Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Robert Altman (director), Michael Tolkin (writer), The Player (1992)

The film The Player (1992), directed by Robert Altman and written by Michael Tolkin, provides a critical commentary on the behind-the-scenes realities of the multi-million dollar Hollywood film industry, much of which would be unknown to the cinema audience, although they would be very familiar with the products of this industry.  The Player centres on the paradox, or dilemma, of cinema as mass entertainment that can be summarised as follows: ‘The trouble with movies as a business is that it is an art, and the trouble with movies as an art is that it’s a business’.  The conflict between these values is repeatedly played out throughout this film, with the values of business triumphing in the end.  The implication is that too often Hollywood misses its opportunities to produce cinema of great artistic merit, to instead frequently produce well-crafted mass entertainment that has less value as art.

While most film goers appreciate the contributions of actors and directors to a film, many are not aware of the decisive roles played by producers and writers, both of whom are the focus of The Player.  The film conveys the insularity of Hollywood film industry people, the ruthlessness of the office politics in a Hollywood studio, and the pressures on the producers to come up with a hit.  It also conveys the producers’ love-hate relationship with writers, who are depicted as the principal source of creative ideas.   

Much of this tension between film as art and film as a business is expressed as antagonisms between the studio producers and the writers of screenplays who pitch their ideas to the producers hoping to score a deal.  According to the The Player, the studio producers hear thousands of pitches annually but only make about twelve films a year, so most pitches will be rejected.  Some aggrieved writers will become bitter, and the plot of The Player features a mysterious writer who is anonymously persecuting a studio producer, Griffin Mill, who rejected his screenplay, sending Griffin Mill intimidating post cards and gifts intended to unnerve him in order to punish him.  An exasperated Griffin Mill will end up brawling with, and accidentally killing, a disgruntled writer whom he mistakenly assumes to be the man persecuting him. 

Importantly, The Player defines the commercial ingredients of Hollywood cinema regarded by producers as essential to draw in and satisfy audiences.  These commercial characteristics were listed by the Griffin Mill as the following: stars, suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, and, above all, an ‘up’ or happy ending.  A commercially successful film must also avoid radical politics, and maintain a clear distinction between good and evil characters, or at least see that the criminals suffer for their crimes. 

Ironically, while The Player critically comments on these characteristics as compromising film as art, it facetiously displays most of them in its own  content, or it blatantly undermines them in order to underscore its critical messages about the negative impact of commercialism. For example, The Player has many stars, with dozens of well-known celebrity actors making cameo appearances, and The Player has violence and suspense involving attempts to identify and stop an anonymous harasser, and it includes a murder investigation.  With the cinema audience positioned to identify with the persecuted Griffin Mill, the film provides hope and heart.  It also provides nudity and sex in the romance between Griffin Mill and the dead writer’s former girlfriend. 

The Player ends with Griffin Mill escaping a murder conviction, outmanoeuvring the challenges to his career from rival studio executives, appeasing the anonymous harasser who decides to stop persecuting him, and living happily with his beautiful (now pregnant) wife who was his love-interest in the film.  The Player mocks the requirement of Hollywood films to have a happy ending yet cheekily provides one. 

The Player also comments on what is valuable in cinema that gives it artistic merit.  The Player equates artistic merit with effectively reflecting reality about the nature of the world and the human condition.  For example, as the film asserts, in real life good people can suffer and bad people can escape unpunished.  The film shows how this and other ‘realities’ are inevitably compromised in Hollywood in deference to the inclusion of unrealistic commercial qualities that are psychologically pleasing and morally satisfying to paying cinema audiences. 

In this context, The Player puts forward the Italian neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves (1948), which was directed by Vittorio De Sica, as representing what films can and should be.  Reflecting a socialist conscience, Bicycle Thieves argued that poverty, inequality and injustice can push an otherwise decent man of limited means to commit a crime out of sheer desperation.  With no stars and an unhappy ending, this film broke most of the Hollywood rules and would never get made in Hollywood.  The Player implies that Bicycle Thieves is the kind of film that Hollywood should make. 

In regards to articulating what films can and should be, The Player includes many references to great artistic moments in cinema that pay homage to the most artistically accomplished filmmakers.  For example, the long tracking shot that opens The Player to masterfully establish the setting, plot, and narrative, without recourse to cutting, is meant to represent the kind of virtuoso cinematic artistry that is often missing from contemporary Hollywood cinema, which, the film asserts, tends to imitate lowbrow rock video clips in its taste for fast-paced editing.  This long tracking shot pays homage to the opening tracking shot in the film Touch of Evil (1958) directed by Orson Welles. 

For most of his career, the artistic genius of Welles was not respected by studio executives so he continually battled with them over what he was permitted to do.   The director of The Player, Robert Altman, had similar problems to Welles that plagued his equally chequered but artistically accomplished career, so it is not surprising to see this allusion to Welles in The Player. In a sense, the critical commentary on Hollywood conveyed in The Player conveys Altman’s feelings towards Hollywood for all the slights it dealt him.   

Importantly, The Player also reflects the distinctive style of filmmaking for which Altman was acclaimed, which includes his satirical take on the establishment and his fascination with human nature.  Consequently, the film reflects Altman’s desire to draw naturalistic performances from his actors by encouraging them to improvise, and it displays his use of naturalistic overlapping dialogue that conveys the sometimes chaotic ways that conversations transpire in real life.  

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Player meaning, The Player themes, The Player analysis, The Player notes