In all fairness, it's perhaps incorrect to call Robert Altman's 1978 ensemble piece 'forgotten'. A Wedding is certainly held in high regard by Altman fans, and Filmbrain knows quite a few who happily clutch to their old pan-and-scan VHS copies, as no other version is (legally) available. Still, it doesn't get screened that often, and coming on the heels of 3 Women (one of his best), it often gets relegated to lesser-Altman status. Seeing it recently on the Fox Movie Channel (letterboxed, but a poor quality print), Filmbrain is convinced that it deserves to be reconsidered (or, at the very least, released on DVD!)
The late 70's through mid-80's was an awkward period for Altman. He made some "difficult" films that left fans and critics scratching their heads (Quintet), several attempts at commercial crowd-pleasers that were, for the most part, failures (A Perfect Couple, Popeye) and a few that tried to recreate the Nashville formula -- large casts, overlapping dialog, and multiple plot threads (A Wedding, Health). Though Streamers and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean were slightly more successful, it would be many years before Altman found himself commercially in the black again (1992's The Player). Commercial success or failure aside, some of Altman's films during this period are truly wonderful. Filmbrain has always had a soft spot for Popeye, and thinks that Secret Honor might be one of his best.
[Filmbrain just learned that Secret Honor, Altman's Nixon film (with Philip Baker Hall in a bravura solo performance) is being released on DVD by Criterion in October. This is incredible news.]
When watching A Wedding, it's almost impossible not to compare it to Nashville. But whereas both films contain dozens of characters, intertwined plot threads and an eclectic cast, A Wedding never manages to fully get off the ground. Part of the problem is the characters themselves -- many of Nashville's denizens were ruthless, two-faced phonies (politicians, musicians) while the family members and guests at the wedding are simply the idle rich. Family scandals abound, but even they are strictly run-of-the-mill. (Altman would greatly improve on this idea years later with Gosford Park.) The other problem with the film is the selection of actors. Instead of picking from his troupe of regulars, he instead opted to work with a new ensemble -- perhaps not the best decision in a film with over fifty speaking roles. Sure, Geraldine Chaplin and Bert Remsen are present, but the film is screaming for a Shelley Duvall, Elliott Gould, or Henry Gibson. It's not that Carol Burnett, Paul Dooley, Pat McCormick (and the others) are slouches, but many of them don't seem entirely comfortable working in this format. Mia Farrow is the most interesting in the film -- physically resembling Sissy Spacek's character from 3 Women, she plays the enigmatic sister of the bride who, though only uttering two (important) lines, turns in a remarkable performance.
Yet even with all these gripes, A Wedding is still a fabulous way to spend two hours. The unfolding of the story is deftly handled -- for the first half hour we haven't a clue who anybody is, and working out the connections is part of the fun. The dialog is witty, and the deliberately paced (but always rising) dramatic tension builds to a satisfying crescendo before the resulting chaos at the film's end. Altman uses his trademark zooms, which allows him to film from a distance, thereby leaving the actors clueless as to whom he's focusing on -- a brilliant technique. Filmbrain hopes this gets a proper DVD release with commentary by Altman -- it would be fascinating to hear his thoughts on this film.