Robert Altman’s 1992 thriller The Player follows Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a Hollywood exec who reads script treatments and has to issue a lot of rejections. When one snubbed screenwriter starts sending death threats to Griffin, he has to figure out which aspiring writer has it out for him. After killing the guy that he thinks has been threatening him, the threats keep coming, and he has to cover his tracks as well as survive even more attempts on his life while engaging in an affair with the victim’s girlfriend.
The Player might sound devoid of substance as I summarize the plot on paper, but what makes it interesting is its cynical take on Hollywood as an industry. Griffin is opportunistic and only seeks to preserve his own good name in the business, but every Hollywood official in The Player possesses a similar need to protect their reputation at the cost of the products they churn out. Films do not get made unless they have big actors’ names attached to them. Stories will only get turned into movies provided they follow a straightforward formula. Audience reactions and potential box office performance affect how a storyline ends. Griffin’s instinct to look out for himself at the expense of those around him is symptomatic of the business in which he takes part. Altman’s film is an attack on show business and the dominance that the elite Hollywood few hold over the masses. Those who were fortunate enough to get where they were in the Hollywood film industry are allowed to exploit others and to co-opt artistic expression in order to increase profits.
One cannot discuss The Player without mentioning its dazzling opening shot, an uninterrupted seven-minute-long take documenting characters’ candid interactions about the film business. Like its forerunner, the memorable opening to Orson Welles’s 1958 crime drama Touch of Evil, Altman’s introduction to The Player economically sets the stage for the thematic content we will see throughout the rest of the film. In a relatively short amount of time, we overhear conversations about how audiences today don’t get to see long, artsy shots in movies anymore (an ironic piece of dialogue, considering that Altman’s film begins right off the bat with a challenging cinematic act, drawing the viewer into a complexly shot film rather than merely pandering to an audience’s short attention span). People come into Griffin’s office and pitch film ideas that are notably derivative and tired.
“The Graduate, Part II,” Buck Henry pitches to Griffin. “The New Graduate.”
“The Postgraduate,” Griffin chimes in.
“Goldie (Hawn) Goes to Africa,” another person suggests, “She’s found by this tribe… and they worship her.”
“Oh, I see,” Griffin replies. “It’s kind of like a Gods Must Be Crazy except the Coke bottle’s now a television actress.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.”
These scathing critiques of Hollywood, which are unexpected in a film which is itself so fresh and invigorating, sum up the end of storytelling and originality. There are no new ideas in film or media anymore—only reinventions of old ones. The movie studio’s slogan “Movies: Now More Than Ever!” is perfectly meaningless as well as indicative of the long historical trajectory of the commodification of art that got us here. Now more than ever before, the slogan suggests, filmmaking is a practice that takes into consideration its potential profit from a target demographic instead of artistic expression for its own sake. That the shot ends with a threatening postcard that reads “Your Hollywood is Dead” being sent to Griffin’s office is fitting. The opening of The Player is Hollywood’s death knell, a repudiation of the industry that is in dire need of transformation.
Some of Altman’s ‘70s fare (Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye) may prove a bit too slow-paced or dense for contemporary audiences looking for a smart but engaging thriller. The Player sees Altman tackling the same issues of greed, corruption, and violence that he did in his earlier work, but this time Altman is working to condemn a particular highly regarded institution of American life—the movies. How much can we trust the film industry to give us the content we want when we as audience members are being used and manipulated so the big names in Hollywood can make a quick buck? What kind of artwork might we see if profits or commercialism were not an inevitable component of artistic expression and mass cultural production? Altman’s film might rely pretty heavily on our commercial taste in order to sell his movie to us (The Player features dozens of cameos, including appearances by Cher, John Cusack, Peter Falk, Jack Lemmon, Malcolm McDowell, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, and Susan Sarandon all playing themselves), but his unabashed look at Hollywood might allow us to experience for a brief moment the smart, critical, radical filmmaking techniques that are sorely lacking in much of today’s cinema.