The Bootleg Files: The Laundromat

BOOTLEG FILES 747: “The Laundromat” (1985 HBO drama directed by Robert Altman).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


Most likely due to a problem with rights clearance.


During the early 1980s, Robert Altman seemed intent on creating his own version of the American Film Theatre by taking theatrical works and creating adaptations that were closer in style to the original proscenium-framed productions than to works of cinema. With “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” (1982), “Streamers” (1983) and “Secret Ceremony” (1984), Altman was plumbing dramatic emotions from claustrophobic chamber pieces rather than using the widescreen canvas to explore a greater world of tumult and chaos.

The primary reason why Altman chose this unlikely focus was financial: by the early 1980s, he was unable to secure Hollywood studio funding for his more ambitious projects. Indeed, things became so grim that his films “Health” (1980) and “O.C. and Stiggs” (1985) were shelved by 20th Century Fox and MGM, respectively, due to their perceived lack of commercial value.

In 1985, Altman managed to secure a deal with HBO to create a one-hour film. He opted to adapt “Third and Oak: The Laundromat,” a 1979 one-act play written by Marsha Norman, who won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her drama “‘night, Mother.” The earlier play was staged at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville but no great impact on the theatrical environment. Altman whittled down the title to “The Laundromat” and arranged for the production to be shot at a studio in Paris, where he had taken up an expatriate residence.

As its title suggests, “The Laundromat” takes place in a business where people pay to wash their dirty laundry – or, in this case, air their dirty laundry. The drama is fueled through an encounter with two very different women: a widowed middle-aged teacher who seems a little too buttoned-up for her own good and a free-spirited and gregarious 20-year-old whose new marriage is being tested by her husband’s preference for hanging out with his pals. Two men barely make their presence known: the laundromat attendant who sleeps in a tiny office throughout the proceedings and a swaggering black disc jockey who briefly glides into the laundromat.

For the younger of the two female leads, Altman was able to sign Amy Madigan, whose career was taking off with high-profile roles in “Love Child” (1982), “Places in the Heart” (1984) and “Twice in a Lifetime” (1985) – she would receive an Oscar nomination for the latter film. Altman’s ability to attract this hot young actress for a one-hour HBO drama was a major casting coup.

For the older woman, Altman fell back on an offbeat choice: Carol Burnett. The two had collaborated before on “A Wedding” (1978) and “Health” (1980), but neither endeavor was appreciated by critics or audiences. While Burnett was beloved for her eponymous comedy sketch television series, she was eager to find dramatic roles. Altman was the rare film director who had faith in Burnett’s dramatic skills – the actress was mostly confined to made-for-television fare like “Friendly Fire” (1979), “The Tenth Month” (1979) and “Between Friends” (1983) to prove she could do more than offer broad imitations of Joan Crawford.

Today, “The Laundromat” is among the most obscure of Altman’s canon, and rightfully so. The film is so bad that it’s almost unintentionally funny. Norman’s script is sledgehammer-subtle in having the mismatched lead characters abruptly expose their neuroses during a 3:00 a.m. encounter in a 24-hour laundromat. Altman’s camera magnifies the flaws in Norman’s writing – admittedly, it was an early work by the playwright and lines such as “He makes me feel like I’m a TV set and he’s changed the channels” sound like they fell out of a theatrical workshop for not-very-talented scribes.

But the acting has to be seen to be believed. Madigan gives the impression she’s auditioning for a Tennessee Williams festival – a wildly bogus Dixie accent and a determined effort to come across as half-zany and half-enraged. At one point, she takes off her jeans and puts them in the washing machine, which leaves her walking around in her panties without a care in the world. Yeah, just like how real people behave!

As a performer, Burnett was always ready to one-up her co-stars in any production, either comic or serious, and she doesn’t allow Madigan to steal the show. She plays her role with a soap opera intensity that borders on the ridiculous. Burnett could never play subtle and she frays the already-thin material. A low point comes in her attempt at emotional anguish when she relates her refusal to deflate a beach ball in her garage because it’s filled with her dead husband’s breath – she is so incorrectly overwrought that it feels like she’s stuck in one of the “As the Stomach Turns” sketches from her old show.

Michael Wright, who appeared in Altman’s “Streamers,” is wasted in his brief role as the disc jockey who intrudes on the drama. Perhaps the most welcome on-screen presence belongs to a highly visible box of Tide laundry detergent and a Coca-Cola soda machine – the heavy-handed product placement is the most entertaining aspect of the proceedings.

“The Laundromat” came at a time when cable television was trying (and mostly failing) to create prestige dramatic works, and critics in the day were mildly polite in praising the work. Since the Emmy Awards were not recognizing cable television shows at the time, the low-rent Cable ACE Awards were given to Altman and Madigan, with Norman and editor Luce Grunenwaldt getting nominations.

To date, “The Laundromat” is absent from any commercial home entertainment format. It is unclear if the production is missing due to a music rights clearance issue – the soundtrack has multiple selections from jazz legend Alberta Hunter which would need to be licensed for a DVD release – or maybe because there is no perceived commercial value in the work. A not-pristine copy videotaped from the April 1985 HBO broadcast was uploaded to YouTube, and this can provide anyone interested in the work to see why its obscurity is richly deserved.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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