I disagree with the general consensus that this film was a misstep. Albeit having a big star like Paul Newman in an Altman film unbalances things a bit, but it is the surety with which the thematic elements are juggled that distinguishes it. I can see this film being a companion piece to `The Candidate,' because as much as `Buffalo Bill' is about the onset of capricious celebrity and the occupation of `Superstar' where it is strongest is in its political parallels. That way we keep Butch and Sundance together. The most perfectly Altman scene in the picture occurs when President Grover Cleveland (played ineptly by the same actor who was terrible opposite Carol Burnett in `A Wedding' [sometimes a good reason not to cast non-actors is that many of them can't act!]) is told that Buffalo Bill coins all his own sayings, a shady character whispers in Cleveland's ear and he replies, `All great men do.' Despite everyone speaking more or less as though they were in an Altman picture from modern day the twists put on the script of Arthur Kopit's play `Indians' make it much more cinematic (even though the majority of the action takes place within the gates of Fort Ruth). I believe the change to Altmanspeak overcame the usual problems of stageplay-screenplay, and Altman's `Greatest Show On Earth' mentality provides us with excellent reenactments of acts from the show. I believe Newman gets better as it goes along, he and Altman reveal how much more he knows about Bill than Bill knows about himself without winking or indicating, just by letting it play out, especially in his last big aria to the `ghost' of Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull is as enigmatic as Cleveland is simple, you never can tell if he's just as dopey or if he really is a great spiritual leader, you never can tell for sure if his interpreter (the great Will Sampson, fresh off `One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest') is helping Sitting Bull, selling him out, just interpreting. The events seem to indicate that Sitting Bull's dreams of foresight are correct, and the final image of Bill tearing the feathered headdress away from Will Sampson's interpreter, who has a white name, then holding the scalp up with apparent joy in their acclaim and terror at the part he has played in it says it all. Annie Oakley, the white person who has the most genuine sympathy for Sitting Bull, never has a righteous speech about it, never gets preachy about treating Indians like humans; she just says she'll leave if Sitting Bull leaves, he asks to stand next to her in a picture and she cries when she hears he's been shot. This is a morally complex film, and part of what it asks us to consider is what happens when the livelihood and lives themselves of actual people can be controlled by a showman like Bill who cares nothing for them and has reached his present power without any greatness to recommend him, or a schill like Cleveland (apocryphal, I might add, there isn't much to support that Cleveland was a figurehead particularly, he was written that way for a reason). Notice how Bill and Cleveland often speak in aphorisms that sound deep but usually mean absolutely nothing. At one point Buffalo Bill parries an aphorism Sitting Bull is using to indicate the conditions under which he will stay with one that Bill immediately tells his crew was giving Bull back some of his own confusing mumbo-jumbo. The same style of sayings are used by Burt Lancaster's `Legend Maker,' the writer of 10-cent westerns that made William F. Cody a star, and when you're watching a movie about the first hero made entirely by myth, with no military or political background, just great accomplishments that were completely made up, made right around the bicentennial by a maverick such as Altman I think such things are worth more consideration than `dumb film!'
Performance-wise who knew that Harvey Keitel was in this movie at all? He gives a memorably tiny performance, low key and inconspicuously funny as heck. Joel Grey plays one of the parts that would be given to Bob Balaban in more recent years, not really adding much to it. Burt Lancaster gives rich character to essentially a narrator and commentator. Newman's performance doesn't unbalance this film nearly as much as it did Altman's `Quintet' (both genre-wise and scriptwise, it was almost a character study), but it does show why Altman is more successful with a giant cast of B actors, or one main character that is content to listen and react more than speak, than with superstars.
The stage play is much much different. It focuses much more explicitly on the atrocities and hypocrisies committed. Sitting Bull speaks, quite a bit, and believes Buffalo Bill to be his friend. Buffalo Bill is ineffectual, and the one person most responsible for the extinction of the Buffalos the Indians once hunted (it would have been nice if they'd at least mentioned how he got the name Buffalo Bill, he killed thousands and thousands). Of the two, I prefer the movie, but wish Altman had shown a little more responsibility toward historical record.
This is a confusing and complex movie, alternately very subtle and prone to brash sometimes annoying running gags (the mezzos singing in the background are particularly cloying) and it is no surprise that people didn't know what to think of it. I'm just glad it is out on DVD so people can see an excellent representation of it and make up their own minds.
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