By Scott Ross
California Split is a potsherd from a culture not far removed, chronologically, from our own but which in appearance, artistic accomplishment on a popular scale, the possibility of progress and of a general maturity is as ostensibly ancient, and as forgotten, as Carthage.
Written by the actor Joseph Walsh, himself a gambler (and who has an unsettling role in the picture as a mercurial bookie) and initially developed by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, California Split focuses on two speculators, the casual novice Bill (George Segal) and the degenerate Charlie (Elliott Gould) who meet during an acrimonious game of poker, form an odd friendship based pretty much entirely on their shared addiction, and, on their uppers, travel to a high-stakes poker meet in Reno where everything they have rides on Bill’s abilities. Although not originally intended as a Robert Altman movie, that admittedly terse précis certainly suggests his approach — seemingly meandering, shaggy-dog stories that illuminate their subjects, and their characters, in ways many more “daring” or “challenging” narrative techniques and stories fail to do, and what the overwhelming bulk of movies never even attempt.
With Altman at his considerable best, only the contours remained the same, by which I mean those readily-identifiable personal traits that marked his filmmaking: The actors’ improvisations, the long takes, the large ensemble casts, the muted palettes, the zooms, the overlapping dialogue. But that is window-dressing, almost by the way. How Altman used film to explore human beings and their relationships to each other, which because it changed from film to film was never predictable, is what we should mean when we think of his work, or refer to anything as “Altmanesque.” In his and Brian McKay’s adaptation of the Edmond McNaughton novel McCabe, for example, what was removed was everything trite and predictable — the gambler dying on the street in Mrs. Miller’s arms, for example. Altman’s McCabe keeps muttering, “I got poetry deep inside me” when he hasn’t (and anyway, what man who is genuinely poetic needs to keep reassuring himself of it?) Yet at the end, sitting in the gathering snow with no witnesses to his murder, he’s become a beautiful metaphor: In death he is poetic… and Mrs. Miller is nowhere around; she’s deep in an opium dream, with Altman ending the movie on a close-up of the oblivion contained within her preternaturally glazed eyes. And that is poetry too.
Although Altman had been experimenting with overlapping dialogue at least as early as MASH in 1970 and certainly relied on it in McCabe, especially in the long first sequence in the saloon, it was for California Split that he developed his multi-track recording system without which his follow-up, Nashville, would not have been possible; it enabled him to capture several conversations at once without our losing track of what’s important. It isn’t over-used in California Split, and never becomes oppressive, but during the opening poker sequence in a large, organized gambling establishment, it’s as essential as the many extras imported from the Synanon organization (or cult, if you prefer). The faces, and the personalities, that come through in these scenes are both peripheral and essential; they’re the milieu into which we’re about to plunge, and they have a tang, an earthy charge, that ground the action and give it savor. I can’t imagine them in any other movie by any other filmmaker.
Despite the cavalier desperation of Charlie and Bill, and the glancing sadness of the women in their lives, a pair of lower-middle class prostitutes played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, this is a surprisingly buoyant movie, and it lacks the mean-spiritedness that dogs so much of ’70s cinema, especially in the realm of the homophobic. I’m thinking specifically of the sequence in which Prentiss and Welles’ date with the transvestite “Helen Brown” (Bert Remsen) is upset by Bill and Charlie’s need to celebrate their winnings. Although the two, pretending to be vice cops, send the poor man scurrying, the fact that he’s in drag is not made an issue, nor do they abuse him for it; even if their playing with him could be seen as victimization, it’s not the kind of sequence that makes you squirm. You laugh along with it, and Remsen, who plays the role of “Helen” with astonishing delicacy, is somehow able to exit with most of his dignity intact. Indeed, neither Bill nor Charlie ever lets on to “Helen” that they know he’s anything but a well-dressed and sophisticated middle-aged woman, enabling him to maintain his own necessary fiction. Had the movie been made by a professional liberal of the period like Sidney Lumet, I shudder to imagine what Bill and Charlie would have done to the poor man. Calling him a queer would have been the least of it — they’d have probably beaten him up as well. Contrast this with the later bar scene in which a blowsy drunk (Sierra Bandit) spews alcoholic invective in a monologue of self-pity remarkable in its piggishness, hurling the word “faggot” at her absent boyfriend and anyone else who crosses her. She’s clearly meant to be an offensive boor and is treated as such, even by the disgusted bartender (Jack Riley) who’s obviously beyond caring whether she hears his sarcastic comments or not. Charlie and Bill may be cheerfully amoral but they don’t engage in deliberate ugliness. This puts them on a plane above Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John in Altman and Ring Lardner Jr.’s MASH, who, as Richard Corliss observed, in their modish “irreverence” behave like frat-boy bullies to anyone who isn’t on their special wavelength.
In a picture like this the side-long glance is as piquant as the piercing gaze, and the incidental figures have more impact than the leads in other, less alive and incisive movies. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Charlie takes the bus to the racetrack, and can’t get the seat his superstitions demand he take because each of the other riders has his or her own gambler’s fetish, leading to an elaborate switching of seats that is wonderfully farcical but which holds its own, demented logic. And even as Charlie exploits the trusting nature of the woman he sits beside on the bus (Barbara London) when he and Bill win on the long-shot horse Charlie has told her not to bet on she becomes furious at Bill, hilariously hurling oranges at him in her rage as he rides up an escalator. As written by Walsh and directed by Altman it’s a set of scenes at once quirky, idiosyncratic, wildly funny, thoroughly on point and absolutely in character. Bill will likely never see that woman again, but he’ll always remember her…. and so will we. How do you forget someone who throws oranges at you?
Likewise, in an Altman movie even the extras and small-part roles resonate, like the hefty older woman in the opening poker scene, or the receptionist played by Barbara Colby in the magazine office at which Bill works. (A young Jeff Goldblum also shows up, as the editor, forever seeking the errant Bill, who ignores him.) The best and most memorable of these cameos is the Reno barmaid portrayed by Barbara Ruick. She hasn’t many lines, but with her engaging middle-aged mien, white cowboy hat, half-glasses, long hair, large grin, blasé good humor and un-self-conscious dance moves to a private melody only she can hear Ruick is, while nearly always in the background, intensely memorable; you want more of her.*
Pauline Kael, who admired the picture, felt the breakfast meeting between Bill and his bookie had the feel of an expository play scene, its neatness at odds with the looser structure of rest of the picture, but I demur. It helps us understand how close to the financial edge Bill has gotten himself in a relatively short period of serious gambling, and gives what has up to then been merely a disembodied voice on the other end of Bill’s telephone a bodily presence, a life and a psychology. Walsh had become by 1974 the furthest thing from the odd minor child star† he’d been in the ’50s; as the bookie called Sparkie his jumpiness and buried rage give him dimension, and weight. You judge that violence is not his first resort — he’s been carrying Bill for months — but that he’s getting closer to it, and that in turn makes explicable Charlie’s convincing Bill to take that all-or-nothing plunge in Reno. If the sequence is squarer than most of the others in the picture, neither does it feel false or unnecessary.
Elliott Gould’s gift for cheerful, amoral expansiveness suits Charlie perfectly. He accepts everything that comes his way, even being beaten up, robbed and having his nose broken by an abusive thug of a fellow gambler; before exacting vengeance, he expresses admiration for the punch he’s just received. Charlie lives for the chance, and in common with many degenerate gamblers it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether it’s big or small. (Early in their relationship he and Bill bet each other over the names of the Seven Dwarfs.) A clue to his character is that his girlfriend is a whore, a fact that never seems to bother him, except when it gets in the way of a celebration. That he doesn’t exhibit any of the standard masculine jealousy has less to do, I think, with Barbara (Prentiss) letting him crash at the apartment she shares with Susan (Welles) — unlike with Bill, we never see any other place Charlie calls home — than that getting upset about such an immutable fact of life would probably strike him as a waste of time that could be better spent on fun. He’s so loose and secure in his sexuality he isn’t self-conscious about smearing hot shaving cream on Bill’s abdomen after they’ve been beaten up, and doesn’t respond defensively when Barbara has a light suggestive response to walking in on them, as he later and out of sheer ebullience gives Segal a public kiss on the lips during Bill’s winning-streak. In Gould’s equable performance, although Charlie can be annoying he is just about the happiest, most relaxed and likable wastrel you’ll ever see.
Prentiss is amiable too, and endearingly protective of Welles, but Susan’s character is difficult to pin down. She doesn’t seem quite real, which is no reflection on Welles herself but on the conception of the role; although Susan is appropriately casual about her carnality — when she offers herself to Bill, it’s as if she’s giving him a freebie because she’s un-engaged, and bored, and he’s present — she falls in love with random johns (Bill included) and repeatedly lapses into crying jags over them. We can’t get a handle on her, and she finally becomes slightly irritating. Susan is the one area of the picture where I think Walsh, and Altman, blew it.
Bill is a far more successful creation, and I suspect Segal is largely the reason. Gould and Altman were gamblers, and Segal admits he was an innocent, which he used to help give Bill a naiveté that lets the audience in. He isn’t our surrogate, exactly, but he’s often as much at sea in Charlie’s milieu as we would be, and that confusion allows us access; when Charlie is explaining a system to Bill, he’s also telling us, but without seeming to, which would be fatal to the movie’s tone. It’s easy at this remove, in the years after he became a weekly comedic fixture on the television series Just Shoot Me, for an audience to forget what a fine dramatic actor Segal was, and is. (Not that an Academy nomination is or has ever been the final arbiter of quality but he got one, in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) As opposed to Gould, whose humor is brash, Segal is subtler, and more charming. The actors compliment each other, and when at the end Bill has what, to employ an over-used word, we can only call an epiphany, Bill’s (or Segal’s?) reserve gives the moment its quiet power.
There’s a certain dread that goes with movies like this: The fear that you’re going to watch the main characters spiral so far downward there’s no going back, especially when, as it does here, everything rides on the outcome; it’s what happens in another under-seen George Segal picture from the ’70s, Ivan Passer’s 1971 study of a middle-class junkie, Born to Win. How Altman and his stars surmount that hurdle is exemplary, even if their muted ending upset the screenwriter. (Henry Gibson, in Mitchell Zuckoff’s oral biography of Altman, remarks that Walsh has been repeating that story “for the last 700 years.”) When Joseph Walsh’s previous collaborator saw the picture made of the script on which he had initially worked, he lamented that Altman had squandered the climactic final third. He, Spielberg, would, he said, have shaped the material in a way that would have stroked the audience’s response to a glorious orgasm. We can all too easily, and with a shudder, imagine the Spielberg version of California Split, and be doubly grateful he never got to make it.
The DVD in my collection is the 2004 Columbia Tristar release, and it’s in full widescreen. From what I hear, the aficionado should beware the later Mill Creek release, which while slightly (3 minutes) longer is not in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio; it’s allegedly in 1:85:1, which is a considerable difference in framing, and Paul Lohmann’s images are too good to be squeezed, or “panned-and-scanned.”
I’ve also heard California Split dismissed as “minor Atlman,” but no movie that engages you on the levels this one does, or that so beautifully limns the contours of human personality and experience, is “minor” anything.
* Horribly, the actress, the memorable Carrie Pipperidge of the 1956 Carousel, died of a cerebral hemorrhage during filming, which may account for the brevity of her appearance. Married to the composer John Williams, who scored Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Ruick left him a widower with three children. She is the Barbara to whom Altman subsequently dedicated California Split.
† Walsh, who had a good role in Walter Hill’s minimalist 1978 crime thriller The Driver, is probably best-remembered as Danny Kaye’s young, Platonic companion in Hans Christian Andersen (1952) — which given the complex sexuality both of the Dutch writer and of Moss Hart, the author of that movie’s screenplay, feels like more than a bit of a dodge.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross