everybody says meaningful..." Dooley does want a meaningful relationship, but to outright say so would be sappy and cliché, just as Altman skewering the traditional love story is his own way of staying above the material when he seems to want to let it coast on its own idiosyncratic charms.

Such is Altman's self-defeating second-guessing of his own intentions, and his primary weapon against himself is, as always, a cast of goofy supporting characters. In this case, Dooley and Heflin are each trying to escape their own eccentric families made up of "freaks" and "weirdos." Dooley is obsequiously tethered to his large patriarchal Greek family with Titos Vandis standing in for Vittorio Gassman as the Mediterranean heavy, who leads his extended clan around like weary soldiers through the corridors of the giant house they all live in. The family most notably includes two apparent son-in-laws, Dennis Franz's free-loading dim-wit who asks why people go to live concerts when the stereo sounds just as good and Henry Gibson's brown-nose saboteur who is seemingly scheming to get Dooley ousted from the family (there are early shades of Werner Klopek in his bizarre performance.) Every member of this snooty, morally-rigorous, emotionally-cold network is a broad bourgeoisie lampoon, laying the groundwork for Altman's irritating send-up of the Schwab dynasty in O.C. and Stiggs, whatever real-life archetypes they're meant to be satirizing completely confounding. The exception is Dooley's sweet, saint-like younger sister Eleousa (well maybe not younger, but certainly shorter), who constantly encourages him to abandon the nest and find happiness on his own. Meanwhile, Heflin's "unit" is a Fleetwood Mac-type disco/soft rock/synth pop/white soul supergroup who live together in a communal loft in Little Tokyo under the thumb of their own tyrannical father figure, demanding workaholic lead singer Teddy. This living arrangement is an artist's haven, the "rooms" barely separated by hanging curtains, and completely opposite (although no less oddly incestuous) to the ultra-conservative household Dooley is trapped in. Among them are a singing lesbian couple who are excited for a baby one of them is expecting thanks to a night with a flamboyant male band member and a bottle of Demerara rum. Teddy already has an infant of his own, and is frequently trading the baby for a beer with his on-hand groupie-wife.

Recycled from Nashville are the abundance of musical numbers, performed by this colony of singers and musicians under the name Keepin' Em Off the Streets, put together for the film by co-screenwriter/co-star Allan F. Nicholls, who appeared in and wrote music for Nashville (he was also one of the co-writers/stars of A Wedding.) Just as Nashville has some genuinely decent country ditties that I can't tell whether or not are supposed to be bad, A Perfect Couple has some horrible tunes that I can't tell whether or not are supposed to be good ("Lonely Millionaire," the one kind of interesting song, is credited to the great Cliff De Young who, before his classic turns in James Foley's Reckless, Manny Coto's Dr. Giggles and Joey Lawrence's Pulse,**** was the lead singer in a 60's band that played with The Doors, Janis Joplin etc.) However good the band is or is not meant to be, it serves as a kind of greek chorus in the same way Lindsay Anderson used Alan Price & co. in O Lucky Man!, although if the songs are supposed to have a linking narrative they're drowned out by the singers' over-enthusiastic warbling. Heflin has two numbers that are slower and easier to follow and suggest that she's lost and lonely and lookin' for love, but since the character is miserable being in the group (I guess? Again, Heflin is so consistently maudlin it's kind of hard to tell what it is she's unhappy about) her performance on stage is underwhelmingly adequate at best.

These back-up characters are the movie's biggest problem, mainly because Dooley's family recalls the stupid squabbling family members from A Wedding and the much-maligned Schwabs in O.C. and Stiggs while Keepin' Em Off the Streets are a hold-over from the overlong music acts of Nashville. That they should be considered funny in any way just taps into the director's problem with comedy in general: he seems to criticize these crazy youngsters while also paradying the Old Money "traditional" family; somewhere inbetween are this "perfect couple." There's nothing funny about these off-the-wall whackadoos and Altman spends way too much time trying to milk humor out of deadpan, sitcom-y situations like Dooley's entire family showing up at his bedroom door when he's trying to make it with Heflin. Like many of the director's films the more obvious attempts at comedy fall pretty flat. But there's a weird language to the movie, where it seems like in place of one-liners there's something different. There are a ton of throwaway gags that are simple contradictions, like Dooley's indignant line "I was a little bit late, but I was on time!" and a pregnant girl who only gets "morning sickness at night." Other characters speak as though they're consciously commenting on the script, such as an ER doctor following Dooley's story of his lazy ex-wife having an affair with the inquiry "How'd she meet a saxophone player if she was in bed all the time?" Then there are bits of dialogue that combine the two off-beat styles, most memorably when Dooley doppleganger Dana 115 reacts to Heflin hitting our hero Dooley with a fireplace poker by limply holding the blunt instrument in his hand, looking around the apartment and then proclaiming "You don't even have a fireplace!" These awkward quips, so subtle that they hardly seem like jokes at all, are most effective when they say something about the character who's saying them: at one point Dooley claims he's going to "make a stand" against his father, only to instantly stand at attention like a frightened new recruit when the old man enters the room. And yet most of them are given to one-sceners, peripheral figures who enter and exit the film before they get a chance to wear out their welcome. Their quick and quiet moments are so much more satisfying than the broad Altman humor applied to Dooley's family and Heflin's group of hippy musician friends.

Since we're dealing with the Altman movie that's most about the relationship between a man and the women in his life (until Dr. T and the Women, which is really just best to forget entirely), I have to take a minute to talk about Robert Altman and the Women. For the most part, and almost entirely throughout his female-dominated films like Images and 3 Women, Altman shows a sensitive curiosity about what's going on in a lady's head. To help him interpret what might be happening in there, Altman often pulls female artists to collaborate with and weaves their creativity into the narrative, whether it be Bodhi Wind's paintings in 3 Women (the strange murals created by the Janice Rule character), the bizarre children's story Susannah York was actually writing at the time of production that forms the cryptic narration of Images or the songs Ronee Blakley wrote and performed in Nashville. Here Altman's visiting artist is piano soloist Mona Golabek, billed as "Mona," who is so passionately devoted to her craft she stays out on stage playing piano when the rain ruins the opening concert and everybody else runs for shelter - she doesn't even recognize the storm around her. Remarkably, these artist types end up being depicted by Altman as mysterious and untrusting of men, withdrawn (to the point of mental breakdown in the cases of York and Blakley) and sexually ambiguous (some with androgynous names like Frances and Willie.) Mona has what's eluded to be a more-than-platonic relationship with Dooley's sister Eleousa: their conservative father disapproves of their friendship and Eleousa is shy and elusive when she reveals her plot to move out of the house to live with Mona. Altman has always had a part-empowering, part-dude attitude towards gay women, a this-is-definitely-weird-but-lighten-up-man-let-the-ladies-continue approach to showing two females being intimate in everything from A Wedding to Dr. T and the Women from the year 2000. The interesting comparison in A Perfect Couple of course is the happily "out" singing duo from Heflin's gypsy camp who are planning on having a child together, and their being part of the group commune is certainly meant to make it seem more "deviant" than the repressive Greek home. Again there's that dual Altman stance where he presents this arrangement as weird while also using it as a gateway to Dooley's casting off of his conservative ties. Dooley ends up learning from his exposure to these women: although remarkably innocent in his old-fashion approach, he's still shown to have vulnerable moments of chauvinism (he doesn't recognize Mona when she comes by the shop and tries to hit on her, later after being rejected by Heflin yet again he sets himself up for rebound sex with a tall blonde veterinarian through Great Expectations.) But his sudden exposure to these Women Without Men - not to get too Celluloid Closet here - open him up to the idea that a perfect couple could be different than his own embellished perception of one.

The tragedy - Greek tragedy, if you will - is that Eleousa dies at the end. It's a real kick-in-the-pants scene because, even though it's been set up early on that she has some kind of heart condition, her death comes after a long stretch where it seemed like the character had already exited the movie. Altman killing the most recognizably human character at first seems just plain mean-spiritied, especially since Dooley entering the house wearing a goofy t-shirt to the shocking sight of Eleousa laid out in a casket is somewhat comedic, like Painless' mock-funeral in M*A*S*H. (The late 70's were a dangerous time to be a strong female character in an Altman film: two women die in A Wedding, one a wise old grandmother above the fatuous histrionics of the wedding guests, the other a free-spirited, independent young lady who runs off with the rugged young guy only to die with him in a car wreck; interestingly, the clueless bride is spared this fate and the obnoxious Mia Farrow character is allowed to live. Also in Quintet, three different women are murdered by three different men.) But it's Eleousa's death that directly leads to Dooley's emancipation from the family, plotwise because his father disowns him out of disappointment although it's really the killing of that independent will that makes Dooley finally appreciate the "deviant" lifestyle of Heflin and her "freak" friends at the commune. In the next, final scene of the film, a jarring transition leaving behind a multitude of unanswered questions and potential third act conflicts - Where is Dooley going to live? What's he going to do for a living now that he's not working at his father's antique store? Was Eleousa's death really due to her health or was she murdered by her father so she wouldn't leave the family to live with Mona? - Altman cuts to a surreal image of "three women" on stage - the mother (Teddy's wife, rocking with her baby), Mona the dedicated artist playing piano and Heflin (herself inbetween these two "free" and "matronly" stages.) The image is surreal because these characters who have had no connection up to now are suddenly together without explaination, and the film ends with Dooley and Heflin happy together where they started, at an outdoor concert, while the pink, PDA couple are showing their first signs of being not-so-perfect. Who wants to be perfect when insecurity and desperation can be so much more attractive?

Is A Perfect Couple the holy grail of lost early Altman masterpieces? If forced to choose (with acknowledged buried treasures California Split and 3 Women out of the running) I'd say short answer yes with an "if," long answer no with a "but." As far as the Altman-Dooley collaborations go it's by far the best. As far as Dooley's filmography, it's not as good as Breaking Away but is better than Grace Under Fire.

~ 2012 ~
* The "Sandy Dennis cat lady" anecdote related in Chris' footnotes is too crazy not to be true, although in the recent Robert Altman: An Oral Biography, Dooley claims Altman had wanted Duvall for the role but was pissed off because she went to work on another project. Dooley says he didn't even realize he had been cast until Altman put an ad in Variety announcing his next film as "A Perfect Couple starring Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin." So who knows what really happened there.
** Also I just want to say that I agree with Chris that it's kind of embarrassing to have to bring up the collective lack of looks among Altman's leading ladies, but isn't it kind of a cringe-worthy revelation that by far the most conventionally attractive actress in his films before 1990 is Sally Kellerman?Well ok I guess it would actually be young Kim Basinger in Fool for Love...but he made up for that by casting Julie Hagerty in his next two movies.
*** I agree with Eric Pfriender that he does do romance well in The Company, but let's just say I'm focusing on the early films here.
** ** If you think I'm joking about these being classic roles, you don't know me very well. For Rocky Horror fans, he replaced Barry Bostwick in the largely-disregarded sequel Shock Treatment. Most recently he was in Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere.