The best part of "Buffalo Bill And The Indians, Or Sitting Bull's History Lesson" is the first ten to 15 minutes. We join a Wild West show rehearsal circa 1885, and watch as its staff work at creating a show that takes itself a little too seriously. The feeling of observing a real, living thing comes across, only a bit funnier than reality.
"Tell Joy not to get on the horse in back," mutters the show's MC, Salisbury (Joel Grey) regarding an actress playing a white woman abducted by Indians. "It looks fake. We're in the authentic business." Later, Salisbury shoots down a band's idea of real frontier music as "too Ukrainian."
All this is easy to miss when so much is going on at once, while horses nearly run down a pedestrian in the foreground. This is a Robert Altman film, after all, or "Robert Altman's Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre!" as it bills itself.
As Jeff Lebowski might say, Altman's not into that whole brevity thing here. A two-hour extravaganza, "Buffalo Bill" stars Paul Newman as Bill and makes its points about how show business and American mythmaking became one with repetitive, haymaker swings. The end result is a comedy that's not that funny and a social statement that's not that convincing, but Altman's secret sauce of a busy camera and piquant performances makes for a pleasant if shapeless affair.
Newman's something of a disappointment, giving less a performance than a caricature. I get the feeling he was directed by Altman to just play a slightly older and more pompous Hud with a goatee. He fills out Bill by drinking rotgut from a schooner, loving and spurning a succession of opera singers who never stop singing in frame, and watching over his stardom with a kind of prissy defensiveness that belies his self-cultivated frontier image. He can be a joy to watch still, working his eyes and playing to his mirror, maybe winking at the audience about what they expect from him as both Bill and Paul. If only he had better material.
"You ain't changed, Bill."
"I ain't supposed to. That's why people pay to see me."
There's also the business of his dealing with the Wild West Show's newest star attraction, Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), which gives the story much of its social perspective. Bill thinks of Bull as an ungrateful pet who needs cultivation in "the show business," while Bull thinks Bill sells lies in the guise of history. Hence the "history lesson," which feels shoehorned in from a more socially committed source play. Altman wants to tell that story, but most times he'd rather have fun with the show-making part, and while you are watching this, you wish he'd cut loose and do just that.
The film succeeds in short bursts, though the eccentric casting choices Altman throws at you here don't work as well as they did in his other films. Geraldine Chaplin as Annie Oakley? Harvey Keitel as Bill's nerdy nephew? Some Altman vets like Robert DoQui and Allan F. Nicholls are barely in the film while stars like Newman, Keitel, and Burt Lancaster get longer spotlight time. John Considine is fun as Annie's flinchy husband, "the handsomest human target in the West," though that running joke, like so many others, is plugged more times than one of Annie's nickels. I was impressed also by Kevin McCarthy's publicist character, not only for the juiciness of his grandiloquent performance but the magnitude of his handlebar mustache.
"Buffalo Bill" takes a lot of time saying a good deal less than it thinks. But the spectacle of "the show business" and the minor bits of Altman kookiness and sardonic commentary around the edges keep this a diverting if underfilling entertainment.
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