Paul Newman plays Buffalo Bill as such, a spoiled, hot-headed, and frequently drunk prima donna of his Old West spectacular. But every action hero needs a nemesis, so a recently-captured Sitting Bull is trotted into town fresh from his “bloodthirsty victory” in defeating General Custer so that Bill can use him in his act before he’s whisked off for execution. Bill thought it would be an easy way to sell more tickets. He didn’t expect to meet his match.
If Buffalo Bill is the spectacular’s loud and loquacious studio boss, then Sitting Bull is its stoic, disinterested diva. Bill tries to negotiate but soon realizes you can’t bargain with a rock. Sitting Bull speaks only through a translator (Will Sampson, “Chief” from Cuckoo’s Nest!) and immediately demands nicer camping grounds across the river along with extra blankets for his “Injun” entourage. His translator might as well be his agent, that camp ground a penthouse suite at the Beverly Hilton, and the blankets a complete Armani wardrobe.
The rivalry escalates as Sitting Bull later refuses to play a scene the way Bill wants it (Injuns slaughtering poor Western villagers) because that’s “not the way it happened.” He’s pulling method actor moves, whereas Bill just wants to give the audience its nickel’s worth. Some of the stock players even begin taking up Sitting Bull’s cause, Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) for one. As the night of the big show for President Cleveland approaches, Buffalo Bill grows more and more haunted by Sitting Bull’s presence (and later, even his non-presence). He grows to realize the hollow fraud he’s become, an empty legend in his own mind, perpetuating false history for pennies at a time.
Altman seems at home once again with his large ensemble “players” here from Harvey Keitel to Joel Grey to Pat Hingle as the President. But the script he and Alan Rudolph concocted feels a little threadbare, only really coming to life during the negotiation scenes between Sitting Bull and Bill and the stage show spectaculars. Of course, it’s an Altman movie, so there are brilliant bits of background business sprinkled throughout, such as Annie Oakley making her very first misfire and shooting her husband/target in the arm or Joel Grey explaining to some new players the right way to “play a colored man.” But business aside, the movie felt like it could have used a stronger saddle to hang some of its intriguing ideas on.
If Buffalo Bill is in fact the frontier Altman needed to cross to get to The Player, then I'd say it's a sweet ride, meandering at times, with lots of scenic points along the way. The destination makes the trip worthwhile.