“But You’re Not A Blonde, Are You?” — A Review Of Robert Altman’s ‘Kansas City’

by Rachel Bellwoar

In an excerpt from David Thompson‘s book, Altman on Altman, included in the booklet for Arrow Academy’s new Blu-ray release of Robert Altman’s Kansas City, the film was originally titled Blondie. The character, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, gets a lot of grief for that nickname over the course of this movie. Her real name is a mystery and at first, when she arrives, she simply refers to herself as Babe’s sister and that’s enough.

Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) was expecting Babe (Brooke Smith) for a manicure and seems upset when Blondie shows up in her place. She’s the first one to ask Blondie about her name and point out the obvious – “But you’re not a blonde, are you?”
The truth is Carolyn doesn’t care about her nails. She cares about the laudanum Babe was supposed to bring, but it’s the gun Blondie snuck in past the Stilton’s maid (Tawanna Benbow) that she should be concerned about.
Blondie’s husband, Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), is in trouble. He put on blackface and robbed Sheepshan Red (A.C. Smith), an acquaintance of Seldom Seen’s (Harry Belafonte). He was cleaning the cork off his face when Seldom’s men caught him and the fact that there are still streaks on his face when he meets Seldom leaves him without a leg to stand on. Carolyn’s husband (Michael Murphy) works for President Roosevelt. By kidnapping Carolyn, Blondie hopes to use his influence to convince Seldom to let her husband go.
Throughout the movie Blondie takes to calling Carolyn “Red” for her hair, though Blondie doesn’t think it’s her natural color — but it’s not the same as people calling Blondie “Blondie.” Carolyn has another name to fall on. Blondie doesn’t. More than that, Blondie’s nickname draws attention to something she isn’t anymore.
When Johnny returns to their home after the robbery there’s a photograph of them on the wall where she’s a blonde, so she was one once. It’s something people bring up all the time, too, when they run into her in this movie. “Blondie” isn’t just a nickname, like “Red.” It’s what tells viewers everything they need to know about her. Blondie and Johnny barely appear together in Kansas City yet it’s through stories about her hair that viewers gain insight into their marriage.
Not everything has to be spelled out. For instance, Blondie isn’t always careful with her gun and if Carolyn’s only purpose was escape (and she was sober), she’d have been able to get away, but their relationship is allowed to stay ambiguous and it makes for a more challenging plot. By switching between their story, Seldom Seen’s, and the Hey-Hey Club, where jazz musicians are shown playing at all hours, Altman paints a picture of the city where he grew up that is both vicious and alluring.
Arrow Academy’s bonus features include a commentary by Altman, a fascinating visual essay by French film critic Luc Lagier  — in which he considers the time period and how the film integrates jazz — and a featurette by critic Geoff Andrews which takes a look at Kansas City in relation to other Altman movies. There are also trailers from different countries which show how differently the film was marketed in Germany and France versus America.
Kansas City is available now on Blu-Ray from Arrow Academy.

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