Sometimes to really appreciate an actor’s abilities you need to see him not in a striking lead role, but in a crucial secondary part. That thought occurred as I watched Malcolm McDowell in Robert Altman’s The Company, and I was aware at the time how unusual it was for me to be preoccupied more with a performer than with the auteur whose realm he was only temporarily visiting.

But The Company is an odd movie and McDowell’s turn has an odd importance within its ramshackle dramatic structure. The actor plays Alberto Antonelli, the flamboyant, supremely self-involved head of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. A suavely impetuous tyrant of proven artistic gifts, Antonelli seems to exist at every moment as if in the middle of a howling storm, and one of the film’s great jokes is that Altman surrounds him with a real storm in an important outdoor concert.

The non-weather-related gales that otherwise engulf Antonelli are the sort that go with his position: clashing egos, injuries, competing artistic visions, day-to-day bureaucratic snarls, and, always and everywhere, money. It takes a huge ego to withstand such overwhelming forces and that’s where McDowell’s larger-than-life performance comes in.

Quite simply, he creates a vain egomaniac who is pompous, overbearing and endlessly idiosyncratic–while referring to the dancers fondly as his “babies,” he inspires fear and anxiety in everyone–yet one who’s also funny, human and fully three-dimensional. Though buffeted from every direction including the stormy heavens, McDowell’s artistic autocrat is also, himself, an undeniable force of nature.

Yet there’s another reason he stands out so strikingly in The Company: the movie needs him, because otherwise it risks flying apart centrifugally for lack of a real gravitational center. And the reason for that I think has a lot to do with how the film originated.

Neve Campbell, the attractive young star of Party of Five and the Scream movies, came up with the idea. Having trained with the National Ballet of Canada–and no doubt as hungry for interesting parts as most actors–Campbell conceived of a drama set in the dance world. She then enlisted Barbara Turner to write the screenplay (both women are credited with the script’s story).

And who is Barbara Turner? Well, she’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mom. She’s also a bona fide “hyphenate” (actress-writer-producer-director) whose acting credits stretch back to the 1950s and whose most recent writing credits include Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia (which starred her daughter) and Ed Harris’ Pollock. Those two movies, of course, also concern artists. And both are far longer on atmospherics than on standard dramatic structure.

Whatever that might suggest about the nature of the screenplay Turner wrote at Campbell’s instigation, history does record Altman’s reaction to it. “Barbara,” he reportedly said, “I read your script and I don’t get it. I don’t understand. I don’t know what it is. I’m just the wrong guy for this.”

I can’t begin to tell you what made Altman change his mind to the extent of agreeing to make The Company, but I think the anecdote above says a lot about what kind of Altman film it is, and on that subject I at least have a rudimentary theory.

His films all suggest the auteur tending toward one of two poles. At one extreme he’s the brilliant circus master, standing center stage while orchestrating a dizzying procession of performers and ideas in a manner that seems at once visionary and stunningly coherent. At the other pole, he’s the stoned party-giver, passing around the bong and occasionally passing out on the couch as he invites one and all to inhabit his blissfully out-of-it mental space.

Label these poles “rigor” and “improvisation” and you have the basic coordinates of Altman’s unique artistic universe. Of course every Altman film exhibits some of both tendencies. But if his best films–think of, among others, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, The Player and Cookie’s Fortune–seem to incline more toward rigor, that quality invariably has a practical foundation: a solid, carefully articulated script.

What happens when he’s given a deficient script is, I think, what we see in The Company. Loosely structured and dramatically aleatory to a fault, the film feels like Altman ripped out the few pages in the screenplay he liked, set them down as a kind of rough roadmap, then fired up the bong.

This is not to make fun of the film, but simply to warn you against expecting the kind of well-worked-out plot and dramatic progressions that we normally expect in movies. In fact, The Company is almost ridiculously lacking in such niceties. Its narrative movements are woozy and elliptical at best. Its characters enter the plot and disappear with no discernible pattern. Its story seems to be comprised almost entirely of loose ends and dead ends.

Naturally, certain Altman diehards in the critical ranks (and he definitely has a loyal contingent) will tell you that all this is pure genius and deeply purposeful. A more reasonable view, it seems to me, is that The Company is second-level Altman, showing the director in loose, improvisatory mode. Yet that doesn’t mean the film is without its merits or pleasures. Indeed, if your expectations are set at the right level, it’s an enjoyable ride.

Its dramatic loopiness aside, the film does evidence a certain logic when measured by the conventions of the dance-musical film. That is, it begins with, ends with and is regularly interspersed with big dance numbers. Performed by the Joffrey company and drawn from the work of choreographers including Lar Lubovitch, Alwin Nikolais and Robert Desrosiers, the dances are filmed by Altman and cinematographer Andrew Dunn from an eloquently respectful distance (no MTV fisheyes or dental-drill editing here). Nor are the dances separate from the story; each comes festooned in dramatic threads. The most striking sequence turns out to be Campbell’s suspenseful, moving pas de deux (to “My Funny Valentine,” seemingly Altman’s theme song) under the billowing gusts of that sudden summer storm.

Between the numbers, Altman focuses on telling moments, asides and impressionistic views of an extended period in the life of the Joffrey company. What comes through most forcefully is the unpredictable ebb and flow of the dancer’s life, the strains and pains and chance that fate’s next fluke could bring either a broken leg or the break of a lifetime. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to any of it, beyond the imperative of constant struggle, and that’s where Altman’s stoner approach actually works to the film’s advantage: Whatever else you think of The Company, it does convey the uncertain feel of much artistic work more than any conventionally structured drama could.

The story also depicts the lives of the dancers beyond the company. Ry, the character Campbell plays, has to work as a waitress to make ends meet and doesn’t seem to have time for much for anything else, apart from occasional glimpses of her folks and an affair with a cute sous chef (James Franco) who seems to realize that he’ll never compete with the main love in her life. Yet, as much as Ry may have more screen time than any other dancer, the film’s approach is so resolutely anti-dramatic that neither Ry nor the actress that plays her emerges as more clearly defined than the people surrounding them.

That’s why McDowell’s Alberto Antonelli–who’s supposedly modeled on the Joffrey’s legendary director, Gerald Arpino–is so important. As high-definition as a neon billboard, “Mr. A” is so prominent that he almost seems like the only real character in the film. And there’s no small irony in that. Altman is handed a project specifically created to give a plum role to a young actress, and what does he turn it into? Well, of course: a film in which the actress almost disappears into the woodwork while the limelight falls grandly on another figure–the director.

You can almost hear the cinema’s “Mr. A” whistling on the way to cash his paycheck. EndBlock