Robert Altman’s Nashville

IMG_1109  My directing students are currently engaged in a project in which they are analyzing five favorite films. It is a way to develop critical and analytical skills and to find their own directorial “voice.”

In discussions with the students, I realized that my all-time favorite movie, Nashville, directed by Robert Altman, turns forty this year. I fell in love with the movie the first time I saw it at the Bama Theatre in downtown Tuscaloosa and by the end of the first week of its Tuscaloosa run I had already watched it four times. I kept saying to friends “Have you seen Nashville yet?” and when they had not I made them drop whatever they were doing and it was off to the Bama to catch the next screening.

I was a little obsessed.

I was 20 when Nashville was released in 1975. That was sort of an annus mirabilis for American movies. The Academy Award nominees for Best Picture that year were Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon; Dog Day Afternoon; Jaws; Nashville; and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the winner). It was also the year of Fellini’s Amarcord; The Day of the Locust; The Man Who Would Be King; Shampoo; Three Days of the Condor; and one of my guilty pleasures, Ken Russell’s Tommy (that amazing music by the Who; those saturated over-the-top images by Ken Russell, a madman – Ann-Margret rolling around in those baked beans!).

Nashville is an examination of American culture and politics set in the country music capital. Altman weaves together the stories of 24 characters that converge in Nashville over five days. A presidential candidate, never seen but often heard as his campaign van roams the streets of the city blaring his inane populist rhetoric, provides the context that finally brings all of the characters together at a political rally. The film employs Altman’s trademark techniques of overlapping dialogue and an ensemble of colorful and vivid characters that ultimately merge in a sobering and insightful commentary on American society in the second half of the twentieth century. This is my favorite film from probably my favorite movie director.

Altman’s oeuvre includes Gosford Park, M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, and Short Cuts among many others over a long career. They weren’t all great but Altman is one of those directors whose weaker works are more interesting to watch than many other directors’ strongest work. I was in Tuscaloosa when Alabama’s student programming film division did an “Altman Week” in 1979. The week of Altman films culminated in a visit to the campus by the director along with a screening of his latest film, A Perfect Couple. I got to interview him for a journal published at the time by the College of Arts and Sciences. It was a great week.

Prior to its release, Nashville was famously previewed by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, the best in the business and the most provocative writer to ever cover the movies. She wrote a breathless and over-the-top rave of the film that caused some people to love it and others to hate it before they had even seen it. Kael, a brilliant writer, was a divisive critic – you either loved her or loathed her – and if she was enthusiastic about a movie, she did not hold back. The same was true of movies that did not meet her standards. I read her reviews ravenously and did not always agree with her but on the subject of Nashville and its greatness we shared common ground.

I own a well-worn copy of the Nashville script by Joan Tewkesbury, developed from cast improvisations and her journals of “Music City,” but I have watched the movie so many times that the script is hardly necessary. It’s a brilliant patchwork of intersecting lives with poignancy and sadness but also with abundant humor that never ceases to amuse me.

The memorable cast includes a number of people making their film debuts. The Nashville cast almost seemed like family to me and for decades I would follow the career path of actors just because I had first noticed them in Nashville.

I have watched the movie many times and find myself anticipating my favorite lines and moments; many of them continue to make me laugh.

“She can’t even comb her hair,” Connie White (Karen Black) snarls about Julie Christie (playing herself in a cameo) when she is told that Christie is a “famous movie star.”

Ned Beatty’s delivery of the line “I think I’ll just boil me an egg” as Delbert Reese still cracks me up as does the scene in which Winifred – aka “Albuquerque” – played by the brilliant Barbara Harris, tries to explain the industrial revolution to her grumpy husband by talking about “those flyswatters with the red dot.”

There was a widespread misconception and rumor that Southerners hated the movie. I know people who didn’t care about the movie as much as I did, but I wasn’t aware of any particular backlash against it. There was resentment in the country music community around Nashville about the broad strokes with which some of the country singers were presented; Loretta Lynn reportedly was offended by the Barbara Jean character – perhaps because her story hit a little too close to Lynn’s personal narrative.

Altman suggested that the country music establishment was offended that he used original music instead of music by Nashville songwriters. Many of the actors wrote and performed their own songs and they are sometimes good-natured spins on popular country music themes. Still, I find the music to be clever and fun and cherish some of the most absurd lyrics. Actor Keith Carradine’s soulful ballad “I’m Easy” won the Academy Award for best song that year (the only Academy Award the movie received). Country personalities of the time are seen in cameos in the Grand Ole Opry scenes and there is a lovely moment when legendary country fiddler Vassar Clements is featured in striking close-up.

It is an oversimplification to say that Altman uses Nashville as a metaphor and microcosm for America in the 1970s, while Watergate is winding down and while the lessons of the ‘60s are sinking in. But that is exactly how the movie works. For Baby Boomers like me who grew up in the Cold War and with the social upheavals of the ’60s, with a regular diet of political assassinations, race riots, and the Vietnam War, Nashville – with its paranoia, cynicism, and, finally, its senseless violence, seems par for the course. It celebrates the American spirit and illuminates the American lie. Connie White purrs to a couple of young boys at the Opry, “I want you to study real hard because just remember anyone of you can grow up to be the president.” This, less than a year removed from Nixon’s resignation, inspires a single clueless audience member to clap, joylessly.

The climactic violent act of Nashville is senseless and meaningless and it is a fitting denouement to the decade we Baby Boomers, our parents, and grandparents had just endured. In her introduction to the published script, screenwriter Tewkesbury says, “… whatever you think about the film is right, even if you think the film is wrong.”

 

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