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No director did more to bring American cinema into the modern age than Robert Altman, who died on Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 81. He had been married three times and had four sons and a daughter.

Altman was 44 before he found fame with M*A*S*H (1969) but went on to a remarkably long career as an influential filmmaker, creating as great an impact with Short Cuts in 1993 as he had with Nashville two decades earlier. These films were his greatest achievements: multi-character frescoes swarming with diversities of mood, psychology and subplot while simultaneously distilled the essence of America at different points in her history. Nashville was a post-Nixon tale of imploding national confidence, dressed as a comedy-drama about Country singing. Short Cuts blended a half-dozen Raymond Carver stories to present a late-millennial L.A. full of elusive fears and the sense of a Judgment Day for hedonistic humanity.

The films showcased Altman's stylistic strengths: the loose, lithe flow of narrative, the overlapping dialogue (borrowed from Orson Welles but given a new, ludic energy) and large cast in which each member is individualised while also serving as part of the chorus of humanity.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1925, Altman studied engineering at university with an interruption for Air Force duty in World War Two. He became a writer for radio and magazines, then a producer of industrial films. His directing debut came in 1957 with The Delinquents, which he also wrote and produced. Little in the next ten years suggested a genius in waiting. There was journeyman work in TV drama; a humdrum biographical documentary, The James Dean Story; and two features, Countdown and That Cold Day in the Park, that indicated only competent genre skills.

1969, though, was the year when M*A*S*H meant smash. Taking on a project rejected by other directors Altman made a freewheeling, part-improvised satirical comedy about an American institution in meltdown. The institution was the army, the time the 1950s, with the Korean War clearly standing in for Vietnam. M*A*S*H cocked a snook at authority and was written by a man, Ring Lardner Jr, who had had his own brush with officialdom during the anticommunist witch-hunting years.

The film came to be seen as an emblematic movie for the late 1960s, era of youthful rebellion, and made stars of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. Gould became Altman's hangdog-endearing antihero in The Long Goodbye (1973) and California Split (1974), variations on, respectively, the Chandlerian detective movie and the gambling-and-caper comedy. But Altman's best re-modelling of a genre was McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). Co-scripting, he brought a funky modernism of style and psychology to the way-out-west romance between Warren Beatty's bemused braggart of a mining town entrepreneur and Julie Christie's opium-wreathed brothel madam.

But Nashville was Altman's landmark movie in the 1970s. Joan Tewkesbury's original script is a colourfully populated trawl through life in and around the Grand Old Opry as singers, reporters, groupies and publicity-seeking political campaigners converge on the Country 'n' Western capital. Songs written and performed by the actors (Keith Carradine, Karen Black, Ronee Blakeley) punctuate a storytelling tapestry in which scenes unfurl with a wry, primary-hued matter-of-factness, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. What emerges is the vision of an America trying to shore up a disintegrating national morale with the truth and beauty of individual self-expression.

Altman's decline after Nashville has bewildered film historians, though it may be simply that his energy and invention had crested with this film and some kind of falling away was inevitable. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding, Health, Streamers, Fool for Love and others succeeded in a dismaying procession, with the one-time giant of new American cinema forced into low-budget stage adaptations or supposed crowdpleasers (Popeye, O.C. and Stiggs) that pleased no one.

When he found acclaim again with The Player (1992), it was as if the social-cultural climate had suddenly changed back in his favour. After a decade or more of big-screen solipsism typified in the popularity of lone-warrior action movies (Stallone, Schwarzenegger), the world was open once more for ensemble frescoes and satires. Though The Player was rude about Hollywood, in the tale of a screenwriter-murdering studio executive (Tim Robbins), Hollywood will accept any insult if it goes on to win praise and money. The Player won both.

Altman followed with Short Cuts (1993), a long-cherished project whose story base (Raymond Carver tales coordinated into a Los Angeles-set portrait of stressed-out urban humanity) offered room for the tragicomic ironies and large cast he had organised in Nashville. Altman assembled another lineup of hip contemporary stars - Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances McDormand - and developed each character as if he/she were the protagonist rather than a mere piece in the jigsaw. Acclaimed by critics in the US and Europe, the film won the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion.

Altman's comeback showed signs of going away again with Pret a Porter, a spoof on the fashion industry, Kansas City, a cumbersome jazz-age melodrama, and the potboiling Grisham thriller The Gingerbread Man. The minor rebound of Cookie's Fortune, a comedy about small town life scripted by Ann Rapp, was followed by Rapp and Altman's more faltering follow-up, Dr T and the Women, a fantasia on sexual and sexist themes starring Richard Gere.

A career as prolific as Altman's almost has to have as many misses as hits. But he remains a unique figure in modern Hollywood history. More often and more successfully than any other filmmaker, he bridged the gulf between art and entertainment with films that combine a lightness of touch with a sardonic, profound, encompassing affection for humankind. He received an honourary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement at the Academy Awards earlier this year.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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