In 1977, on the set of his Palme d’Or nominated film 3 Women in Palm Springs, director Robert Altman was approached by a reporter and was asked that all too familiar question, “What’s next?”. Altman replied, tongue firmly in cheek, that he would be “shooting a wedding”. Later that day, the moment of jest turned into true inspiration and, after writing the outline of a screenplay with John Considine, in 1978 Altman released his “next” project - an ensemble comedy called, simply, A Wedding.
When middle-class Muffin Brenner marries wealthy military man, Dino Corelli, their respective in-laws are thrown together – a perfect pairing of dysfunction. As a senile priest stutters and stumbles his way through the traditional religious ceremony, he foreshadows the rambunctious, comedy of errors that plays out at the lavish reception, held at Dino’s (very recently deceased) grandmother’s estate. Across the course of the day, lovers are tempted, destructive secrets float to the surface and the wild storm that falls upon the lush manor is nothing compared to the chaos inside, stripping contented families bare and eroding all pretension.
With multiple plots that often aren’t resolved and, with over forty speaking roles in the film, A Wedding is, like many of Altman’s comedies, essentially a character-driven piece. The wedding reception proves a perfect setting to bring out the heightened emotions of the characters and here, Altman employs his signature auteurial techniques such as overlapping dialogue and his infamous long zoom (assuring the actors don’t know who exactly the camera is focusing on) to great effect.
In a film so dependent on the success of its performances, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter and a frequent Altman collaborator, scene-steals as an anxiety-riddled and humourless wedding planner, whilst Mia Farrow, who plays the brides quietly promiscuous sister, is brilliantly understated and memorable, despite uttering just two sentences in the entire 120 minute running time. Nominated for a Golden Globe for her role, TV comedy veteran Carol Burnett is the slightly awkward, guiltily lustful mother of the bride and Desi Arnaz Jr, the son of another American comedy legend, Lucille Ball, plays the egotistical groom with an ever-wandering eye. Altman admitted much of the dialogue was improvised by the talented cast - including the entire scene in which the Corelli brothers have a heated argument in their native tongue.
A Wedding came at an interesting time in Altman’s career – wedged between award winners and festival favourites such as M*A*S*H and Nashville and less successful works, like his big-screen adaptation of Popeye and the much-criticised, Health. Whilst giving it a favourable review, Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun Times, ““A Wedding” doesn't fit easily into established feature film categories. For some viewers, it won't satisfy; it doesn't set up situations and then resolve them in standard ways. It's got all the disorganization and contradictions of life, and then Altman almost mystically gives everything a deeper meaning by the catastrophic surprise he springs on us near the end”. Altman made 22 films after A Wedding and received an honorary Academy Award at the age of 81, shortly before his death in 2006.
As for A Wedding’s legacy, Altman always believed it was released at the wrong time (1978 being a year cinema was dominated by The Deer Hunter and National Lampoon’s Animal House). Films such as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and PJ Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding owe a great deal to Altman’s feature – if only for the groundbreaking in the way it portrayed the institution, seamlessly weaving a large number of characters into the story. In 2004, a comic opera of the film debuted in Chicago, with music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bocolm and libretto written by Robert Altman and Robert Weinstein. Altman later said of the opera, “In many ways, it is an improvement to the film. It’s a more theatrical construction than the film”.
In a career spanning sixty years and over thirty features, A Wedding is one of Altman’s funniest, most approachable films and a real treat for avid fans and those yet to discover his extensive body of work.