Robert Altman's The Player (1992) is an adaptation by Michael Tolkin of his own novel. Tolkin, a professional screenwriter, wrote the novel as a satire on the treatment of writers by Hollywood. Altman is a quirky director who made his name with the hit film M*A*S*H (1970) but has since been elbowed out of Hollywood because his unusual style was not always popular with mainstream audiences. Together, Tolkin and Altman seem to have created The Player to attack those aspects of the filmmaking process that have frustrated them both in the past.
This Entry is aimed at people who have already seen the film, and are mulling over its ideas. If you haven't seen the film before, don't read on!
The central target of the film's satire is the disdain with which film studios treat screenwriters. The main character, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), is a studio executive whose job is to listen to pitches and select those that seem marketable. Out of thousands of pitches by hopeful writers, he must choose only two or three per year.
Griffin's problems begin when he receives anonymous death threats from a writer angered at being ignored. He tracks down the culprit (or so he thinks), and after a heated argument, ends up killing him in a parking lot. Not long after, though, Griffin continues to receive death threats; he has killed the wrong man. The rest of the film depicts Griffin's successful evasion of justice, as suspicious police detectives try but fail to convict him. On the way, Griffin meets and falls in love with the dead writer's girlfriend.
Meanwhile, a subplot depicts a struggling writer, Tom Oakley, whose script Griffin approves in a moment of distraction. Oakley's project is an anti-capital punishment film, which he demands must have no stars, and must have a devastating climax in which an innocent woman dies in the gas chamber: as Oakley insists, 'that's real life!' At the end of The Player, we see the end-product, in which Julia Roberts' death in the gas chamber is averted at the last minute by a gun-toting Bruce Willis. 'What took you so long?' asks Julia. 'Traffic was a bitch,' replies Bruce. In the studio screening room, Oakley explains: 'The preview audiences hated it - that's real life.'
At the end, the contented Griffin returns home to his new wife - the dead writer's girlfriend - explaining his lateness: 'Traffic was a bitch'. And even the anonymous threatening writer has a happy ending, as Griffin agrees to greenlight his new script, The Player, about a scheming studio exec.
The Satire of The Player : What Makes a Good Film?
The Player introduces us to two schools of thought. The first is that good films reflect reality. They are not vehicles for star actors, and their endings should reflect the realities of life, not merely pander to the audience's desire for uplifting escapism. The other school of thought is that followed by the studio men: a film can only be successful if it contains star actors, and has a happy ending.
The Player is somewhat schizophrenic in its attitude to these opposing viewpoints. On the one hand, it presents the studio executives as cynical, slimy, and money-obsessed. It raises a glimmer of hope in the notion of a 'true' film being made, which is dependent entirely on the brilliance of a convincing and socially-important screenplay. It idealises the dream of all screenwriters. Then it shows how this dream will always be crushed.
Yet The Player participates in the very thing it criticises. It has a classical structure, which follows the norms of Hollywood storytelling. And it is chock-full of film stars. The film is famed for its sixty cameos by well-known actors and filmmakers. Ostensibly, these cameos are there to increase the film's realism: it is perfectly normal for film stars to be wandering around Hollywood studios and parties. Yet the camera is in love with the stars, and refuses to treat them as ordinary people. The stars are never shown casually in the background; Altman always zooms in on them, and lingers lovingly on their faces, rather than film them casually. 'Look!' he seems to be saying, 'We've persuaded Cher to be in our movie! Here she is again in case you missed her!'
However, despite this pandering to our star-worshipping urges, The Player does manage to achieve a more subtle critique of the studio system. As a viewer, you are constantly reminded that you're watching a film, and this permits you to analyse the nature of Hollywood filmmaking, rather than simply be sucked in by it. This occurs for two reasons. The first is the effect of the cameo appearances. The huge number of cameos is unlike anything in the other great Hollywood satires, such as Ed Wood and Sunset Boulevard. Although the latter contains a couple of cameos by directors, these men's faces are not well known to the public; their cameos are merely in-jokes for film buffs. By contrast, in The Player, the sheer number of well-known stars makes us aware of the film's artificiality, especially when stars such as Whoopi Goldberg appear, only to reveal that they are in fact playing characters, not themselves.
The real heart of the film's satire, however, lies elsewhere, ie, in the highlighting of the power of structure to affect your responses. The Player rigidly follows the classic Hollywood narrative model: it has a central protagonist - Griffin - with goals that he achieves in the end. What makes its structure different to most Hollywood films is that the protagonist is a complete swine. And yet, because he is the protagonist and because we follow the story through his eyes, it is difficult not to be caught up in the narrative drive and want Griffin to get away with murder. It is difficult not to root for this cold-hearted killer, and feel his fear in the interrogation scenes. This is where the The Player's satire is strongest: it shows us that deep down, we are affected by structure more than we are by morality.
As we have seen, The Player is a clever, but perhaps rather compromised satire. Maybe the real problem is that Altman and Tolkin are attacking the wrong people. After all, executives like Griffin have to choose the scripts that will make money, not the films that are profound - that is their job. The real problem is the audience. A real satire on Hollywood would attack the vacuous popcorn-munchers who refuse to watch anything but formulaic pap. Such a film might well be amazing. But it'll never get made - the preview audiences would hate it...