'Ready to Wear' PR machine is ready to crank

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Robert Altman's latest film, "Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)," has so many in jokes and visual puns that you wonder if the director hadn't planned this scene as one big ironic capper: Nearly 200 of the worst-dressed people in America interviewing a score of superbly dressed film stars playing people connected to the world of high fashion.

One of the worst-dressed is your correspondent. I can assure anyone who's ever wondered about it that nothing can make you more aware that your socks don't match than wandering through suites in New York's Waldorf Astoria, dodging publicists dressed like fashion models and snatching moments of conversation with Lauren Bacall, Tim Robbins, Tracey Ullman, Forest Whitaker, Sally Kellerman, Danny Aiello, Stephen Rea and Richard E. Grant, among others.

Not among the others are Julia Roberts, Lyle Lovett, Kim Basinger, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, all of whom are in "Ready To Wear" (which opened Christmas Day) but are not available for this deluxe press junket designed to seduce hick journalists from Hartford, Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, Louisville, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Miami, West Palm Beach, Houston, Philadelphia -- you know, any place that's not New York.

I have too much integrity to be seduced, which is fortunate, since I live in New Jersey and am thus ineligible to be flown in to spend three days at one of New York's great luxury hotels and stuffed with gourmet food and champagne -- all in exchange for writing stories about "Ready to Wear." It's a dirty job, and no one really has to do it.

While waiting to interview Tracey Ullman and Forest Whitaker, I do some arithmetic and figure the minimum cost of bringing such a huge chunk of the entertainment press to New York for three days, and the figure hovers between $300,000 and $400,000 (depending upon what kind of breaks you get for buying tickets en masse). The budget for "Vincent and Theo," Mr. Altman's brilliant but little-seen masterpiece on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, may well have been less than the cost of just the press junket for "Ready to Wear." It's a strange feeling to see this kind of publicity machine cranking up for the work of a man who, for nearly the last quarter-century, has been the ultimate film industry maverick.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I accepted free parking and a T-shirt -- and if you think these freebies compromised what you're reading now, you're just going to have to see "Ready to Wear" and judge for yourself.

My unseduced judgment is that whether or not you're a fan of Mr. Altman's films, you could do a great deal worse than spend nearly 2 1/2 hours with "Ready to Wear." Even Mr. Altman's legendary failures, such as "The Wedding" or "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" or "Health" or "Brewster McCloud," have something to hold the attention of discerning viewers, but "Ready to Wear" struts its confidence like a veteran model parading down the runway. It's the crowning technical achievement of Robert Altman's late phase, the one that began with the surprise hit of 1992, "The Player," and continued last year with his seamless adaptation of Raymond Carver stories, "Short Cuts." "Ready to Wear" uses the politics of the fashion world as a backdrop for a typical Altman epic.

Film-goers will recognize a lot of Altmanesque devices in "Ready to Wear" -- the running gag (or, in this case, walking gag: Everyone in Paris seems to be stepping in doggy doo), the amusing and sometimes annoying multivoice track on which every actor seems to be talking at once, the central figure at a microphone and commenting on the proceedings (the P.A. announcer in "M*A*S*H," Geraldine Chaplin and her tape recorder in "Nashville").

In this film, that central figure is Kim Basinger (replete with amusing cracker accent) as a fashion reporter for FAD-TV. Even those who don't get the Altman connections will laugh at much of the film; you needn't have seen previous Altman films in order to guffaw when Ms. Basinger's character gushes to a designer "You've had a lock on the look of the '90s for decades."

One characteristic of Mr. Altman's films that never changes is the dizzying number of prominent actors and just plain celebrities who want to appear in them; if there are no roles left to fill out, they'll settle for a walk-on. In "Ready to Wear," Harry Belafonte, Cher and others pop up for no apparent reason.

The budget for "Ready to Wear" isn't divulged, but it probably isn't what Hollywood would call "big budget"; Mr. Altman's epics always look more expensive than they are because of the number of high-profile actors willing to appear in them for next to nothing.

Tracey Ullman, a newcomer to Altman films, thinks this is because "There's still something rather naughty about Bob, even after all these years. He's still the ultimate Hollywood outsider." Ms. Ullman, who plays a vulture-like editor for British Vogue, says: "People in the mainstream for the film industry still get a bit of a tingle when you tell them you're working on the latest Altman movie. It's a bit like, 'Oh, God, what's he up to this time?' "

Sally Kellerman, who played the immortal "Hot Lips" Houlihan 24 years ago in "M*A*S*H," says: "You still get goose bumps when you start a new film with Bob. You still feel like you're at the vanguard of cinema, you know, like you're going to be in on some kind of experiment."

The subject of all this talk is a spry, roguish-looking man who is a good 40 pounds lighter than 18 years ago when, in the wake of the national debate over "Nashville," he appeared on the cover of Newsweek. "No drinking, less smoking, better food, less stress, more success," says Mr. Altman with a chuckle. "My only real vice in old age is making films."

Mr. Altman, who alternates living in Paris and Los Angeles, still feigns a Kansas-City-boy persona when it suits him, and it often suits him when answering journalists. In reply to "Why an epic about the inner workings of the fashion industry?" he airily waves his hand. "I don't know . . . about the fashion business, and that's why it fascinated me. All the politics and backbiting and internecine warfare -- it's like espionage was 20 or 30 years ago, but better dressed."

In any event, he says, "I didn't really make a movie about how the business works. I made a film about how it looks like it works to an outsider like me. I've never really known much about the subjects I've made movies about -- I mean, I hadn't read Raymond Carver before 'Short Cuts,' and I really didn't know zTC that much about country music before 'Nashville.' "

"Hollywood?" I suggest. Surely "The Player" was based in large part on his years of battling Hollywood's power brokers. "Not really," Mr. Altman says with a twinkle in his eye. "That movie was made from a book by a man [Michael Tolkin] who knew the territory much better than me. Remember, I was mostly on the 'outer fringes' of the film industry" -- Mr. Altman puts the quotes around "outer fringes" with his enunciation -- "all those years."

Despite the success and the top-dollar press junkets, he still is. No major studio would back a film like "Ready to Wear" unless Robert Altman put the project together and brought it to them. "It never ceases to amaze me," Mr. Altman says, "that after all these years, everybody in Hollywood still depends on audience surveys. . . . They don't understand that nobody can give you a really truthful answer to the question, 'What is it you want to see in a movie?' The only answer to that question that makes sense is, 'I want to see something I've never seen before.' And they can't tell you what that is, because they don't know what it is. They haven't see it yet.

"And that's what I try to do. Give people something they haven't seen before."

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