By the early 80s Robert Altman was at an impasse in Hollywood. The success of MASH (1970) and Nashville (1975) was mitigated by numerous critical and/or financial flops, including Quintet (1979) and Popeye (1980). But New York was equally hostile when in 1982 he directed his one and only Broadway play, the unsuccessful Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
Still, two things resulted from its failure. One was a second wind for co-star Cher, who received good reviews. The other was a six-year stretch where Altman mostly adapted plays for the movies and TV, starting with a better-regarded film of Jimmy Dean and including Secret Honor (1984), with Philip Baker Hall’s searing tour-de-force as Nixon, Sam Shepard starring in his own Fool for Love (1985), and for ABC in 1987 Basement, a double bill of Harold Pinter plays (featuring John Travolta, Annie Lennox, and Linda Hunt) that I can’t imagine any network footing the bill for today. Most of these are pretty hard to see. Their economical shooting schedules and resourceful filmmaking did, however, inform his best work of the decade, HBO’s fly-on-the-wall “political fable” “Tanner ’88.”
Running a close second in quality is his excellent 1983 film of David Rabe’s Vietnam-era drama Streamers, which Shout! Factory has unearthed in grainy but serviceable shape. First produced in 1976, Streamers ended Rabe’s trilogy of plays inspired by his own stint in the war, composed of the Tony-winning Sticks and Bones and the Drama Desk-winning The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. As it happens the movie began co-star Matthew Modine’s tour of duty, which took in 1984’s Birdy and 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. In a supplementary interview Modine recalls that Mike Nichols, who directed the Tony-nominated Streamers on Broadway, compared the play to a plane crash, whose survivors, strangers to one another, struggle to find some means to cope and communicate. It’s a good analogy, and first-time viewers are advised to strap themselves in.
Other than an abstractly lit set of drills that open and close the movie, Streamers is confined entirely to a Virginia military barracks in the mid-60s. Scheduled to ship out to Southeast Asia are Billy (Modine), who sees himself as a typical Midwestern hick; Roger (David Alan Grier), an easygoing black recruit; and Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein), a blue-blooded Manhattanite who acts as if tailor-made for the eventual “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The three men are seemingly OK with each other, but a fourth, Carlyle (Michael Wright), tests their bantering relationship. Carlyle, another of the few blacks on the base, is a mess of insecurities and hostility, and as he needles them on race, class, and sexuality taunts turn to violence. Sgt. Cokes (George Dzundza) and Sgt. Rooney (Guy Boyd), who run the barracks, might be expected to contain the situation yet are lost in their rambling reminiscences.
With its lengthy, profane monologues, Streamers, like Rabe’s Tinseltown-set Hurlyburly, is a favorite of acting students. For audiences, the show and the movie (which Rabe adapted) wouldn’t work without a strong sense of unity, which the cast provides. Altman freed the actors to find their roles and, as Modine says, “conducted” them. There are no weak links in this symphony. If I had to pick a favorite, it might be Grier, in his film debut. Usually cast in comic parts he centers the tricky role of Roger, whose equilibrium among whites is tested. (He’s equally good in David Mamet’s disappointing new play Race, which doesn’t dig near as deep into that issue as Streamers.) The Venice Film Festival couldn’t decide among them, and in an unprecedented move voted the entire cast an ensemble acting award.
Modine, Lichtenstein, and Dzundza are part of a retrospective supplement on the disc, which also includes comments from Herbert Jefferson, Jr. (who played Roger in the show’s first production, at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT) and Bruce Davison, who appeared in its original Los Angeles staging. The film actors are full of praise for Altman, who with cinematographer Pierre Mignot vividly shaped the material for maximum impact. (When I saw the play Off Broadway in 2008 I was comparing it to the film, and not the other way around. It was a draw as to which was better.) They’re more rueful about the film festival, which never sent them their Gold Lion awards. Davison remarks that during one particularly high-wire performance in LA a fellow actor wound up hospitalized with a broken toe, and was placed in a room with an audience member who had collapsed during the show’s bloody climax, a fairly regular occurrence. When he woke up the man demanded to know how the show ended. No Gold Lions, but plenty of war stories from Streamers.