By Linc Leifeste | February 4, 2015
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Arthur Kopit (play Indians), Alan Rudolph (screenplay), Robert Altman (screenplay)
Starring: Paul Newman, Joel Grey, Kevin McCarthy, Harvey Keitel, Allan F. Nicholls, Geraldine Chaplin, John Considine, Robert DoQui, Denver Pyle, Frank Kaquitts, Will Sampson, Pat McCormick, Shelley Duvall, Burt Lancaster
Thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics, there’s now an excuse to revisit a film you might be excused for thinking was a Western, at least if you didn’t know that 1976’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians was a Robert Altman film. Set in 1885, this is the loosely historical and delightfully cynical tale of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Paul Newman) and his Wild West show, itself a post-wild West traveling circus-like revue of a fictionalized version of the wild West. The film focuses on the show’s addition of legendary “killer of Custer,” Indian chief Sitting Bull, to the cast. The heart of the film can be summed up by quote from one of Buffalo Bill’s actors, explaining why Sitting Bull might be joining the show, “If he wasn’t interested in show business, he wouldn’t have become a chief.” It’s unfathomable to some that anybody could be motivated by any impulse other than a lust for fame and fortune.
This is an Altman film, an ensemble piece overflowing with dialogue, that is all about “the show business,” also known as “the American way.” Newman is reliably brilliant in his turn as the egomaniacal Cody, a man who is both a talented man of accomplishment (buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, government scout, entrepreneur, etc.) and a fraud. It seems that he’s both a product of his own remarkable story and the ingenuity of a dime novelist/the Legend Maker (Burt Lancaster), whose fictionalized tales allowed him to burst into national prominence in the first place. He has bought into the image and his ongoing fame now rests upon it, leaving him no options at this point but to constantly stay in character as the bigger than life legend. The ensuing notoriety and riches are a blessing but the necessity to endlessly stay in character is undeniably a burden.
Newman’s Buffalo Bill is a brilliantly comedic wig-wearing (“Someday my hair’s going to be as long as Custer’s…was”), whiskey-downing, insecure, opera-singing-woman-obsessed, ornithophobic character who seems completely trapped by and in service to his image. Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), on the other hand, is something of a mystery, a noble man of few words who is free to move as he wishes (at least as much as the government forces will allow), in complete control of his own dignity, if not his own fate.
Something of a free-flowing, loosely formed, manic meditation on the nature of fame and entertainment as history, the common consensus seems to be that the wildly entertaining Buffalo Bill is lesser Altman. And while I’d probably not argue against that opinion, I will say that even lesser Altman is essential cinema. And it doesn’t hurt that you get a chance to see the likes of Newman, Harvey Keitel, Kevin McCarthy, Shelley Duvall and Burt Lancaster nobly ply their trade.