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Murphy’s law
Robert Altman’s Tanner on Tanner 2004

With scripts by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau and direction from Robert Altman, the 1988 cable mini-series Tanner ‘88 stands among the highlights of modern television, a political series with undisguised politics floating between Trudeau’s left-liberalism and Altman’s left-anarchism. The telling of the stories proved even more unusual: cluttered, unfocused frames of characters all speaking at the same time. Altman’s contrapuntal orchestration of his ensembles, a signature of his feature films, was transferred intact to television.

The mini-story? Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), liberal congressman from Michigan, was challenging Jesse Jackson and Mike Dukakis for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. As the primaries proceeded, Tanner felt increasingly alienated, a private-minded intellectual troubled by the sound-bite persona he was compelled to construct. In the end, he realized that he lacked what every real presidential candidate needs: fire in the belly. Among the disappointed was his radical-minded daughter, Alex (Cynthia Nixon), who tried to pull his campaign to the activist left.

The good news is that Tanner is back, with Altman and Trudeau in the trenches for four newly made half-hours, Tanner on Tanner 2004, airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel. The bad news is that Tanner isn’t in the race this time. Instead, he’s watching the campaign from the sideline. The new mini-series is dominated by the exploits of the now-30ish Alex, a radical indie filmmaker.

Why the switch? Cynthia Nixon is now a major acting star because of Sex and the City, for which she just won an Emmy. Michael Murphy is back where he’s been, reliably and comfortably, for 40 years, as the co-star par excellence. He’s the superb actor whom everyone recognizes by face but can’t quite place. You know, the Kennedy-esque guy who played the advance man in Altman’s Nashville, Woody Allen’s pal in Manhattan, Jill Clayburgh’s husband in An Unmarried Woman.

Here’s a typical off-screen occurrence for the relaxed, ultra-friendly Murphy, as he told me over lunch at last month’s Toronto Film Festival. Earlier at the fest, he and the other actors in John Sayles’s Silver City had taken a limousine to the premiere. "I got out of the car and people were looking through me." When publicists finally realized he was in the movie, Murphy was told to get back in the limousine and exit a second time so photographers could take his picture! "I’m in this fun position where people don’t really know who I am," he chuckled. "It’s a good look at life. You get a perspective."

Robert Altman knows. He’s cast Murphy in seven other of his films. "I was right out of the University of Arizona," Murphy recalled, "and a friend said, ‘Go to Bob. He’s using young guys for this Army thing.’ " It was the World War II TV series Combat. Murphy and Altman chatted, and Altman said, "Yeah, we’ll do something together." Without even an audition, Murphy was placed in Combat uniform. "Bob took me under his wing. He told me, ‘You’re never going to be a movie star. But you’ll do some interesting things.’ Bob was maybe 35 years old when we met. He’d never play it safe. He has amazing fortitude and guts."

Murphy has seen Altman’s temper on display but never towards him. "I may be the only person [in that category], and I was even hanging around him in his bad drinking days. I adore the guy. If you’re getting married or divorced, or someone dies, you want to talk to him about it. He’s so strong, he sees the big picture. An extraordinary man." Could Murphy discuss his better-known non-Altman roles? "The husband in An Unmarried Woman was maybe the first of the whining yuppies, and that movie was the first chick flick. In Manhattan, I was that guy cheating on his wife. In The Year of Living Dangerously, I was another scumbag white man, though in Australia. Sleazoids. I think Tanner bailed me out. He’s a nice guy. Ineffectual, but nice.

"For the new Tanner, they weren’t going to run me again. Garry didn’t want that. It would have entailed going on the campaign trail, a tough job now for Bob. But we had an obligation to the first batch of Tanners. You do a crappy rerun, you denigrate what you’ve done. Is the new series saying, ‘Vote for Kerry’? Garry, Bob, I, too, we’re all ‘pinko commies,’ but Bob is showing the nastiness behind all campaigns. I don’t think it’s a polemic. In Bob’s case, you vote for the Democrat, but be careful of what you ask for. Bob is very cynical."

Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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