The Crap Movie Club: Robert Altman’s ‘The Room’ (1987)

Robert Altman, director of ‘Gosford Park’, ‘The Player’, ‘Nashville’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘doing’ Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter?

It could have worked. Two shrewder observers of human nature there have seldom been.

But Altman’s 1987 take on Pinter’s 1957 debut play ‘The Room’ was a bona fide stinker. A car crash. It doesn’t even warrant a single mention in Michael Billington’s rigorous Pinter biography.

Though a couple of Altman’s ‘80s films are well-regarded now (‘Fool For Love’, ‘Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’), the great director was mainly forced to scrabble around for one-off deals during this period, probably cursed by the critical mauling handed out to his 1980 version of ‘Popeye’ (Siskel & Ebert discuss Altman’s ’80s career in this interesting clip).

‘The Room’ certainly continued Altman’s reputation as a provocateur par excellence. In ‘Altman On Altman’, he claimed it came about when the TV network ABC offered him carte blanche to film any stage play he wanted. His choice of ‘The Room’ amazed, annoyed and confused them, as did his casting of Annie Lennox, Julian Sands and Linda Hunt.

The suits had a point. Hunt, best known for her Oscar-winning role in ‘The Year Of Living Dangerously’, is nothing less than a disaster in the film. Her London accent is appalling and she fudges the key line: ‘That’s this room.’ The emphasis should be on ‘this’, not ‘room’. You wonder why co-star Donald Pleasence didn’t raise any objection.

Lennox’s beauty beguiles but the Eurythmics star doesn’t deliver a classic performance. As for Sands, you only ever expect over-the-top weirdness from him and he doesn’t surprise here, suffice it to say that his Cockney accent is also a travesty.

Pleasence – predictably – is the only actor who emerges with any credibility, his turn a fidgety comic masterpiece. You wonder what he said privately about this mess to Pinter (they were good friends).

Altman shot ‘The Room’ back-to-back with another Pinter play (and equally appalling/must-see) ‘The Dumb Waiter’, starring John Travolta during his career doldrums. They were shown separately during the 1987 holiday season and then released as a double bill under the banner of ‘Basements’.

The lack of critical or commercial success didn’t surprise anyone. But Altman seemed to like it that way. He didn’t get out from under until 1992’s ‘The Player’. It was a long, cold 1980s for the great director.

Harold Pinter @ 90, The Caretaker @ 60

Playwright, actor, activist and poet Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve 2008, would have been 90 years old today.

I couldn’t let 2020 pass without marking that fact and celebrating the 60th anniversary of ‘The Caretaker’.

When I started my English Literature ‘A’ Level at the very end of the 1980s, theatre had barely appeared on my radar. I’d seen some Shakespeare, Webster, Sheridan, maybe a bit of Ayckbourn, mostly on school trips. Nothing really hit home. But then my excellent teacher Hugh Epstein introduced us to ‘The Caretaker’.

Needless to say, it was like no other play I’d read before. This was the language of the West London streets that I knew. It covered very familiar territory in terms of its themes too.

Pinter’s legendary, hilarious piss-taking was evident from early on – mainly courtesy of the Mick character – but there was something else coming through loud and clear, something heroic, empathetic, charitable, even noble. I was gripped and it began a love affair with Pinter’s work that has lasted almost 30 years.

‘The Caretaker’ premiered on 27 April 1960 at The Arts Theatre in London, and starred Donald Pleasence, Alan Bates and Peter Woodthorpe. It was a big hit, Pinter’s breakthrough play after a difficult experience with ‘The Birthday Party’.

An excellent movie, starring Pleasence, Bates and Robert Shaw, was made in 1963, shot in Hackney and adapted by Pinter himself.

There are so many other great London Pinter memories, many involving his acting performances in his own plays: ‘No Man’s Land’ at The Almeida, ‘The Collection’ and ‘The Hothouse’ at the Richmond Theatre.

Also Ian Holm in ‘Moonlight’ at The Comedy Theatre and Michael Gambon’s turn as Davies in ‘The Caretaker’ at the same venue.

Of course he wasn’t only a playwright, actor and poet. A cursory look at his public appearances now – especially those in the last 20 years of his life, when he received the Nobel Prize In Literature and spoke passionately at various rallies – suggests that there are very few public figures around these days with his kind of gravitas. He was known to be prickly – aren’t we all – but also exceptionally generous, as he was to this writer.

He’s much missed. Happy birthday Harold. And enormous thanks to Hugh Epstein who brought ‘The Caretaker’ to life.

Further reading: George Cole’s Betrayed: The Story Of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

Mark Batty’s About Pinter

Michael Billington’s The Life And Work Of Harold Pinter