In this series we look at the past 100 years of cinema as seen through ten of the industry’s most fruitful actor/director partnerships. Today, we take a look at the impact Robert Altman and Shelley Duvall’s movies had on 1970s cinema.

Brewster Mccloud, poster, US poster art, front row, third from left: Shelley Duvall; fourth from right: Sally Kellerman; third from right: Bud Cort; second right: director Robert Altman; right William Windom; back row, third from left: Margaret Hamilton; right: Rene Auberjonois, 1970. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

A film set is a busy place and every movie relies on the efforts of many different people. On top of that, every time you begin work on a film you’re entering a new workplace. In those conditions, a familiar face can be a welcome sight.

There are plenty of reasons film-makers might reunite. There could be a mutual recognition they bring the best out of one another. It might make sense for the biggest action director to keep working with the biggest action star. It may be an order from the studio, believing the pairing is what the public wants to see.

Film history is littered with director-actor pairings that were more than the sum of their parts. It’s impossible to decide on the best but, in this series, we’ve decided to pick a pair for each of the past ten decades.

Each duo made at least three films together in that time, although some collaborations lasted longer. Put together, they tell a story of cinema during the past 100 years.

Today, we look at how the 1970s shook up Hollywood…

The best 1970s movies by Robert Altman and Shelley Duvall

Films they made together: Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974), Nashville (1975), Three Women (1977)

Robert Altman was another who shaped the New Hollywood era. His films were loose, naturalistic and irreverent. He broke through into the mainstream with M.A.S.H. and soon went on to deconstruct some of Old Hollywood’s favourite genres.

 

His version of a western was the subversive McCabe And Mrs Miller. His take on the film noir was a sun-and-irony-drenched adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. His twist on the musical delivered the rambling portrait of a city, Nashville.

The first four films Altman and Duvall made together were Shelley Duvall’s first four films. She had never acted at all before a chance encounter with Altman led to an appearance in Brewster McCloud.

Altman preferred actors who looked and behaved more like real people than movie stars – the likes of Elliott Gould and Keith Carradine. This fitted nicely with 1970s Hollywood, when the perception of who could be a movie star was changing.

Altman’s love for ensemble pieces meant his films relied on strong, memorable supporting casts. He needed actors who had charisma when it was their turn on camera but who were comfortable with blending into a crowd. Duvall fitted the bill, developing into an excellent character actor capable of delivering the style of oddness Altman wanted.

As Duvall kept meeting the challenges Altman placed in front of her, Altman kept finding new parts for her to play. In 1977, Duvall took on her first outright lead role in an Altman film.

She ended up receiving a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in Three Women. It was her most psychologically complex role yet and cemented her status as one of the stars of New Hollywood.

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