An Indian raid on homesteaders is set to fanfare, but the credits are interrupted by Joel Grey, megaphone in hand -- a reconstruction of a reconstruction, as Robert Altman understands, aided in the screenplay (based on Arthur Kopit's play) by Alan Rudolph, also fascinated by performance, or, rather, role-playing. Grey plays emcee, again, the closed-off show-biz world of 1885 America no less self-deluded than Weimar Berlin, though the star of the Wild West Show is Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman), blowhard and fraud, conjured up by dime-novelist Burt Lancaster, who plods through the camp advertising the moral of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Print the legend, indeed: white victory over Native American warriors gets reenacted for the public as instant iconography, till accusatory authenticity comes with wizened Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), the show's new attraction. Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin), right arm in sling, sharpshoots with Frank Butler (John Considine), President Cleveland (Pat McCormick) waffles by with new bride (Shelley Duvall), while Harvey Keitel, Kevin McCarthy, Denver Pyle and others, all in cowboywear, add to the shifting viewpoints. "The white man has stolen the truth," the old chief says through hulking interpreter Will Sampson, but this is Sitting Bull's history lesson, seeing his people's struggles turned into scabrous revues of myopic mythology. A past-as-now autopsy, recreation and commentary for method (vide Rossellini's praise), a surplus of detail that sailed over the heads of American viewers and reviewers, who by then felt they'd had enough criticism, particularly criticism as cutting as Altman's. Still, willful ignorance and the fabrication of political celebrity extend from the Old West to Nixon to Bush(es) and beyond, carried over into Hollywood spoof by Newman's fearless performance: his Buffalo Bill an "invented" man, hollow, bellowing justification for his fame to a ghost but grinning in the end, frozen by the chill of revered cultural lies. The filmmaker's game is hero-debunking, yet whiskered Newman-as-Bill resembles Altman, or possibly his nightmare of turning clueless sell-out; the affront of the movie as an American Bicentennial gift should extinguish any fears. With Allan Nichols, Bonnie Leaders, and Bert Remsen.
--- Fernando F. Croce