February 2, 2023

About The Player
Robert Altman’s Insider Look Inside of Hollywood

What does it mean to be an insider in Hollywood? What happens behind the scenes during the process of an idea becoming a script, a script becoming a pitch, a pitch being selected to be made into a film, and finally in the transition from the cutting room to the big screen? Who are the players in the high stakes game of multi-million dollar big budget Hollywood productions? Robert Altman addresses all of these questions and delivers some surprising answers in his 1992 film The Player.

Altman delivers more than dull information about the workings of the big studios and the machinations of the big executives; he gives the viewer the complete recipe for commercial success wrapped up in a huge cynical bow that doesn’t mind poking fun at itself and every other movie that has ever been made. The plot of The Player reads like a quick adaptation of the recipe given for a Hollywood hit during the film “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”

Tim Robbins plays Griffin Mills, a big time movie executive for a big Hollywood movie studio. Suspense appears quickly when it is revealed that Mills is under the gun at work and being stalked by a writer who is angry that Mills never called him back. Laughter follows as a seemingly never ending cast of celebrities make cameo appearances in which they poke fun at real world projects they have worked on, the way business is done in Hollywood, or, most often, at the action taking place in The Player itself. One is not quite able to stop laughing even when violence rears its head. Mills tracks down the writer he suspects is stalking him and accidentally kills him only to discover that he has killed the wrong man. The writer, David Kahain, lies in a bloody pool as Altman saturates the scene with red. This thick red lighting surrounds not just the violence inherent in the murder of Kahain, but also the violence that arises from the often cruel rejection of ideas and people that Mills is engaged in from the start to the finish of this film.

Altman weaves a complex web of ideas into one coherent story with some unusual devices. When he is searching for Cahain, Mills stands outside the house Cahain and his girlfriend share and calls to find out if Cahain is there. He reaches the girlfriend, June, instead and thus begins an utterly confusing romantic relationship between the two.It is June who tells Mills that he will find Cahain watching The Bicycle Thief at the Rialto Theatre. Prior to his death, Cahain actually recommends June to Mills, saying that she is an ice queen and very similar to Mills. He says the two of them would get along great. There is a moment of hope when Mills offers to make Cahain’s film that is quickly dashed by the irate Cahain. Ultimately, it is his outburst of violence that leads to Mills killing him just as it might be his recommendation of June that leads Mills back to her.

Cahain was right; there was an instant connection between Mills and June. This romance leads to the two of them naked at a desert resort. Hot sex with more thick red lighting illustrates all too vividly the violence and blood that has brought them together. The red is not only symbolic of blood but also of passion. The romantic intersection of Mills and Cahain’s girlfriend brings more suspicion upon Mills from an already suspicious police officer played by Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg’s suspicions and instincts come to naught however as Altman brings us to the ultimate happy ending. Mills and June fall in love, Mills becomes the big cheese at the studio, Mills and June have a beautiful life and house together. It is the happy ending we have been told to expect all along but never really expected to see because we know that Mills is a murderer that has lied and cheated his way to the top and actually killed the man that was involved with his partner. Altman wraps this up neatly when the psychotic writer calls Mills and offers to let him off the hook and make a mega hit movie about the whole process. The movie of course, is The Player. This is Altman’s final tribute and reference to both the movie that the audience has just seen and his love of inside jokes.

The Player is perhaps, itself, the ultimate expression of Altman’s cynical sense of humor in regards to self referential plotting and paying tribute to an industry that has alternately embraced and rejected him as a genius. Altman does not pull any punches by playing to the lowest common denominator as evidenced by his opening shot that exceeds two extremely long opening shots that are referenced in Altman’s longer opening shot. The Player is filled with this kind of inside aficionado information. Another example is in Mills seeing The Bicycle Thief, a film that used real people in post World War II Italy rather than professional actors. Later, Mills is pitched a script where the writer insists on no professional actors only later to sell out not only his idea of no actors but the very heart and soul of the story. While this is not the sort of reference that everyone watching The Player will enjoy, nearly everyone can get a laugh out of a cameo appearance by Burt Reynolds playing himself as he greets Mills warmly and seconds later tells a friend that Mills is an asshole.

Altman’s use of the camera is masterful. In addition to the aforementioned tracking shot, Altman ensures that the audience can be steeped in a solid Hollywood mise en scene that includes spring water, Caesar salads, flashy cars, and even a glitzy Hollywood shindig where everyone gets to be seen and pay praise to the industry they all seem to despise from within. From the opening shot, everything about this film seems to resonate with everything we the audience have ever heard or been told about the movie industry and Hollywood itself. The buildings on the lot are superbly aged old Hollywood and wherever it was filmed; the camera work leaves the viewer knowing that they are on the lot of one of the best studios in the business. The Player is Hollywood, and perhaps that, more than anything else, is the point Altman is trying to make.

Altman delivers the goods with The Player. He shows us that to be an insider in Hollywood, you have to be willing to sacrifice your principles and constantly watching for your supposed friends to stab you in the back. Altman demonstrates through Cahain and the other writers that the hardest part of making an idea into a movie isn’t the act of writing it, but the act of convincing someone else to listen to your pitch. Even with the chance to give a pitch (which may come at a party, a bar, a lunch, or the office of a big executive like Griffin Mills) you still may have to abbreviate your story to twenty five words or less and you are lucky if the person listening is actually paying attention to you. Furthermore, Altman doesn’t shy away from showing that sometimes the stars are just as shallow as the executives and that no one is truly innocent in an industry that will toss you aside just as quickly as it lifts you up. Robert Altman is uniquely qualified to relate these truths to the viewing audience, since he has experienced both massive highs and lows in his career as a director. One thing that The Player demonstrates more solidly than anything else is the fact that Robert Altman is indeed, a player himself in the big game of filmmaking in Hollywood.


  1. The Player is one of my Top 5 favorite movies. Did you know that there is a sequel (to the book the film was based on) called “Return of the Player”?

    PS: it’s ironic that the screenwriter (Michael Tolkin) of The Player didn’t get mentioned in your essay, considering that one of the main themes of the film is how underappreciated screenwriters are.

    There’s a famous story about how Frank Capra had a big interview in the NY Times or some paper and the author got Capra to go on and on about how he created “the Capra touch” to all his films. The next day Robert Riskin – who wrote all of Capra’s films – sent 90 blank pages bound like a screenplay to Capra with a single note on the first page: “Put the Capra touch on that!”

  2. A pretty solid review. I always find it strange that the film scholars I’ve encountered want to talk about Short Cuts rather than this film. I really find in incredible on numerous levels!

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