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.