Memory Lane: Barbara Turner, Robert Altman, & Me

Today, I am celebrating a milestone intimately connected with my own life: The world premiere of The Company – twenty years ago today – at the Toronto International Film Festival

In 2003, I was in Chicago – in a period of transition from my old life as a health care computer consultant to my new life as a writer – when I learned that Indie Icon Robert Altman was also in Chicago making a new film with our world-renown Joffrey Ballet Company. After doing a little digging, I learned that the screenwriter was Barbara Turner, who had also written the screenplay for Pollock (an Oscar-winning film, released in 2000, that I absolutely adored).

So, I made it my business to track Barbara down, and I did! One afternoon, we met at the Palmer House (a famous Chicago landmark), where we had a long, intense, and blessedly-uninterrupted conversation, which, I believe, lasted almost ninety minutes. In my mind’s eye, I remember it all!

The Company eventually had its world premiere on September 8, 2003, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was then released in American and Canadian theaters (in limited release) on Christmas Day, which is the day that I finally saw it – on a big screen! – for the very first time. I loved it!

Alas, it did not fare well… Many critics either panned it or made excuses.

Alas, it did not fare well. As dance critic Joan Acocella said in her thoughtful review for the New York Review of Books (2/26/04): “Many critics either panned it or made excuses.” But, even though it was virtually ignored by theater patrons (grossing a paltry $2,281,585 in domestic box office receipts and $6,415,017 internationally), The Company was my own favorite film of 2003. Richard, my hubby, liked it well enough, but when I took women friends, they loved it as much as I did. I ended up seeing it FOUR times before it disappeared from big screens – even in Chicago! – forever.

With the DVD release on 6/1/04, discriminating viewers everywhere were finally able to decide for themselves, and today it can be streamed on most major streaming platforms. (Click on the JustWatch link below for options.)

When Robert Altman died in 2006, I was sad, but not surprised, to see that almost none of the many, many (and, yes, mostly male) critics who showered their praise on him even mentioned The Company. But, in the years since, more critics have weighed in (yes, many of them female), and the RT rating has now soared to 72% Fresh!

A final surprise: I just looked Barbara up on Wikipedia and guess what? On 5/18/20, someone added a quote from me with a link to our chat. So, our names are now forever linked in cyberspace.

Thank you for indulging me during this walk down Memory Lane. I claim this moment as one of the privileges of being the Editor-in-Chief of FF2 Media. And now, copied below—verbatim—is the article I wrote for Reel Chicago (many website upgrades ago, when it was still a print publication).

Click on image to enlarge

Screenwriter Barbara Turner Talks to REEL CHICAGO about Working with Robert Altman on The Company

After a long professional acquaintance that began on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, director Robert Altman and screenwriter Barbara Turner are about to release their first major collaboration.  Their new film The Company will open nationwide on December 25th.  Filmed here on location last fall, The Company is a dramatization of life in Chicago’s famous Joffrey Ballet Company.

When Altman and Turner first met, she was a New York-trained actress and he was a promising young television director.  She was also the wife of actor Vic Morrow, who became famous in the role of Sergeant Chip Saunders on the popular ‘60s series Combat!.  Altman was one of the show’s primary directors during Combat!’s first season.

The next time Altman and Turner worked together was on a TV project called Nightmare in Chicago (their first joint credit in the Internet Movie database).  “I had a great experience on Nightmare,” said Turner during an interview in the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton, “Anybody who works with Bob has a great experience, even way back then.”

Although she still thought of herself as an actress, Turner had already tried her hand at several screenplays.

Although she still thought of herself as an actress, Turner had already tried her hand at several screenplays.  “Vic and I wanted to work, so we wrote a movie.  We actually got a little bit of interest.  Then we wrote something for television together.  We tried to raise the money, and we got very close, but we never raised enough.”

After Turner and Morrow separated, she read a promising story in the New Yorker magazine, and with some prodding by her new companion, director Reza Badiyi, she wrote a screenplay.  (Badiyi, who became Turner’s second husband, is best remembered now as the creator of the unforgettable opening title sequence for Hawaii Five 0.)

The new screenplay sold almost immediately.  “It was really weird.  I went to Bob with it, and Bob read it and he thought it was good.  So he was going to do it, but just before they were supposed to start shooting, it fell apart…  Then Bob read a novel called Me and the Arch Kook Petulia, and he called me and he said: ‘I think you could do Petulia.  It reminds me of you.’  So I did that screenplay.”

In the end, Richard Lester, not Robert Altman, ended up directing Petulia.  Nevertheless the film, starring George C. Scott, Julie Christie, and Richard Chamberlain, was a critical success, and Turner’s writing career blossomed.  She’s made numerous television and theatrical films since, including Georgia (starring daughter Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Pollock (directed by actor Ed Harris).  In 1978, she received an Emmy nomination for her adaptation of Alison Lurie’s novel The War Between the Tates.

I met with Neve a couple of times, and she said she wanted to do a film about a dance company, and what it’s really like to be a dancer. 

A few years ago, Turner got a call from her agent.  “He just said; ‘You’re going to meet Neve Campbell.’  I met with Neve a couple of times, and she said she wanted to do a film about a dance company, and what it’s really like to be a dancer.  I have always loved ballet.  We talked about where the company should be located, and I said: ‘What about Chicago?’  To make a long story short, we decided on the Joffrey Ballet.  Fortunately we had access to it through friends.  When it was done, I sent the script to Bob.  I just wanted his opinion.  Bob is a genius, so I am thrilled that he liked the script, loved the script, and wanted to do it above a lot of others.”

Unlike recent Altman films such as Gosford Park in which innumerable internationally-known actors all play ensemble roles, the focus of The Company really is on the (relatively anonymous) dancers of the Joffrey Ballet.  It is the very antithesis of a typical Hollywood “star vehicle.”  “Neve could have had a $30 million movie,” said Turner, “But this is a very low budget film.  It’s low budget because it’s going to be done in the way it should be done.  It’s about the Joffrey dancers, with Neve [a member of the National Ballet of Canada before her acting career took off] as just part of the company.”

That said, Chicago theater aficionados should keep their eyes open for local headliners such as Barbara Robertson, soon to star in a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Surely this is one of the pleasures of seeing a film made in your own hometown!

Jan Lisa Huttner is the Creative Director of FILMS FOR TWO: The Online Guide for Busy Couples.  Read her complete interview with Barbara Turner on

© Jan Lisa Huttner (9/8/23) – Special for FF2 Media

From the original Sony Picture Classics EPK (2003)

Actress Neve Campbell, who stars in The Company, devised its story with screenwriter Barbara Turner, inspired by her own experiences as a young dancer and as a student at Canada’s National School of Ballet. James Franco co-stars as the young chef who becomes involved with Campbell’s character, and Malcolm McDowell plays the head of the dance company, a character loosely based on Gerald Arpino, co-founder and director of the Joffrey Ballet.

Members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago portray the members of the film’s ballet company, performing excerpts from works in the Joffrey repertoire. Neve Campbell trained for two years before filming began on The Company, in which she plays a gifted but conflicted member of the company who is on the verge of becoming a principal dancer.  Altman’s vision for the film is an extremely intimate one, capturing the difficult daily work, the intense pressures of performance, the richly textured behaviors of the dancers – whose professional and personal lives grow impossibly close – and the sheer beauty of dance: exhilarating, kinetic and thrillingly observed.


Barbara Turner died in Los Angeles on April 5, 2016. Here is a link to her Wikipedia page (with a link to my interview). Here is a link to her IMDb page. And here is a link to Joan Acocella’s lovely review.

Here is a link to The Company on Just Watch (for streaming options), and here is a link to Rotten Tomatoes showing a 72% FRESH rating!

And, finally, a word about Robert Altman: Although his work has received enormous praise, few critics have ever focused on his creative partnerships with female screenwriters. In addition to his work with Barbara Turner on The Company, I point primarily to Nashville which is always ranked at the top of his accomplishments. But, alas, Nashville is typically referred to as “Robert Altman’s Nashville.” Rarely, if ever, is screenwriter Joan Tewksbury given appropriate credit for her contributions to a film now considered one of the greatest films of the 20th century. Nashville received FIVE Oscar nominations in 1976 – including Best Picture and Best Director – but for screenplay? Nothing…

Message to my fellow film critics (especially my male colleagues): These “slice of life” films for which Robert Altman is now so rightly famous did not, in fact, write themselves. Time for everyone to acknowledge – and respect – the significance of his creative collaborations with female colleagues, most especially the enormous contributions of  Joan Tewksbury and Barbara Turner to the films now called Robert Altman Films.


Images from Sony Pictures Classics original EPK (upgraded and enhanced by me).

Tags: Barbara Turner, chicago, female screenwriters, Jan Lisa Huttner, Joan Acocella, Joan Tewksbury, Joffrey Ballet, Neve Campbell, Pollock (2000), Robert Altman, The Company (2003), Toronto International Film Festival, women screenwriters

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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