Nashville (1975)

Director: Robert Altman

Stars: Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, Ronee Blakley, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Ned Beatty

Release Company: Paramount

MPAA Rating: R

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Robert Altman: Nashville


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Whenever you see a Robert Altman film, you expect to see certain trademark touches--overlapping images and sounds, a large cast of characters, some excellent actors doing improvisational work, a loosely constructed tapestry. In his better films you'll even be challenged to figure out what the film is about, and such is the case with Nashville.

The film serves as a parody of country music, a biting satire of American politics, a critique of American society, or a combination of any of these. Some creative English major could even make a case for Nashville being about God and the Devil, and draw parallels to Moby Dick if you want to really stretch it. If you seek the definitive answer from screenwriter Joan Tewksbury, you'll only get a confirmation that you can see any of the above (though I think the off the wall English major idea would give her a laugh). That’s what she told those of us attending a 25th anniversary screening of the Altman classic at the Scottsdale Film Festival in early 2002.

Remarkably, Altman left Tewksbury’s 175-page script intact, as it essentially parallels her real life trip to Nashville over a five-day period. Basked in red, white, and blue, the campaign van of imaginary Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker emerges from a parking garage, and we hear the ever present loudspeakers remind us that all of us are political creatures—"All of us are deeply involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not." Immediately we apply this to the 24 major characters we encounter along the way, and we witness the pattern of required protocols and sexual politics that prevail in Altman's microcosm of American society.

There are numerous threads to follow -- each of the 24 characters weaves his/her way through the plot, interconnecting along the way until all 24 congregate at the Parthenon for the final rally. In some weird co-incidences, this is the spot where Al Gore almost conceded on election night, and check out the references that Hal Phillip Walker makes over the loudspeakers. He talks about limiting the power of rich Texas oil interests and eliminating the Electoral College. Additionally, his question of "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?" takes on Florida connotations in the crazy 2000 electoral year.

Everyone will find certain threads more interesting than others, but the main one follows a Loretta Lynn-styled country queen, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) whose unstable health continually borders on the brink of a nervous breakdown. One of the film's highlights occurs when Barbara Jean begins telling pointless rambling stories instead of breaking into song. It's a scene that provokes an uneasy laughter because we grow to sympathize with the Barbara Jean who sings from her country soul. Reflecting on her life, we can imagine what it has to be like to create a hit song from your heart and be required to sing it every day for your adoring fans.

That doesn't seem to bother Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who will appear on any stage that Barbara Jean performs on. A supreme egotist, Hamilton hangs in all the required Nashville country music spots and continues to bang out his "hits" to "Keep a Goin’," yet he does come through in the final scene with some real compassion.

Hamilton's song "For the Sake of the Children" could be Linnea Reese's (Lily Tomlin's) theme song, as she is saddled with a wretched marriage with a cold hearted husband (Ned Beatty) who doesn't relate to his children and later makes a pass at another woman. The telling scene shows her deaf son sharing his swimming experience, with Tomlin listening and caring intently while her husband remains bored and clueless.

The most clueless character prize has to go to Geraldine Chaplin's character, Opal. Can this obnoxious, shallow interviewer really work for the BBC? Perhaps, if they just wanted to get her out of the country. Some of the film's most humorous scenes take place with Opal touring auto junkyards and school bus yards searching for metaphors. Usually she is found barging into private conversations or interrupting people with her ubiquitous recording microphone.

Close behind Opal in cluelessness is Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a waitress from the lower classes who has come to Nashville to become the next Barbara Jean. Unfortunately, she has to rank right next to Drew Barrymore as the worst singer to ever hit the screen. (Woody Allen dubbed in another singer for Barrymore, but Altman leaves Welles' voice intact)

Mixed in is Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) with his dying wife, whose platform-shoe-and-hot-pants-wearing California niece (Shelley Duvall) relentlessly pursues every available two-legged man she can find, including a troubled Ohio drifter (David Hayward) and Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn), who worships and protects Barbara Jean from afar. There's also a folk rock trio, a Charley Pride-type singer, a New Mexico redneck trying to find his wife, who aspires to be a recording star, and several other characters.

The sheer number of protagonists may intimidate some viewers, and I'm sure that many are turned off by the way Altman switches from character to character as each fades in from the background into the foreground before retreating. However, the sheer force of the great scenes should keep even more casual viewers tuned in.

Like the city of Nashville itself, screenwriter Tewksbury structures the plot in a circular pattern, as this is the way she experienced the city. People you'd see in certain "in" diners at lunch time would show up later at the Grand Ole Opry or race track and then again in a local night club. In time a synergistic community emerges, as it does in this film. Still, certain scenes just stand out and beg for re-watching even if you have difficulty following the overall plot. Everything that Lily Tomlin does bears close watching in this film, from her participation with the gospel choir, to her loving interactions with her deaf kids, to the brief affair she submits to with folk-rock singer Tom (Keith Carradine). Other favorites include:

  1. One of the most creative opening credits sequences ever, as it mirrors those fast talking television ads for music compilation albums.

  2. Geraldine Chaplin "listening" to a heartfelt personal song by Buddy Hamilton (David Peel), only to exclaim "It's Elliott Gould" and run off.

  3. A gut-wrenching scene with Keenan Wynn after he discovers his wife has died, and an exuberant Scott Glenn talks with him about Barbara Jean's hospital release.

  4. The singing scenes with both Ronee Blakley and Karen Black. These actresses could have second careers as country artists!

  5. The incredible scene with Keith Carradine singing "I'm Easy" where four women all believe that he is singing his life story to them. Only Lily Tomlin is correct, which leads to another great scene that intimately reveals both of their characters – Tomlin's overriding loyalty to her children and Carradine's extreme melancholy and loneliness.

  6. Gwen Welles' disillusionment when she discovers that she has been hired to strip. Her character may be limited, but she makes us laugh and feel compassion for her simultaneously as she awkwardly begins to strip, surprisingly tossing out a pair of socks she had used for padding

Of course there are others, but that's why Nashville requires multiple viewings. Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue and imagery allows you to focus on different aspects, so the film remains fresh each time you see it.

I'm not sure that Altman would edit his film exactly the same way if he were doing this for a modern audience. Altman did cut his original 4-hour version down to a 2 hour 40 minute film, but he still retains entire songs throughout the film. I'm sure this is out of respect for the actors, who all performed and wrote their own songs, but some of them are rather lame and could be improved with some massive cutting. (I'm thinking mostly of Henry Gibson’s material)

One song that absolutely must remain intact is Carradine's Oscar winning "I'm Easy." The Academy did its usual job of overlooking brilliant work, as Carradine's Oscar was the lone winner. Joan Tewksbury's outstanding screenplay was completely overlooked and failed to score a nomination. Perhaps the Academy felt that it was 90% improvisation from Altman's reputation, not realizing that very little of Tewksbury’s script was fully improvised.

After it's over, most everyone has a question that basically asks what was this movie about? (There's a more specific question that I won't reveal just in case you haven't seen the film or heard about the ending). This is one film that is so dense that you can explore it at various levels. If you're confused, that's no problem. That fits right in with the American system, as Walker's loudspeaker blares over the other dialog:

"Who do you think is running Congress? Farmers? Engineers? Teachers? Businessmen? No, my friends. Congress is run by lawyers. A lawyer is trained for two things and two things only. To clarify -– that's one. And to confuse--that's the other thing."

As Nashville's plot evolves, it progresses from being lighthearted to a darker tone. This occurs both with the scenery and the plot elements themselves, all symbolic of a place that is losing its innocence. In politics, America has just gone through the Watergate affair with Nixon resigning during Nashville’s filming. Simultaneously, country music was transitioning from its old home with Minnie Pearl and String Bean in the old Opry House to a brand spanking new one designed to bring in bigger bucks. As long as we have politics and country music going, Nashville will remain relevant as a microcosm of America and its people.

 

Note: A few tidbits from screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury:

  1. Tewkesbury identifies with the Geraldine Chaplin character. She was like her during her research for the film –- just not as talkative or obnoxious.
  2. The script really was left largely intact, but actors could write their own lines and submit them to Tewksbury. Scott Glenn, Keenan Wynn, and Gwen Welles only did what was scripted, but Geraldine Chaplin wrote all of her ludicrous metaphors in the junkyard and busyard.
  3. Keith Carradine had written his two songs well before the film began.
  4. No actor was required to write his/her own songs, but it became almost like a competition to do so. Henry Gibson and David Arkin seemed to be in competition for writing the most ludicrous songs.
  5. Louise Fletcher was originally cast for the role that Lily Tomlin played, and originally the character had deaf parents (true to Fletcher's real life). However, Fletcher had to bow out of the production because of a scheduling conflict -– she was filming One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  6. Ronee Blakley was really burned as a child as described in the script.
 


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