What is going on? First Rusty Dennis dies and now Robert Altman succumbs to cancer? It’s been a shocking two weeks of Cher-movie-related passings. Robert Altman! Where do you start? He’s an motion picture giant, and yet a Hollywood outsider. My Ape Culture co-hort (an Altman aficionado) did a very good job summarizing what it was that made his pictures landmark movies. Read her short piece about him.
I think there are four men who are pivotal in Cher’s Hollywood story. Sonny Bono was entirely responsible for masterminding a very unlikely, versatile, almost-vaudevillian songbird version of Cher. Then David Geffen untangled Cher from the contractual quagmires of Sonny-Bono-schemes after their divorce and gave Cher new avenues as a solo artist. That was no small job. All the while, Bob Mackie has been crucial in eliciting Cher's colorful personality with costumes that, decade to decade, define her iconic image. And Robert Altman is the father of Cher’s movie career. He “discovered” Cher as an actress. She was a rock star and a television star, but the movie people pooh-poo’d her for years. So, would we have an Oscar-winning Cher without Altman? I’m not so sure we would. In 1981, he took that first chance on Cher. He cast her in the Broadway role of Sissy in the Ed Graczyk play, “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” which was later turned into a movie. No one else wanted to give Cher movie roles although she had been trying to become an actress since the mid-70s…really, since she was a teenager, before she was derailed by Sonny Bono’s folk-rock ambitions. Which was lucky or we might not have had the folk/torch/pop/rock-star version of Cher today either.
So, not only did Altman give Cher’s acting career a shot, he did so with a juicy, dramatic role that gave Cher options for other Oscar-worthy roles to follow. Mike Nichols (who rejected Cher for a part in The Fortune) came backstage during the Broadway run of “Jimmy Dean” and asked her to play Dolly in Silkwood. Her performance in Silkwood helped the writer of Mask visualize her for the role of Rusty Dennis. Both roles proved to be dramatic, award-winning roles for Cher. So, if you’re a fan of Cher on the actress track, to Altman you owe your gratitude.
Cher’s performance of Sissy is really a wonderful thing to watch. She’s physically natural and emotionally raw. See my review of the movie on Cher Scholar. It’s another one of Cher’s best performances. I really hope there’s interview footage somewhere of Altman talking about how it all came together, that performance. And did he ever realize what a blockbuster, award-winning, virtually third career he ignited for Cher?