The Player is a 1992 satirical film directed by Robert Altman from a screenplay by Michael Tolkin based on his own novel of the same name. It is the story of Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a Hollywood studio executive who gets away with murdering a wannabe screenwriter who Mill believes is sending him death threats.
The film, loaded with movie references and Hollywood insider jokes, is a critique of the Hollywood movie business, which treats artists poorly and sacrifices quality for commercial success. It might seem surprising that around sixty big Hollywood names agreed to play cameos as themselves in the film, but Altman himself admits that “it is a very mild satire” and it offended no one.
Altman had trouble with the Hollywood studio system in the 1970s after a number of studio films lost money or had trouble finding audiences. The Player was his comeback to making films in Hollywood. The film, and its cast and crew, won a number of awards and nominations. A TV spin-off was created and a pilot shot in 1997. However, the pilot was never picked up.
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is a Hollywood producer with a studio executive girlfriend Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson). Mill’s job is to hear story pitches from screenwriters and decide which films have the potential to get made and which films get rejected; 12 out of about 50,000 submisions he claims. His job is suddenly in danger, though, when up-and-comer Larry Levi (Peter Gallagher) begins work at the studio. Rumors swirl that Griffin may be replaced soon by Levi. Griffin has also been receiving threatening postcards, assumed to be from a disgruntled screenwriter whose pitch he rejected.
Mill delves through records and surmises that the disgruntled writer is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), who had previously pitched a script to him. Griffin lurks around Kahane’s home and is told by a woman, June (Greta Scacchi), who he watches while talking to her on the phone, that Kahane is at a movie theatre watching The Bicycle Thief. Griffin goes to the theatre in Pasadena and offers Kahane a scriptwriting deal, hoping this will stop the threats. However, Kahane gets intoxicated in a Japanese resteraunt and rebuffs Griffin’s offer; he points out that Mill came in for only the last five minutes of The Bicycle Thief, and denies responsibility for sending Griffin any postcards. Kahane pushes Griffin in the parking lot and the two men scuffle. In a rage, Griffin accidentally kills Kahane. Thinking fast, Griffin makes the death look like a robbery gone wrong.
The next day at work, he receives another postcard, confirming that his stalking writer is still at large. Griffin attends Kahane’s funeral and gets along with June, Kahane’s girlfriend; she knows none of the other mourners. Studio chief of security Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) confronts Griffin about the murder and says that Pasadena Police know Griffin was the last one to see Kahane alive. Pasadena detectives Susan Avery (Whoopi Goldberg) and DeLongpre (Lyle Lovett) suspect that Griffin is guilty of murder. They question him and DeLongpre starts to keep an eye on Griffin. The stalking writer leaves a rattlesnake in Griffin’s Range Rover, causing a near-death experience that makes Griffin realize how he has sudden and deep feelings for June. With his girlfriend Bonnie over in New York, Griffin takes June to a Hollywood awards banquet and their relationship blooms.
Meanwhile, with Levi ever encroaching on his job, Griffin sees an opportunity to save his position. He hears a pitch idea from two writers about a film called Habeas Corpus, pitched to feature talent rather than stars, and instantly recognizes huge problems with the downbeat story. However, he manages to convince Levi that the scenario is good and the movie will be a guaranteed Oscar contender. Griffin plans to let Levi shepherd the film through production and have it flop miserably. Then Griffin will step in at the last moment and suggest some basic changes to salvage the film’s box office potential, letting him reclaim his position at the studio. The Pasadena detectives call Griffin in for a lineup after a witness to Kahane’s death comes forward. Griffin gains a reprieve when the witness identifies the wrong man, Detective DeLongpre, who was placed in the lineup with the other suspects.
One year later, studio power players are watching the end of Habeas Corpus with its tacked-on upbeat ending. Griffin’s plan to “save” the movie worked like a charm and he is now a studio executive. Bonnie objects to the crass nature of the changes and is promptly fired, a decision Mill does not overule. While driving home, he receives a pitch over the phone from a man who reveals himself as the postcard writer. The man pitches an idea about a studio executive who kills a writer and gets away with murder. Griffin recognizes the pitch as blackmail and immediately agrees to give the writer a deal. The writer’s title for the film is The Player. The movie ends by showing that June is now Griffin’s wife and heavily pregnant with his child.