Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Kansas City, Here I Come: A Reconsideration of Robert Altman's Most Personal Project

Jazzy new art for the Blu-ray cover
(Robert Altman, 1996, USA, 116 minutes)

"It's a jazz memory."
--Robert Altman on his 30th feature film

The term personal project suggests autobiography to some degree or another, but that isn't exactly what's going on in Robert Altman's jazz-saturated period piece, Kansas City. Ever the literalist, I was confused by the description at first, but all artists have their own unique ways of integrating their history into their work, and the late filmmaker (1925-2006) found a rather elliptical way to do that with his.

First of all, he and co-writer Frank Barhydt (Tanner '88), who have shared roots in Kansas City, built the story around a woman, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who worked with Altman in Short Cuts), and not a man. Women loom large in Altman's filmography, but not often as leads, and Blondie is older by a decade or two than Altman would've been in 1934. And he didn't just grow up there, he launched his career as a director of industrial films in Missouri before moving to Southern California to work in television and then, later, the movies (he and Barhydt, whose father ran the production company where Altman got his start, reconnected after they moved to Hollywood).

Carolyn "Red" Stilton and Blondie O'Hara
So, there's no obvious Altman analogue in this large-canvas tale, and yet the autobiographical elements are baked into the recipe, informing who he was and who he would become. The wealthy husband (Altman regular Michael Murphy) of the laudanum-addicted wife (an excellent Miranda Richardson) Blondie kidnaps, for instance, isn't just any man, but one inspired by his father. In the film, Henry serves as an FDR adviser, and he's out of town when Blondie bluffs her way into the Stilton household in an attempt to force him to use his political connections to release her husband (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of Seldom Seen (a commanding, gravel-voiced Harry Belafonte), the owner of the Hey-Hey Club and de facto head of the juke joint district, a bustling hub impervious to Prohibition and Great Depression alike (in his entertainingly rambling audio commentary, Altman describes Seldom as "a real guy around town").

If it all sounds convoluted, it is! Not in the sense that it's hard to follow, but in that the narrative plays more like the plot of a pre-code film than anything drawn from real life. "I'm sure it isn't terribly realistic," Altman admits. Still, he was combining actual incidents--kidnappings were a regular occurrence in the '30s--with stories he heard as a young man, some of which were surely embellished, but he captures the vibe of the place, a time when KC was filled with jazz, political maneuvering, and vices of every kind.

"Harry is my closest friend."--Robert Altman
As the son of a prominent man, Altman was likely shielded from some of KC's harsher realities, and yet he was clearly paying attention, since a bone-deep sympathy for the downtrodden is a distinguishing characteristic of his work. That brings us back to Blondie, who isn't really blonde, but who is definitely downtrodden. She used to bleach her hair, like her idol Jean Harlow (a KC native), but had to stop when it fell out. This is actually a myth about Harlow; no one has reliably proven she lost her hair, but Altman runs with it. The fact that Blondie, who comes across as hapless, takes strength from Harlow's powerful screen presence, though, provides a link with the young Altman, who also started out as a movie-mad dreamer before he found a way to make movies of his own (in the commentary, he credits David Lean's 1945 Brief Encounter for showing him just what a film could do, since he started out skeptical and ended deeply moved). Blondie, on the other hand, just wants her man back. That's her sole ambition.

Like the comic-strip cutie from whom she got her name, she's all broad strokes. The Western Union telegraph operator talks like a moll and walks like a pigeon, head thrust forward Olive Oyl-style (considering that Altman directed a live-action adaptation of E.C. Segar's strip, I'm not sure this is completely coincidental). He's also made her unnecessarily unattractive, which isn't a dig at Jason Leigh, but she has to hiss her lines through dingy dentures, and she's lit in a way that does her no favors. Richardson, by contrast, gets the soft lighting and the flattering angles. Altman may sympathize with the downtrodden, but he definitely doesn't sugarcoat them. As the film hurtles towards its cynical conclusion, it becomes clear that Johnny isn't just a hood, he's a loser. Blondie can't see it, but Carolyn can. The way she looks at Blondie softens as she learns about her mouthy captor's lousy life--even if Blondie has a gun pointed at her the whole time.

A Blondie favorite / By MGM - eBaycard, Public Domain
Before the ladies come to an under-
standing of a kind, one that favors the haves over the have-nots, they tangle with a range of KC figures, includ-
ing mobster Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi), Junior Leaguer Nettie Bolt (Jane Adams)--a name Altman swiped from his grandmother--and Charlie Parker's mother, Addie (Jeff Feringa), a Union Station cleaning woman.

Altman depicts Charlie (Albert J. Burnes) as a 15-year-old aspiring musician who would sneak into the Hey-Hey Club, sax in hand, to watch Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy) and Lester Young (Joshua Redman) and pianists Bill "Count" Basie (Cyrus Chestnut) and Mary Lou Williams (Geri Allen) do their thing (the climactic Hawkins-Young cutting contest, in which the sax players were encouraged to improvise, is a real highlight). Other players include David Murray, Don Byron, Olu Dara, Curtis Fowlkes, and Ron Carter. Whew. Led by music supervisor Hal Willner, this stunning array of players also appear in the concurrently-shot Great Performances documentary Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34. They swing in ways the rest of the film doesn't.

It's not that Kansas City is a failure; it's that it takes too long to work up any sympathy for these characters. Next to Addie, the one with the greatest sympathetic potential is Pearl (Ajia Mignon Johnson), a pregnant 14-year-old who comes to town to have her baby and, then, presumably to give it up for adoption. Other than the friendship she strikes up with Charlie, though, we don't learn anything about her. She and Blondie have a brief, touching exchange about their Joplin, Missouri home town, but that's about it. I don't think it's that Altman didn't care about the black characters in the film, but that he and Barhydt had trouble coming up with more compelling story lines for them. The exception, of course, is Belafonte, who is terrific. He and Altman had been friends for years before the director cast him in a film, and he was delighted with the results, not least because he cast the civil rights icon completely against type. It's possible that Belafonte found it freeing to say things he would never utter in public, like "White people are consumed with greed" (he blames them for the Depression, which seems fair) and the eminently quotable "I ain't scared of death--he's a cold cocksucker."

Altman and the Hey-Hey Club crew
If Altman opens with Blondie, he closes with Seldom Seen, and that feels right, though he considers the fade-out on Belafonte counting his bills as more of "a stopping place" than an ending, because "the only ending I know about is death" (few knew it at the time, but Altman's heart was getting ready to give out on him; his transplant took place shortly afterwards). Kansas City might have been a better movie with more of Belafonte's character and less of Jason Leigh's, but I agree with Altman that "it’s a film you have to see a second time." He adds, "And that was a mistake."

As grating as I found Jason Leigh in my first go-round, and those chompers are really the worst, Blondie's tough-gal act made more sense the second time around as I could see the extent to which she--and not Jason Leigh--wasn't a very good actress. Though Altman doesn't mention it, he had known his star for pretty much her entire life, since he worked with her father, Vic Morrow, on the '60s WWII series Combat! In the commentary, he expresses regret that critics accused her of overacting and rather gallantly takes the blame, since she was only doing what he asked of her.

If the time has come for Kansas City to get a second look from those who dismissed it 24 years ago, I hope they'll be as kind to her as he was.

Kansas City is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy/MVD Entertainment.

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