I would not have expected Robert Altman to have much of a presence on this blog. I feel that he preferred being in control of all the irony, rather than appropriating it from an interpolated film made by some other hand. And sure enough, only two of his many movies appear on the comprehensive Films in Films website. The first is Short Cuts (1993), in which Monster in the Closet (1986) plays on a television. (Part of the reason Altman chose that slasher flick may be that three members of his unofficial stock company — Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, and Howard Duff — are in it.)
The second is The Player (1992). And sure enough, the main movie-in-movie scene comes from its source material, the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it for the screenplay. In novel and film, the title character, master-of-the-universe movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has been receiving threatening post cards from an anonymous angry screenwriter. He thinks he’s figured out that the correspondent is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and phones him; his girlfriend answers and says that Kahane is at the movies — specifically, the Rialto in Pasadena, watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. (The title literally translates as “Bicycle Thieves,” but it’s commonly known by the singular in the U.S.)
In the novel, Mill slips into the theater for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Tolkin tells us his reactions, which are film-savvy, naturally, but as off as you would expect from a ’90s Hollywood exec giving notes on Italian neo-realism:
Griffin watched a father and son search for the lost bicycle. Knowing the title, it was obvious that someone had stolen the bike, that this poor man needed it, and that he and his son were now, since the movie was almost over, close to finding the bike and the person who had stolen it. It’s a good title, thought Griffin. He liked a movie where the story and the title were the same thing.
He doesn’t like the ending; it’s “so unnecessarily sad.” He wonders: “Was there a sequel?”
Altman has some nice tweaks on the scene. Griffin’s in the theater less than a minute and never once is shown watching the movie; he keeps furtively looking around for Kahane. The Bicycle Thief is so far away from his world as not to exist at all.
When the lights comes on, Griffin spots the screenwriter, and, true to form, tries to bullshit him: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these… cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this!”
The sequence is only a small part of The Player‘s all-encompassing commentary on the movies, which manifests itself in varying levels of explicitness. In the very first scene, Griffin and others at this studio talk about the six and half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — and it’s all part of a eight minute and fifteen second tracking shot that opens The Player. Later, we see the shooting of a noirish feature with Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin, Lonely Room, that’s a counterpoint to the crime story Grifffin finds himself a part of.
A post at Films in Films notes that we see dozens of classic film posters in The Player, many of which offer commentary on the action playing out in front of them.
For me, the reflexive aspect of the film that packed the biggest emotional punch was the array of actors playing themselves, especially the ones that have died in the meantime: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze. It was like spending some good time with ghosts.
The main movie-within-a-movie in The Player is a project called Habeas Corpus. It’s pitched to Griffin early on — a message movie about capitol punishment, with no stars, and a downbeat ending where the main character dies. Needless to say, he passes, for it lacks just about every element (as he says in a different scene) that make up successful movies: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”
For spoiler-related reasons I won’t go into, Habeas Corpus does end up getting made, and at the end of The Player, we see execs screening the ending. Lots of cameos here: Susan Sarandon, Louise Fletcher, Peter Falk, Ray Walston, Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from The Bob Newhart Show), and Altman stalwarts Bert Remsen, Paul Dooley, and Rene Auberjonois are all in the sequence. At the end of a(nother) long tracking shot, the death-row prisoner turns out to be Julia Roberts, showing some leg. She was the very sort of star the screenwriters had vowed would not be in the movie. Her presence is just the first of a host of broken promises, and it kicks off a Hollywood Ending that provides the Hollywood ending to The Player.