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					The Player
A film directed by Robert Altman

Teaching notes prepared for VATE members by
Russell Forster

1.     An introduction to The Player                                       Page 2

2.     Ways into the text                                                  Page 3

3.     Running sheet                                                       Page 5

4.     A perspective on the text                                           Page 10

5.     Characters, style and setting                                       Page 12

6.     A guided approach to selected scenes                                Page 16

                        -    The opening sequence                          Page 16
                        -    Outside David Kahane‟s house                  Page 16
                        -    Beside the swimming pool                      Page 17

7.     Activities for exploring the text                                   Page 18

VATE                Purchasers may copy Inside Stories for classroom use
Section 1. An Introduction to The Player
Produced in 1992, The Player is considered to be one of Robert Altman‟s finest films.
As an auteur, Altman has established a reputation as an individualistic film maker
with a tendency to satirise the institutions of American cultural life. Films like
M.A.S.H.    (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Nashville (1975) all
demonstrate a shrewd and ironic sensibility at work.

The American film industry has, throughout much of its history, been dominated by
what is called, „the studio system.‟       Studios such as MGM, Warner Bros, 20 th
Century Fox, Paramount and RKO (sometimes referred to as „the big five‟) generally
applied a formulaic approach to film making that came to represent what we know as
Hollywood movie style. Often star-studded, with pat story lines, these movies
affirmed, rather than challenged, the cultural mores of their time. There was little
overt political questioning and heroism was seen to operate conservatively within the
bounds of domestic tensions or patriotic fervour. The good guy usually won out; the
baddie got what was coming to him. This approach constituted a moral code that
was not seriously challenged until films like Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) hit the scene
with „down‟ endings. Previously these endings had been considered depressing and
consequently bad for business, even though they may have depicted a more realistic
interpretation of social life in America.

It‟s in this context that we can begin to appreciate films like The Player. Being about
Hollywood itself, The Player examines the studio system of the 80‟s (the decade of
greed, as it is sometimes called) by being a film about movie making. This, of
course, allows for a raft of reflexive commentary on the industry and requires a
degree of awareness about movie history and culture for full appreciation –such
points will be indicated as they arise.

Further to this, The Player is about the tribulations of a central character. Griffin Mill
may be representative of a type of Hollywood figure, but he is also depicted as a
complex human being who embarks on a journey of sorts – a journey out of the
falsity and pretence of the movie world, to engage a grittier, more dangerous reality.
Because this journey involves crime and romance, the film necessarily, and
consciously, adopts some of the conventions associated with the mystery/thriller
genre. But more importantly, the decisions that Griffin makes and the way the film
resolves his dubious morality make for a sophisticated satire, that is still relevant as
Hollywood film product continues to dominate the screens of Australian cinemas.

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Section 2. Ways into the text
Have students research the origins of Hollywood

   What is it?
   What is its location and is that important?
   What studios operate there?
   What was The Golden Age of Hollywood?
   What was „the studio system‟?
   In what ways has Hollywood changed and in what ways stayed the same?
   To what extent is the phenomenon of celebrity important to Hollywood?

Establishing genre
   Ask students to list the movie genres they are familiar with and briefly write the
    conventions operating within them. For example, science fiction: usually set in
    the future, technology a main feature, the threat of alien life.

   If possible show the students an extract from a James Bond movie and then an
    episode of Get Smart (or even an Austin Powers‟ movie) in order to explore the
    features of satire. Have students draw up a list of characteristics that the original
    character has and a comparative list for the satirical version. For example:

Original: James Bond                         Satirical: Maxwell Smart
Suave, sophisticated.                        Bumbling, simple-minded

Other satirical film texts of interest could include Blazing Saddles; Spinal Tap; Dr
Strangelove, The life of Brian, Whatever happened to Baby Jane and even Altman‟s
other black comedies, M.A.S.H. and Nashville.
 Have students consider the question: What is the social function of satire?

Exploring celebrity
The use of celebrity is an interesting feature of The Player.
 Have students list 4-5 of today‟s Hollywood celebrities and discuss their general
   appeal, beyond the movies in which they have appeared.

Show the students the opening sequence (the famous long continuous shot) of the
film with the sound turned down. Then in small groups have them speculate on what
they have seen and how the film might proceed.
 What could this film be about?
 List some of the figures encountered and create identities for them
 Develop a plot for this film based on what you have seen
 Create some dialogue for this scene
 What music would be appropriate for this scene?
Have representatives from the groups report back to the class.

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Write a script
   Have students attempt to create their own rudimentary script, of about ten shots,
    based on a print text they are familiar with. Script format could be as follows: For
    example Medea:

Shot (include duration, Action (what is seen)    Sound (what is heard)
camera angle
1. Mid shot, 7 sec.     Nurse pacing to and fro, Dramatic music, thunder
                        wringing her hands

View other films
The Player itself recommends a good deal of classic movies. Students could watch
one or more of the following movies to get a feel for the genre Altman is exploring.

   Laura (Preminger 1944)
   Sunset Boulevard (Wilder 1950)
   M (Lang 1931)
   Freaks (Browning 1931)
   D.O.A. (Mate 1950)
   Touch of Evil (Welles 1958)
   Highly Dangerous (Baker 1951)
   The Bicycle Thief (DeSica 1949)

Use reference materials to assist in understanding film as text
How to read a film: Monaco, James (OUP 1981) - Very strong on politics, history and

Flicks, studying film as text : Partridge, Dinah & Hughes, Peter (OUP 1992)

Reading Films : McLean, Kathy (Nelson 1992)

CD ROM: Microsoft Cinemania (excellent reference source)

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Section 3. Running sheet
         Scene                           Content                    Comments and
                                                                    questions on the
1. Opens with mural        A phone rings, secretary answers         An extraordinary 8
   (clapboard/slate:       and makes the error of telling the       minute tracking
   scene 1, take 10.)      truth: Joe Levison is not in yet.        shot.
                           After being reprimanded she is           Also note the
                           sent to find him. Camera follows         amount of plot
                           her to studio lot. It is the beginning   information this
                           of a business day. Griffin Mill          shot contains
                           arrives and brushes off a writer.
                           He enters his office and begins
                           hearing pitches. The mail boy has
                           an accident. Three movie
                           executives move past and suggest
                           that Griffin is on his way out. A
                           postcard is delivered to Griffin. He
                           looks suspiciously behind him
                           through the window.
2. Jan‟s Office            Jan takes a call from an
                           anonymous hostile male writer.
3. Joe Levison‟s           Griffin asks if Levison is in…while
   reception area          Celia protests.
4. Levison‟s office        Griffin barges into Levison‟s office.    Reggie
                           There he is introduced to Reggie         demonstrates
                           Goldman.                                 some interesting
                                                                    ideas about
                                                                    producing - what
                                                                    are they?
5. Joe Levison‟s           Griffin interrogates Celia about his
   reception area          job and potential rivals for it. She
                           is guarded.
6. Restaurant              Griffin and Bonnie lunch with            Notice how
                           colleagues. Griffin is putting on a      thoroughly
                           brave front.                             immersed these
                                                                    people are in their
                                                                    professional world
7. Street outside          Griffin picks up his car and notices
   restaurant              a postcard on the window.
                           Postcard is picture of Humphrey
                           Bogart, pointing a gun at the
8. Griffin Mill‟s office   Griffin adds the postcard to the
                           collection in his drawer. He is
                           reluctant to ask security for help.
9. Party at Dick           Griffin and Bonnie at party. Griffin
   Mellon‟s house          tries to communicate his concern
                           over postcard threats to Dick
                           Mellow. Bonnie alerts him to the
                           presence of Larry Levy. Griffin is

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10.Hot tub at         Griffin pretends to pitch Bonnie a movie     What does this
   Mill‟s house       and asks her advice about a plot             scene foreshadow
                      element. He is in fact referring to his      for their
                      own real life situation and not opening      relationship?
                      up to her.
11.Restaurant         Larry Levy and Joe Levison having
   terrace            breakfast.
12.Parking lot        Griffin arrives in time to see Larry Levy
   outside            leave. He is irritated once again and
   restaurant         tells Levison, “ I will not work for Larry
                      Levy.” Levison appeases him.
13.Mill‟s office      Another postcard arrives. Griffin sends
                      Jimmy and Jan to the mailroom and in
                      their absence searches Jan‟s records to
                      track down the culprit. He has success
                      he believes.
14. Outside           Griffin attempts to visit the supposed       Is Griffin spying, or
   David              culprit (David Kahane), but finds            viewing a movie
   Kahane‟s           instead June Gudmunsdottur home              here?
   house              alone. He speaks to her on his mobile
                      phone while spying on her through the
15. Inside cinema     Griffin enters the cinema auditorium
                      while The Bicycle Thief is playing.
16. Cinema lobby      After the film he attempts to make
                      contact with David Kahane by a
                      process of elimination. He makes
17. Karaoke bar       Griffin tries to make amends with
                      Kahane, but with no success. Kahane
                      gets drunk and becomes obnoxious.
18. Street            Kahane reconnects with Griffin in the        Kahane is made to
    outside bar       street and continues his abuse. He           look unsavoury
                      attempts to humiliate Griffin. Things get
                      physical and Kahane is killed.
19.Conference         Griffin is late for the meeting. While the   Even Walter
    room              others are waiting we learn that Walter      communicates best
                      has learned something of significance        through the
                      for studio security. Joe Levison tells       mythology of
                      him, “Keep our noses clean Walter.”          Hollywood. He
                                                                   refers to the movie
20. Conference        Griffin formally meets Larry Levy who is     Note the powerful
    room              trying to persuade the meeting that the      irony in this scene
                      writers‟ role in the creative process
                      could be eliminated. Griffin sees a
                      newspaper story about Kahane‟s
21. Mill‟s office     Walter approaches Griffin on the topic       How does the fax
                      of his involvement in Kahane‟s murder.       create suspense?
                      Griffin denies the crime after some          The message is
                      evasion. A fax arrives which confirms        slowly exposed.
                      that Griffin has killed the wrong person.

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22. Cemetery           A friend of Kahane‟s delivers a            Suspense
                       eulogy. Griffin stands apart, but is       intensifies. Have
                       addressed by June Gudmunsdottur.           we identified the
                       She confides in him and requests a         harasser?
                       lift home. A strange man seems to
                       be watching Griffin.
23. Inside Kahane‟s    An interesting scene in which June         Is June callous, or
     house             and Griffin flirt and philosophize         just honest?
24. Mill‟s office      The police have arrived and want to
                       question Griffin. Walter protects
                       Griffin from the third degree.
25. Screening room     Griffin is viewing a movie (The            Reference to the
                       Lonely Room) when a message                movie Sunset
                       arrives – the harasser wants to meet       Boulevard
                       at a bar.
26. Hotel lobby        Griffin meets a celebrity (Malcolm
                       McDowell) who further unnerves him
                       by claiming to have been stabbed in
                       the back by him.
27. Hotel lounge       Griffin encounters two writers (Andy
                       Cevilla and Tom Oakley) who
                       attempt to pitch a movie to him.
                       Griffin puts them off.
28. Hotel pool         Waiting for his harasser to appear,
                       Griffin is once again accosted by the
                       writers. This time they deliver their
                       pitch. Griffin is impressed. Another
                       postcard arrives: a picture of a rattle
29. Street outside     Griffin receives a fax on his machine      The postcard has
    hotel.             in his car as he drives. It tells him to   becomes real!
                       look in the box under his raincoat. It
                       contains a live rattlesnake. Griffin
                       pulls over and kills the snake.
30. Inside Kahane‟s    Griffin is distressed and seeks            Do we need to alter
    house              comfort from June. He announces            our perception of
                       his love for her. She responds             June, or is Griffin
                       favourably, but is cautious.               just thawing her
31. Mill‟s office      Griffin is with the writers of Habeas
                       Corpus and sells the idea to Larry
32. Levison‟s office   Levy makes the pitch to Levison.
                       Griffin sits back happy to let Levy run
                       with the project. Bonnie is sent to
                       New York to bid for the rights to a
33. Lobby outside      Griffin lies to Bonnie about there
    Levison‟s office   being someone else in his life.
34. Entrance to        Numerous celebrities arriving at gala
    gala Hollywood     event.

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35. Inside             Griffin follows Levison in making a
    Hollywood gala     speech (Movies now more important
    celebration        than ever) and receives yet another
36. Outside June‟s     Griffin invites June to Mexico.
37. Outside Mill‟s     The mystery stalker is actually
    house              Detective Paul DeLongpre from
                       Pasadena Police Station. He
                       requests that Griffin attend the
                       station for questioning.
38. Pasadena           Detective Avery conducts a most           Notice the squalor
    Police Station     unorthodox interview. Griffin             of this set
                       becomes righteous, but is mocked.
39. Mill‟s office      Walter tells Griffin to get a lawyer.     Note the poster
                       Two writers want a long-term              ‘M” the worst crime
                       arrangement. Griffin terminates his       of all.
                       relationship with Bonnie. She is
                       visibly hurt and humiliated.
40. Airport            Griffin alters his plans for the Mexico
                       trip at the last moment. He opts to
                       take June to a desert hideaway.
41. Desert             Car drives past a wind-mill farm and      A visual pun on
                       a rattlesnake to arrive at the desert     „Mill?‟
42. Hideaway           The couple dine in sumptuous
    dining room        surroundings. June asks, “Do these
                       places really exist?” Griffin replies,
                       “Only in the movies.”
43. Hideaway           The couple make love and Griffin          A comment on
    bedroom            confesses his crime to June during        power and
                       the act. She says she doesn‟t want        sexuality, or the
                       to know and then climaxes.                amoral centre of
                                                                 the film?
44. Hideaway mud    The couple in mud baths. Griffin             Note the
    baths           gets a call from Dick Mellon telling         symbolism here –
                    him he has to attend a line-up at            both of them are up
                    Pasadena Police Station.                     to their necks in it.
45. Pasadena Police Griffin arrives to meet his disabled
    Station         lawyer.
46. Line-up viewing The line-up proceeds and the key             Has the witness
    room            witness fails to identify Griffin.           been got at by
47. Outside            As Griffin leaves there is a string
    Pasadena           suggestion that the police know he
    Police Station     got away with murder.
48. Fade in title:     A year has passed during which time
    „One year later‟   we assume that Habeas Corpus has
                       been made.

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49. Screening room    A screening of Habeas Corpus. The          What is the effect
                      ending has been altered. It now has        of Habeas Corpus
                      a happy ending. Bonnie is upset by         being full screen
                      this, but is ridiculed by the others       here?
                      and eventually fired.
50. Studio lot        Bonnie rushes to Griffin‟s office for      Is this cliché, or
                      support, but breaks her heel on the        symbol?
51. Outside Mill‟s    Bonnie is forced to beg entry to
    office            Griffin‟s new presidential office
                      (previously Levison‟s)
52. Mill‟s office     Griffin refuses to see Bonnie

53. Studio lot        Bonnie attempts to address Griffin
                      as he leaves, but to no avail. He
                      offers only glib, hollow words.
54. Los Angeles       Griffin is driving home and receives       The voice sounds
road                  a phone call from Larry Levy who           suspiciously like
                      puts on a writer to deliver a pitch        Kahane‟s
                      which is chillingly similarly to his own   eulogizing friend.
                      story. It turns out to be a blackmail
                      attempt. Griffin gives the
                      blackmailer a movie deal as a bribe.
                      “What will you call it?” Griffin asks.
                      “The Player” says the writer.
55. Grounds of        Griffin arrives home to be greeted by      Note the American
Mill‟s home.          June, who is obviously pregnant.           flag.
                      Griffin‟s words to her echo the happy
                      ending in the movie Habeas Corpus.

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Section 4. A perspective on the text
Question: when is a murder not a murder? Answer: when it’s in the movies, of

There‟s no doubt that a good deal of discussion in relation to this film could revolve
around Griffin Mill‟s absence of morality. His murder of David Kahane, his deception
and betrayal of Bonnie, his hypocrisy in relation to art and the world of movies and
his relentless pursuit of power all suggest that he is, indeed, a character of extremely
unsavoury proportions. Yet, strangely, by the end of the film, we don‟t feel the need
to spurn him. We may be shocked, possibly even horrified, but our emotions aren‟t
directed at Griffin. Instead, I believe, we feel oddly challenged, so that any negativity
we may experience is in fact directed towards the institution of Hollywood itself. It‟s
the nature of that challenge that I want to now explore.

Firstly, let‟s consider the ways that Altman positions us to appreciate Griffin as a
victim, rather than a perpetrator. We learn very early on that Griffin is indeed a victim
of harassment. The postcards he receives contain nasty physical threats and their
increasing number makes them all the more worrying for Griffin. Concurrent with this
is the threat to his job from new-kid-on-the-block, Larry Levy. Yet through all this we
see Griffin as nothing, if not the consummate professional. He stands up for himself
to studio head Joe Levison, he calls upon a rather arrogant bravura in an attempt to
dismiss the presence of Levy, “Larry Levy, if he had half a brain he‟d be dangerous.”
But it‟s understandable, even charming posturing under the circumstances.

As it turns out Griffin has read Levy‟s character aptly. Levy falls for the trap Griffin
sets up, because Griffin knows the industry better than he does. When Andy Cevilla
and Tom Oakley pitch the movie Habeas Corpus to him Andy pronounces, with what
seems genuine admiration, “You‟re good! You see, I told you he was good.”

Furthermore the murder scene itself is played out to the advantage of Griffin‟s
character. David Kahane is depicted as obnoxious and untalented. He has written a
script, but it‟s only based on his student days in Japan. At the funeral, his friend
reads the last thing he wrote: it sounds like a piece of romantic twaddle. Even his
girlfriend pronounces him as singularly untalented. Just prior to his death, Altman
uses a stock-standard movie device in order for us to not feel too badly about it. In
the bar Kahane gets drunk and is obnoxious, even abusive to Griffin. He doesn‟t
seem to have the sense to make the best of the opportunity that‟s before him.
Outside the bar Kahane is caught urinating in the street. As he approaches Griffin,
he absent-mindedly wipes his fingers on the front of his shirt. It‟s no accident: Altman
is trying to disgust us with Kahane‟s actions so that we don‟t feel remorse over his
death. In the parking lot Kahane continues to press Griffin‟s buttons. He tells Griffin
to “Get Larry Levy to give me a call. The word is he‟s going to start making
meaningful pictures…” (The irony is sharp: we discover in the next scene that Levy
actually wants to eliminate the writer from the movie making process.) Kahane finally
assaults Griffin, by pushing him over a ledge to fall down a driveway below. Griffin‟s
retaliation is seen to be a natural one under the circumstances. The rumour that has
been spread about his dubious job security, the pressure of the poison pen postcards
has mounted to a pitch level. “Keep it to yourself.” He repeats as he knocks
Kahane‟s skull into the concrete.

Once Griffin becomes a murderer, he enters a world which is dangerously real. The
stakes are now very high indeed: he could be sent to the gas chamber. After the
failed meeting with his persecutor in the bar, Griffin receives a postcard with the
picture of a rattlesnake on it. Moments later the snake becomes real. It‟s discovered

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in a box in his car. The symbolism should be obvious: Griffin is leaving the contrived
world of Hollywood to live on the edge. It‟s during this part of the film that June
Gudmunsdottur intervenes with words and ideas that give Griffin the support he
needs to survive. Depicted as a real artist, she is open to thoughts and ideas that
are initially alien to Griffin (note the environment and costume that help characterise
her). She also becomes the „love interest‟ in the movie and as the couple
consummate their relationship Griffin confesses his crime to her. It appears as
though she climaxes at this point. Is Altman making a statement about sex, power
and morality here?

However, moving beyond questions associated with morality, is the broader impetus
of the film that suggests Griffin‟s character may be more allegorical than literal: that
he is an important vehicle for a message that transcends the moral question of the
crime he is responsible for. The message is quite a simple one; it‟s that Hollywood,
itself, has been getting away with murder for years. Movies have come to represent
a major cultural force in the way America sees itself, and yet we know that it has, at
times, been a deeply troubled society. Its involvement in the Vietnam War, its racial
problems, its corruption, all generate issues that needed to be dealt with and
Hollywood could have played its part, but chose to limit and control the artistic
potential of the film medium.

The role of satire in any society is to mock institutions or ideologies that have
enormous power, so much power that they are rarely questioned. A good many of
Altman‟s films have been celebrated for this type of challenge to conservative
systems; and it‟s a healthy thing. Anything taken too seriously has the potential to
harm society. This, at least, is the satirist‟s view.

Satire works well if it can expose hypocrisy. When this is done with subtlety the
effect is enhanced. Let‟s look at Griffin‟s name as a case in point. A „griffin‟ is a
creature of fantasy with an eagle‟s head and wings, and a lion‟s body. A „mill‟ is a
kind of factory for churning out mass produced goods, be it flour, or textiles. Isn‟t this
exactly what Hollywood has been throughout its history? A factory that churns out
fantasy for the masses? And yet Griffin has the audacity to suggest, in his speech at
the gala celebration, that, “Movies are art, now more than ever.”

Griffin has been considering ludicrous idea after ludicrous idea, throughout the film,
in the form of „pitches‟ (25 words or less, please). When two writers, Tom Oakley
and Andy Cevilla, pitch him an idea that may have some artistic merit, he
immediately senses its business flaws and uses the concept as a lever to extricate
himself from his unstable professional situation. We note that he succeeds in this
enterprise in a number of ways. He becomes the president of the studio, he
subordinates Larry Levy and manages to contain the threat of blackmail within the
fantasy bounds of the world that Hollywood is. As Griffin arrives home, (dripping with
prosperity, like America itself) to be greeted by his pregnant wife, he echoes the
words of the Bruce Willis character in Habeas Corpus. “The traffic was a bitch.” The
American flag waves triumphantly above them.

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Section 5. Characters, style and setting
Griffin Mill
Griffin appears to be a savvy, successful, dynamic studio executive- the glamorous
profession, the car, the designer suit, even the sunglasses underpin our first
impression of Griffin as someone who has the lot. However, we learn very early in
the film that he has two major problems to deal with: his job is under threat, and he is
receiving hate mail in the form of death threats. How he copes with these problems
and others, that grow from them, characterise him.

Let‟s take one problem at a time and we‟ll see that there are two aspects to Griffin‟s
character: the side he projects to the world and his less secure, private self. Privately
he is worried about his job. Evidence for this is his interrogation of Celia. Publicly he
maintains bravado. (Note the first restaurant scene.) Griffin knows that any sign of
weakness will undermine his position even further. This tells us that he‟s tenacious,
he‟s a fighter. However, the rumour about his possible departure spreads and he
can do little about it.

On the other hand his harassment problem is something he does try to contain.
Have students detail the extent to which he attempts to contain the problem. They
could consider:
 references to studio security
 avoidance
 Bonnie Sherow in the hot tub
 his actions in personally tracking down the culprit
 bribery
 murder
 murder cover up.

Even though Griffin is a murderer, it‟s interesting to observe how Altman positions the
audience to have some sympathy for him. His ambition and ruthlessness, his
violence and lies seem not as offensive in the context Altman has constructed. We
accept Griffin as a man pushed to extremes, but perhaps understandably so.

Griffin is also seen as something of a water connoisseur. He seems to enjoy
humiliating waiters and secretaries when they get his order wrong. What is Altman‟s
intention in applying this feature to his character?

Bonnie Sherow
Bonnie is initially Griffin‟s protégé – she is his subordinate and is in a relationship
with him at the same time. Bonnie is a principled character. She often seems out of
place in the facile, racy world of Hollywood. Students should detail what her
principles are and where they emerge in the text. They could consider:
 Bonnie‟s loyalty – to what and to whom?
 her critical ability
 her honesty
 her individualism
Simultaneously, she is seen to be naïve – unsuited to the wheeling and dealing of
Hollywood. Have the students list examples of her naiveté. They could consider:
 her attempt to discuss a script at Dick Mellon‟s Party
 her trusting nature
 her outburst toward the end of the film
 the symbolism of her broken heel

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June Gudmunsdottur
Perhaps the most complex character in the text, June Gudmunsdottur is constantly
associated with ice – and we need to ask ourselves why. Is it because she is
emotionally a cold person? This is certainly true. She reacts to her boyfriend‟s death
as if it were a mere annoyance. Yet she is direct and honest enough to admit it.
Could the ice symbolism refer to a type of purity? She paints for herself, not to make
money and this is alien to Griffin. Yet are we to regard her as an authentic artist?
She is, importantly, unlike Griffin in a number of ways:
 she doesn‟t see movies – his life revolves around them
 she produces art – he mass produces items of pop culture
 she is open and direct – he is deceitful and manipulative
 she is associated with cold – the heat (police) is on for Griffin
 she is intuitive – he is calculating
She is also represented as being somewhat mystical. We never really find out where
she comes from. She paints snake-like forms on the night Griffin is attacked by a
snake. She tells a story about a mythological Icelandic figure who weirdly parallels
Griffin‟s own experience. Furthermore, she offers Griffin access to a strangely
amoral world; a way out of his conscience problems; a way out of the contrivances of
Hollywood; a glimpse of „the way things really are.‟

She is fatalistic and accepts the twists and turns that destiny deals her with a kind of
puzzled nonchalance. It‟s this fatalism that allows her to reflect on life in ways that
suit Griffin since he became a killer. When she says, “Knowing you‟ve committed a
crime is suffering enough.” and, “ If you don‟t suffer, maybe it wasn‟t a crime after all,”
we can almost see the burden of guilt lifting from Griffin‟s shoulders. It allows Griffin
the breathing space to collect his thoughts and move on and conquer.

Students will need to decide what they think of June Gudmunsdottur. She could be
condemned as a quasi-Californian mystic with a convenient morality. I feel that this
would be closing the gate on other ways to read the film. In particular, the reading of
it as an allegory. The film uses her character as a way of satirising the inanity and
self-importance of Hollywood. Although she herself is not a particularly attractive
alternative to the manufactured and mediated world of Hollywood, are we positioned
by Altman to see her as being „more real‟. Students could document the ways this
occurs in the film by considering:
 her frankness
 her natural desire to create
 her fatalism
 her amorality
 the ice symbolism
 costume.

Minor characters of interest
Reggie Goldman:                            son of wealthy banker, wants to get into
                                           producing movies.

Walter Stuckel:                            head of studio security, has strong views on
                                           movies making, thinks the industry has gone
                                           down hill.

Larry Levy:                                Griffin‟s rival.

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David Kahane:                           „unproduced‟ movie writer

Joe Levinson:                           studio president

Detective Avery:                         woman detective in charge of investigating
                                        David Kahane‟s murder. She is eccentric in
                                        her dress and manner.

Detective Paul DeLongpre:               initially this character is designed to create
                                        suspense by appearing to stalk Griffin (i.e. he
                                        may be the sender of the postcards.)
Tom Oakley and Andy Cevilla:            the writers who pitch Habeas Corpus.

For all intents and purposes this text can be regarded as having a contemporary
setting. The location of Hollywood provides credibility for the self-conscious style the
film adopts and maintains. Everyone, from Jimmy the mailboy and Walter, the
security chief, through to actors, writers and producers seem to absorbed by the
myth that is Hollywood. It is a ritzy, glamorous setting which makes the discovery of
its rotten underbelly (Griffin‟s unpunished crime) all the more cogent.

Most of the sets in this film have a typically plush Hollywood feel to them. The one
obvious exception is the squalor of Detective Avery‟s office at the Pasadena Police
Station. Why would this be?

Essentially a satire, this film employs a range of stylistic features to help fulfil its
intention of exposing Hollywood as an institution caught up in its own mythology.

On the surface this film is a murder mystery and even has features of the sub-genre,
film noir. It is pessimistic and exposes the corrupt nature of a major American
Yet, whereas film noir often lead to the destruction of its heroes, The Player allows its
central character to „get away with it.‟

The dramatic irony used by Altman operates in a number ways, but can be summed
up as providing the audience with the opportunity to see more than the characters
see themselves. So when Tom Oakley says, while delivering his pitch of Habeas
Corpus to Griffin, “Because that‟s the reality! The innocent die.” We can register the
irony in our knowledge that Griffin has recently killed an innocent man.

Further down the track, when Griffin has altered the movie‟s ending, Bonnie Sherow
protests, “You sold out! What about truth, what about reality?” Tom Oakley retorts,
“What about the old ending tested in Konoga Park? Everybody hated it! We re-shot it,
now everybody loves it – that‟s reality!” Another level of irony is about to be added
because we learn that Griffin not only altered the ending of Habeas Corpus, he
altered the course of justice in his own life and created a happy ending for himself.
Can we take the irony to be suggesting that it is Hollywood that determines the reality
in which a great deal of Americans (and Australians, for that matter) live?

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Irony also operates visually in the film. The use of old movie posters is an example.
There are numerous occasions when the camera will linger on a poster and we know
it‟s providing a layered meaning. One instance is when Griffin finally dismisses
Bonnie from his life. The camera follows her out of the room, but picks up a poster
containing the words, „M, the worst crime of all.‟ In a couple of scenes later, Griffin
takes June Gudmunsdottur to the desert hideaway where he is referred to as „Mr.M‟
twice. But the nature of the worst crime remains ambiguous. Could it be his betrayal
of Bonnie, or the more obvious suggestion of murder?
There are many such occurrences in the film. Students could locate and explore
their connotations. They could consider the following posters:
 Murder in the Big House
 Prison Break
 Highly Dangerous
 Something is Waiting poster at the Rialto cinema
 Laura (a famous 1944 murder mystery)

This type of irony could be called incidental irony. Other examples of it are:
 They made me a criminal (book in Jan‟s drawer)
 Let’s begin again Karaoke song in Japanese bar
 Photo/poster of Hitchcock
 Mural at the opening of the film
 Burt Reynolds‟ comment, “He was still hanging on.”

One interpretation of the extensive use of irony is that it contributes to the theme of
reality and fantasy operating in the film. The point where fantasy and reality divide
and collide is one key issue that Altman wants his audience to explore in this text.

Other themes in the film include: power & ambition; crime; rivalry and art and the
nature of popular culture. Students can map such themes by using a theme grid as
provided below:

THEME                 WHERE IT EMERGES               QUOTES & COMMMENTS
Reality & Fantasy
Art & Pop. culture

Production Values
The use of lighting, music, costume and camera angle, set design, make-up are all
intended to create the director‟s intended effect. Such elements are described as
production values.

Have students consider the production values in the sequence where Griffin first
spies on June Gudmunsdottur. They could make comments on the blue lighting, the
icicle quality to the music, her costume (all white), the close-ups of her as she
involves herself in art.

Another interesting scene is at the Pasadena Police station. The use of big close-up
camera angles on Griffin, when he begins to posture as if his civil rights are being
abused is a great moment of black humour. Detective DeLongpre begins to chant a

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line from the cult film Freaks, “One of us, one of us.” It‟s a moment designed to
demonstrate just how removed from reality Griffin is.

We should ask ourselves why Altman has a whole group of cyclists tramp past the
camera during the Joe Levison breakfast sequence. Could it in some way connect to
the use of the film The Bicycle Thief ? This classic 40‟s film was noted for its realism
and use of real people instead of actors. It is also interesting for the fact that the thief
is forgiven at the end.

What can be said about the dozens of celebrities in this film that make only fleeting

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Section 6.
A guided approach to selected scenes.
Scene 1. The opening sequence

The opening sequence of The Player is quite a technical achievement. It is a single
tracking shot around eight minutes in duration. A good deal of important information
is related to the audience here, as well as strong indications as to the reflexive style
Altman wants us to appreciate.

Discussion points
A major challenge for any text is to grab the reader/viewers‟ attention.
What factors should a director consider in order to achieve this?
 character/audience identification
 narrative impulse (what motives are going to move the story along?)
 what elements of style are apparent?
 How much of our interest is developed through simple curiosity about the way a
   Hollywood studio operates? What do we learn about that process?
 What moments of suspense are there?
 What moments of humour are there?

A major factor in our enjoyment of movies is the way they allow us to be voyeurs.
In what ways does the opening sequence provide for this? How is our excitement
 the eight minute continuous tracking shot itself. Do we feel more involved, in
    some way unhindered by the smoothness; its natural quality?
 The tension between Celia and her assistant
 the movie talk between Jimmy and Walter
 the three executives muttering that Griffin may be on his way out
  Griffin‟s concerns about studio security
 the desperation of writers like Adam Simons
 the role of Bonnie in dealing with such desperation
 the quality of the movie pitches (The Graduate part II and Pretty Woman meets
    Out of Africa.)
Have students write their first impression of the following characters:
Griffin Mill; Bonnie Sherow; Walter Stuckel.

Scene 2. Outside David Kahane‟s house
A major theme in The Player is reality. So much of what Hollywood projects to its
viewing audience pretends to be real, but is in fact mediated and fictional.
Griffin Mill chooses to spy on June Gudmunsdottur while speaking to her on his
mobile phone. The scene becomes quite an elaborate one.
 Why is Griffin given the role of voyeur in this scene?
 What parallels can we draw when she later takes a Polaroid snap of his face
    behind a plastic screen? What does this suggest about the nature of their
 What can we make of their pun: “ I see, (icey), you see, blue sea, red sea.” Is
    there any significance when later we see David Kahane‟s wallet floating open
    exposing a passport photo of June Gudmunsdottur on a red sea? (For example,
    the puddle in which David drowns).
 What is the significance of June‟s role as an artist?

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   What can be said about the set design in this scene and the ways in which it
    supports the characterisation of June Gudmunsdottur?

Scene 3. The hotel pool, Griffin awaits his harasser.
During this scene Griffin gets his break. Andy Cevilla and Tom Oakley pitch him the
movie Habeas Corpus, which saves his career. Notice how Altman wants to maintain
and develop the mystery thriller elements in this film. How is suspense developed in
this scene? Consider: The mystery man/stalker. (On a first viewing we have no idea
he‟s really a cop here). The surprise return of Andy Cevilla. The set design is wide
open. Does this enhance Griffin‟s vulnerability?

Tom Oakley delivers the pitch. It‟s a film about the death penalty. Specifically, about
a white, middleclass American, being sentenced to death.
 Is this plot designed to add to the suspense, or has it suddenly become black
 Are we impressed, or merely entertained by Oakley‟s principled stand?
 The arrival of another postcard ends the scene. Is the suspense allayed, or

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Section 7. Activities for exploring the text
Role play

Set the class up into groups of 3-4. Have the groups come up with a list of questions
they would ask of a panel like the one below.

Set up a creative panel of experts to discuss aspects of the film. The panel could
include: Robert Altman (director), Tim Robbins (Griffin Mill), Whoopi Goldberg
(Detective Avery), Greta Scacchi (June Gudmunsdottur), Cynthia Stevens (Bonnie
Sherow), Richard. E. Grant (Tom Oakley), Susan Emshwiller (set designer),
Thomas Newman (music), Jean Lepine (cinematography).

Ask for volunteers to fill the panel and have the rest of the class ask questions.

Debate topics
   Movies are a waste of time

   Art is more important than morality

   The Player is a great movie

   Movies define our reality

   Knowing you‟ve committed a crime is suffering enough

   What the world needs is more happy endings

   Movies are the most accurate representation of our culture

   Power is the basis for all societies

Movie pitches
Have each student write and deliver a movie pitch of their own. Use Tom Oakley‟s
pitch of Habeas Corpus as a model. Students could select from a range of genres
including: sci-fi; romance; western; drama; horror; action; etc. Remember, „25 words
or less.‟ (Perhaps 50 would be more productive, but the idea is to be concise.)

Creative responses

   Write a synopsis for a movie that makes Hollywood look good.

   June Gudmunsdottur has been asked to write a piece for a magazine on the topic
    What art means to me. Write it.

   Not long after the end of the movie Griffin has a religious conversion. His priest
    asks him to document and explain his thoughts and actions in the previous year.
    Write his account.

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   Joe Levison is asked to write a confidential and detailed character reference for
    Griffin Mill. You write it.

   The Player, as summarised by the blackmailer, turns out to be a huge box office
    hit. The studio wants to make a sequel. Write a synopsis for it.

   Bonnie Sherow becomes so disgusted with Hollywood she decides to leave. She
    gets a job as a journalist. Her first job is to write an expose of the movie
    producing business. Write it.

   Walter Stuckel is not impressed with modern day movies (“All this cut, cut ,cut.”)
    He writes down his thoughts on what makes a really great film. You write it.

   June Gudmunsdottur has been keeping a journal. Write three entries before she
    met Griffin and three after she met him.

   Detective Avery and Detective DeLongpre decide to have a drink together after
    the line-up. Write their dialogue.

Analytical responses

   Write a detailed character analysis of each of the following: Griffin Mill; Bonnie
    Sherow; June Gudmunsdottur.

   What techniques does Altman use to create suspense in The Player?

   Below the mystery and suspense in The Player there is a genuine message.
    What is this message and how does it emerge?

   Write a detailed comment on the use of costume in The Player.

   One of Altman‟s intentions in The Player is to show celebrities as normal people.

   In what ways is Hollywood just a business, and in what ways is it not?

   Hollywood is no place for honest people with principles. In what ways does The
    Player demonstrate this?

   Write an interpretation of the symbolism of the mud bath scene.

   Write an interpretation of the „red sea‟ puddle that Kahane drowns in.

   “Altman‟s use of old movie posters is just a gimmick.” In a piece of writing argue
    against this.

   Discuss Altman‟s use of big close-up (BCU) shots in The Player.

   Discuss Altman‟s use of lighting in the „ice –house‟ scene (where Griffin spies on

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   “Griffin Mill would be a success in any business where he chose to work.”

   Write a commentary on set design in The Player. Mention the police station,
    Kahane‟s house and the studio offices.

Topics for writing
   “That‟s the reality: the innocent die.” What is Griffin Mill‟s reality in The Player ?

   “We can‟t hurry things anymore than we can stop them.” In what way is destiny
    seen to operate in The Player?

   “You‟d probably give it a happy ending.” Does The Player end happily?

   “This movie is too important to be overwhelmed by personality.” Discuss in
    relation to The Player.

   “Movies need to have suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex and
    a happy ending.” Discuss in relation to The Player.

   “There‟s so much irony in The Player that it‟s hard to take it seriously.” Discuss.

   “If I think about it, this is probably not even an American film.” Discuss in relation
    to The Player.

   “At the heart of The Player is a frightening amorality.” Discuss.

   “For all its cynicism, The Player ultimately supports the movie world.” Discuss.

   “Murderer though he is, it‟s strangely difficult to condemn Griffin Mill.” Discuss.

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