Just as star-studded as a Robert Altman film was the ensemble that came together Tuesday to pay tribute to the late director, whose films often read like a who's-who of seasoned talent.
"There's a hilarious new movie in preproduction up in heaven," Tim Robbins, who starred in Altman's landmark film industry satire, The Player, as well as in Short Cuts and Ready to Wear, said during a public memorial held at the Majestic Theater in Manhattan on what would have been the director's 82nd birthday.
"He's watching the people on stage, yes, but there are other cameras lurking around the theater today [examining] the subplots, the subterfuge, the silliness, the whispered comments, the backstage preening."
All of which sounds like fodder for the iconic filmmaker who, as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote shortly after Altman died Nov. 20 from complications of cancer, "thrived on the shapelessness and confusion of experience" and made his films "buzz from the dangerous thrill of collaboration."
Hence those big casts, which were usually populated by very famous, yet somehow chameleonic, faces in order to make each character as well-served as the next, no matter his or her amount of screen time.
Also out to show their respect and admiration for Altman, who was honored with a lifetime achievement award during last year's Academy Awards but never won the Best Director prize, were Susan Sarandon, Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Kevin Kline, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Glenn Close and Harry Belafonte. A multigenerational sect of Altman's peers was also on hand, which included Sidney Lumet, Paul Thomas Anderson and Jim Jarmusch.
Jazz singer Annie Ross, pianist William Bolcom, soprano Lauren Flanigan and Robert Altman's Kansas City Orchestra provided jaunty musical accompaniment to the celebration of the Kansas City, Missouri, native's life.
Altman's wife, Kathryn Reed Altman, and four of his six children were in attendance, as well. Son Stephen Altman told the crowd that, while he was overwhelmed by the turnout, his dad would have only been "whelmed."
"He did not like conformity," Gosford Park actor and co-producer Bob Balaban reminisced. "This is an understatement. Bob never met a status quo he didn't hate."
Echoing that sentiment was Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who worked with Altman on the miniseries Tanner '88.'
"I just talked about my old friend for several minutes without interruption, with no overlapping dialogue, without him being able to change a word," Trudeau said. "He would have hated it."
An invitation-only opportunity to celebrate and possibly annoy Altman on the West Coast has been scheduled for Mar. 4 at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Hollywood.
Last week, Film Independent, the industry group that hands out the Independent Spirit Awards, announced that the first-ever Robert Altman Award will be handed out to one film's cast and director starting in 2008 in honor of the M*A*S*H auteur's career-long commitment to "challenging the status quo and changing the landscape of independent film."
The director will also be honored posthumously at this Saturday's Independent Spirit Awards ceremony in Santa Monica for "his body of work and contribution to the ensemble genre."
Helen Mirren, Robert Downey Jr., Elliott Gould, Christopher Guest, Sally Kellerman, Andie MacDowell and John C. Reilly are among those scheduled to speak.