FILMS

All dressed up and nowhere to go

Robert Altman’s fashion farce has sparkle but is weak at the seams

Brian D. Johnson December 26 1994
FILMS

All dressed up and nowhere to go

Robert Altman’s fashion farce has sparkle but is weak at the seams

Brian D. Johnson December 26 1994

All dressed up and nowhere to go

Robert Altman’s fashion farce has sparkle but is weak at the seams

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

FILMS

Robert Altman has a knack for getting people to do things. In Ready to Wear, his fashionable new movie about the world of fashion, he gets ageless screen diva Sophia Loren to emerge from semi-retirement and strip down to her black lingerie while Marcello Mastroianni sits up on a bed and barks like a dog—a reprise of their 30year-old scene in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. He gets superstar Julia Roberts to go slumming with Tim Robbins in a skimpy subplot of romantic comedy. He gets Kim Basinger, who plays a parody of a bubble-headed TV reporter, to improvise an interview with Cher, who plays an unconscious parody of herself. He gets Sally Kellerman to flash her breasts in a scene of comic humiliation 30 years after he got her to do the same thing in M*A *S*H. And he gets 15 models to parade down a runway stark naked.

Altman is not just a director. He is an impresario, a ringmaster. Everyone, it seems, wants to work for him. In his new movie, almost everyone does. Ready to Wear (changed from Prêt-à-Porter for uncomprehending American ears) is the most heavily hyped, keenly anticipated film of Altman’s career. At 69, he is the grand old iconoclast of American cinema, the creator of such panoramic satires as Nashville (1975), The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993). And it would be hard to imagine a more fitting target for his burlesque vision than the fashion industry.

Surprise. Ready To Wear is a disappointment. As satire, it is uncharacteristically gentle; as farce, it is not terribly funny. The movie’s polyweave narrative does contain some splendid fabric. It is sequined with a number of glittering performances—miniatures that, in the end, make the film worth seeing despite its flaws. But as a piece, Ready to Wear is ragged and shapeless, as if Altman’s own renegade brilliance had got the better of him. By taking risks, by improvising, by letting the film take its own peculiar course, the director has left himself wide open to the possibility of failure.

Earlier this month, as Altman met with Maclean’s in New York City, he already seemed philosophically resigned to the fact that his film would get, at best, a mixed response. After the adoring reviews he received for The Player and Short Cuts, the critical reaction to Ready to Wear will be “kind of in the middle,” he predicted. “It’s a very soft kind of farce, but I’m very happy with it. I think it’s a lot better film than anyone will discover for a while. It’s just a mural, an essay film. Every story in it deals with nakedness, and how we cover it.”

Sitting in the corner of an enormous suite at the Waldorf, Altman is himself dressed in a soft-toned Cerutti suit. He looks less rumpled than usual, and thinner. Altman shed 60 pounds last year. His features, sharpening to a grey goatee, are chiselled and pale. He has a penetrating gaze, and nothing seems to escape it, not even the mouse that he spots scurrying across the floor at the far end of the hotel suite.

“I take care of myself now,” says Altman. “That’s the reason for the weight loss. But I’m turning 70 in two months, and how long do we live? How many more films am I going to make? Five or six? That’s being optimistic. So I want to push the envelope each time, and with that comes a risk. If I do five or six of these things, the majority of them are going to fail on one level or another.” Adds the director with a sigh, “I make too many films, and they’re all different. This one has had so much hype that it kind of negates the serious art of film-making.” Altman spent a decade trying to bring Ready To Wear -■ to the screen, ever since his wife, Kathryn, dragged him to his first fashion show in Paris. “I dreaded going,” says the director. “It was like when my father took me to a hockey game when I was seven, and I said, ‘I don’t want to go to a hockey game.’ ” To his surprise, Altman found the fashion show thrilling. “The shows were in those tents then, out in the Tuileries,” he says. “It was raucous and it had a real circus atmosphere. I couldn’t believe that someone hadn’t done a film using that milieu. Well, I found out why: it’s very difficult.” In shooting Ready To Wear, Altman brought together two showbusiness worlds. Movie stars mingled with supermodels. Some designers, such as Sonia Rykiel and Jean-Paul Gaultier, became part of the film. Others boycotted it. “We had very heavy opposition develop with Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino,” says Altman. “Valentino wanted us to fílm his show. But we couldn’t schedule for it, and that pissed him off. Karl—I wanted Karl to appear as himself, but I think he wanted a little more courtship.”

Altman shot much of the film like a documentary. “It was very tough, but I don’t know how else to do this kind of essay fílm,” he says. “If we had written it meticulously, then tried to get everybody to stick to their lines, I think it would have been a very stiff disaster. We didn’t have the time to light it so it would look gorgeous, so we just had to go out and blast at it.” In large party scenes, Altman would run two cameras at once. His actors, wired with radio microphones, often did not even know when they were on camera.

Cast members taking part in media interviews in New York had high praise for Altman’s methods. Lauren Bacall, who plays a color-blind ex-editor of Vogue magazine, breezed into a room of journalists wearing an Armani suit and a silk blouse, a dozen gold bracelets jangling on her wrist. “Altman,” said Bacall, “really enjoys actors and makes you feel safe. There are no airs. He’s not interested in the whole star thing.”

On the set, Altman tended to leave actors to their own devices. And when shooting the big twocamera crowd scenes, he disappeared behind a bank of video monitors high above the action, and eavesdropped on everyone through their radio mikes. “He’s up there somewhere,” said Bacall.

“You don’t really know where he is. So you forget about the cameras. You let them find us.”

The chaos was enhanced by the slapdash nature of the script. Altman created some roles just to find a place for stars who volunteered for a part, any part. “Someone said Tracey Ullman would sure like to be in the movie,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘Great!’ But I had no idea what I was going to put her in. Stephen Rea was the same way. For a long time I was worried I didn’t have enough for him to do.”

Ready to Wear, which features 31 characters and a dozen story lines, takes place in Paris during the annual prêt-à-porter show, the world’s most glamorous fashion event. While stuck in traffic, the head of the fashion council chokes to death on a ham sandwich in his limousine. The police assume he has been murdered, and a mysterious Russian tailor (Marcello Mastroianni) becomes a suspect, as does the victim’s estranged wife (Sophia Loren), who is vastly relieved by his death. He is mourned instead by his mistress (Anouk Aimée), a designer whose venal son (Rupert Everett) has just sold her company to a gormless Texas boot maker (Lyle Lovett).

Meanwhile, three top fashion magazine editors (Ullman, Kellerman and Linda Hunt) vie for the services of a conceited Irish photographer (Rea), who never takes off his sunglasses. A boorish department store buyer (Danny Aiello) dresses in drag, wearing outfits purchased by his shopaholic wife (Teri Garr). Other characters range from catfighting supermodels to a feminist photojournalist (Lili Taylor). And, in a subplot that has nothing to do with anything, Roberts and Robbins cavort in bathrobes as two reporters who get stuck sharing a hotel room.

A few performances stand out. Camping it up as Cort, a wildly outspoken gay designer, Richard E. Grant tosses off such lines as “shoulders are very fresh again—and legs—she doesn’t have to have legs, but I think it’s wonderful if she does.” But the cast’s biggest surprise is Basinger. Stepping into a role that Anjelica Huston, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin had all accepted then dropped out of, she is a hoot as Kitty Potter of FAD TV, a gushy reporter who is helpless without cue cards.

The film focuses more on the hype-crazy world of fashion media than on fashion itself. And Kitty’s vacuous commentary serves as the movie’s single consistent thread, aside from an overworked gag about Parisian dog droppings. Otherwise, the script is barely pinned together. It does not have the seamless quality of The Player or Short Cuts, both of which were adapted from well-crafted works of fiction.

Still, among the movie’s loose ends, there are some stunning details: a breathtaking Loren, still voluptuous at 60, Aimée’s lovely melancholy, Rea’s caustic wit. Most remarkable is the movie’s astonishing, already-infamous finale—a show in which the designer played by Aimée unveils her new line of non-apparel.

More chilling than titillating, the scene has a disturbing power. As the naked models file solemnly down the runway before a cheering crowd, their severe thinness recalls images of Auschwitz. Some have incongruously full breasts. One of them, played by acclaimed German singer Ute Lemper, makes an unforgettable entrance: she is more than eight months pregnant. “I think the nude show is the main thing in the picture,” says Altman. “Without the nude show and the pregnant girl in it, I would not have made the film. Without that, I would have really had a lot of fluff—people would walk away and no matter how hard they laughed, 20 minutes later they wouldn’t remember what happened. But that gives it substance, that naked statement.”

In fact, like a massacre, that statement almost erases the rest of the film. The fable of the emperor’s new clothes applies to the naked disarray of the movie itself: there is no movie. But there is an audacious filmmaker and his stubborn metaphor. “Fashion has a big effect on our lives,” says Altman. “It has to do with disguise and armor. We all pay attention to it, and the people who don’t, probably spend more time being anti-fashion than the person who has a little sense of style.” Still, the metaphor has its limits. “You can’t scratch very deep,” he adds, “because it doesn’t go very deep. It stops very quickly.” The director laughs, catching himself sounding serious. “I won’t do this again,” he promises. “I’m not through with politics. But I’m through with fashion.”