There is a scene near the end of The Player’s first act in which Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) calls June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) from his cell phone just outside her house to get in touch with her boyfriend, David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), who Griffin believes to be threatening him. Never mind the purpose of the phone call, though; the pleasure here is in watching Griffin walk around the perimeter of the house, always watching June through windows, knowing that, because she has the lights on and it is dark outside, she won’t see him. Indeed, near the end of the phone call, the camera shifts to the interior, and we see Griffin’s face and June looking out at her own reflection. It’s a clear parallel to movie watching, the screen being a window into another world, in which the stars can stare at the camera, but they will see only their image, not the audience. The word “voyeur” is, of course, never uttered in The Player—this is, quite specifically a satire of Hollywood—but with this scene, it does not need to be. Director Robert Altman is a marionette, letting his large cast once again dance through life, never losing his grip, and guiding them from one epiphany to the next.
That control is best displayed in the film’s opening shot, a nearly eight-minute, 360-degree traverse in which we meet all the major players in different sections of the parking lot and inside the studio building, one conversation slowly beginning to come through more clearly than the previous as the camera makes its revolution. We drop in on, leave, and return to everything from a pitch meeting to a conversation about rapid cutting in modern Hollywood and its inability to measure up to the opening shot of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or the entirety of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. The Player never delivers the epic narrative this shot promises, but as the film begins to spotlight Altman’s naturalistic, overlapping dialogue, which provides plenty of laughs both in short form (insults being muttered under one’s breath) and long form (more ridiculous pitches), the carnivalesque feeling is rarely missing.
Aside from Hollywood references—stars like Bruce Willis, Winona Ryder, and Julia Roberts are name-dropped at every turn, posters of Casablanca and Laura decorate the studio interior, and everything from Tod Browning’s Freaks to Bicycle Thieves to Fatal Attraction gets its time in the limelight—laughs is what The Player does best. These are often Hollywood centered and targeted, as when a rival executive (played by Peter Gallagher) says that most business gets done in AA meetings now or when Malcolm McDowell makes a brief cameo to insult Griffin. Other attempts at humor, such as a bizarre police interrogation that highlights tampons more than questions, often fall flat by comparison. Among the best jokes is when Griffin, at the film’s first meal, asks the table if they can talk about something other than Hollywood for once. “We’re educated people,” he claims. After a few seconds of silence and some laughter, the movie goes on for almost two more hours and does not talk about much else. It is laughs like these, along with the (admittedly predictable) ending that make it easy to overlook The Player’s star-studded indulgence in what it seems to condemn: in the long-run, that’s the biggest joke of them all, and that The Player nearly tripled its budget at the box-office to serve as Altman’s “comeback” makes it a successful one.
The Player’s story is not quite as interesting on its own, but it does offer a healthy dose of satire. Near the beginning, Griffin accidentally kills David, and he then has to deal with its (rather negligible) effects on his work life, which leads him to manipulate a pitch and production to secure his job from the rival executive. At the same time, he leaves his story-editor, Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson), for June. The first plotline is (presumably) an on-the-nose sendup of cutthroat Hollywood business, complete with a literalized metaphor for what happens if Hollywood tries to “eliminate the writer,” and the romantic plotline, despite its conventionality, becomes an apt metaphor the male gaze. Following the voyeuristic meeting described above, close-ups of June are almost exclusively through Griffin’s eyes in soft focus, and when the couple finally gets around to the sex scene tipped off so long ago, it is shot in a long close-up of their faces. Griffin attempts to tell June that he killed her boyfriend, but in that moment, it does not seem to matter, mirroring Laura Mulvey’s ideas of the male gaze freezing the diegesis. Now that our male hero controls the woman, the actual story ceases to exist, or at least to matter; not only is it not of interest to the characters, but the real world is cut-off from them by the camera’s tight framing.
It’s precisely this brand of direction, self-conscious in implication but incredibly self-assured and stylish in execution, that makes The Player work. Michael Tolkin’s script is short on character, and if there is a sliver of originality that Hollywood is allegedly crushing, there isn’t a single pitch that lets us know, and The Player itself would not function as one itself. Likewise, if Bonnie is supposed to double as a symbol of virtue, both personal and artistic, she is egregiously lacking both screen time and depth. But Altman is able to work around the screenplay’s shortcomings and, through sound, framing, and choice/length of shots, turn the film into something far smarter than it ought to be—something that cares about audience and directors as much as producers. That’s entertainment and, as Griffin so piously longs for in Hollywood, art.