Nashville: America Singing

If Robert Altman’s radically freewheeling, multicharacter country-music extravaganza didn’t revolutionize filmmaking as some of its partisans predicted it would, it did capture as no other film has ever done the full complexity of America, rich with contradictions, rife with neurosis, and convulsed by the celebrity madness of ambition and envy. Nor does the film seem dated forty years later. If anything, the America that Nashville doled out with stunning prescience in 1975 has become only more so in the subsequent four decades—more addled, its politicians more outrageous, its fundamentalists more strident, its divas more delusional, the lines separating news, politics, and entertainment more blurred than ever. Indeed, political campaigns would turn so farcical in the wake of Nashville that Altman’s brilliantly oblique take on the subject—the campaign truck of the unseen independent candidate Hal Phillip Walker (invented and recorded by the real-life Mississippian Thomas Hal Phillips), blaring its way through the film—was more effective than any direct hit.

Dazzling in its cacophony, the multiple strands of private and public lives weaving in and out of a tapestry of sound, Nashville brings together all that we now think of as Altmanesque—a wry embrace of the flora and fauna, the flotsam and jetsam of America that is gently satiric without being judgmental. It was in some ways the culmination of an experimental style the director had been developing pretty much on his own, in spite of and against the grain of traditional Hollywood filmmaking: with the multiple irreverences of M*A*S*H (1970), the crazy quilt of bird people and cops and hippie-dippies in Brewster McCloud (1970), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974). But they were all small-scale enterprises compared to the epic ambition of Nashville.

The movie begins slowly for a reason and in a way that no film would dare today. Virtually the whole town shows up at the airport for the arrival of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), Nashville’s sweetheart returning after a prolonged recovery in a burn unit. A high school band is there, the drum majorettes twirling rifles for batons, the media, the groupies, and Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, king to Barbara’s queen. Threading through the crowd, almost every major character is introduced, but anonymously, without any indication of their importance. A roving camera will be following one character, then, eavesdropping on another, will make a U-turn to follow someone else. Jeff Goldblum rides through on a three-wheeled motorcycle, like some creature from mythology. Shelley Duvall, a groupie in from California with an indiscriminate appetite for male musicians, assaults folksinger Keith Carradine. In the airport coffee shop, ships passing in the night include a melancholy Keenan Wynn (his wife is dying) and an amateur magician (Goldblum), served by an aspiring country singer (Gwen Welles) and her pal, Robert DoQui’s streetwise Wade.

The film could have no successors except Altman’s own films—it was simply too complicated, too ambitious, too original in its improvisatory style, its huge cast, in other words, too inimitable. Think of it: twenty-four main characters—singers, musicians, wannabes, hangers-on—orbiting around the Grand Ole Opry and its satellite clubs, wandering into one another’s lives and limelight; twenty-four actors, free to work up their own material but staying in character through long crowd scenes, never knowing whether the camera was on them or not, never knowing whether what they sang or said would end up in the final cut. One of the factors allowing for the film’s fluidity of movement, its purposeful instability, both literal and metaphorical, was the innovative multitrack sound system, the brainchild of whiz kid USC graduate and documentarian Jim Webb, who had developed the technique filming golf competitions. Having rehearsed on the smaller cast of California Split, Altman and Webb had each main actor equipped with a mike, something that had never been done on this scale.

Screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, one of the unsung heroes of the film, was Altman’s “front man.” She had visited Nashville twice to collect material, which she shaped into a 140-page script—turned down as insufficient by the producer who had commissioned the film (David Picker of United Artists) but too wordy for Altman, who had his gifted assistant director Alan Rudolph distill it into the blueprint the director wanted. If little of the script’s original dialogue would survive the actors’ improvisations, still Tewkesbury remained a key figure in the ongoing process. Of their collaboration, Rudolph said, “Joan would go in and find the language, the nuance of a character.”

Because of Altman’s way of working, of absorbing other people’s contributions into his own artistic pageantry, we may never be able to fully appreciate what Tewkesbury brought to the table. She was especially interested in the women and their conflicted ambitions (she herself had left her husband and child behind to work with Altman, first as script girl on 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). With a background in theater and dance that began with a stage mother, she had performed with, directed, and hung out with actors for most of her life—which served her well as a writer. She understood the symbiotic relationship between stars and the backup men and women who support and manage their careers. And from her perceptive take on the musicians she’d come to spy on, she grasped the particular fragility of women country singers, trying to keep their dignity in a world run by men. One can see her sympathetic hand in the breathtaking balance between defiance and humiliation maintained in the striptease performed by Welles’s Sueleen, and in the ferocious power duel between Blakley’s Barbara Jean and her husband-manager, played by Allen Garfield. Tewkesbury would step in when things got too sticky or one-sided and, working with the women, gently nudge the dialogue, the emotion of the scene, toward a more expansive sense of the women’s point of view.

According to Jan Stuart, in his superbly illuminating book The Nashville Chronicles, “One finds a heady fusion of the director’s and the screenwriter’s sensibilities: his acerbity and her wariness, his cynicism and her empathy, his his-ness and her her-ness.” Rudolph, for his part, would attend to the supernumeraries, providing even the most obscure walk-on with a backstory. These would be nurses, doctors, legionnaires, people off the street for crowd scenes, since Altman, always at loggerheads with the unions, refused to hire extras. And riding the whirlwind would be the man himself, Altman, in the high-wire performance of his career.

As daring as it was, though, Nashville didn’t come out of nowhere; it was instead the crowning glory of a journey toward greater and greater freedom from conventional narrative cinema, a journey on which he’d brought his audience, along with his growing repertory of favorite players. As the elder-statesman rebel of the New Hollywood, a decade older than Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma, et al., Altman had been experimenting with his own brand of eccentric artistry for years. The Kansas City native had worked his way up to feature films since the early fifties, first via industrial movies, then television work (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Maverick, The Millionaire, Combat!, and various other series), and then finally the game-changing M*A*S*H. Released in 1970, M*A*S*H wasn’t the first counterculture success—Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider in the sixties had paved the way—but Altman’s insolent flip-off to the military establishment blew a hole through the patriotic myths to which Old Hollywood still clung, though with slowly corroding fervor. (In the same year, Catch-22 satirized the idiocies of the military, but its absurdist vision paled beside the seat-of-the-pants spontaneity of M*A*S*H.) While Altman’s cast of nonstars were screaming obscenities over the PA system, splattering blood, carving up bodies, and turning war into an irreverent cartoon—a reference to the war in Vietnam that couldn’t be named—on the same Fox back lot, two more-traditional war films were being shot: Patton, with the erect and pristine George C. Scott, and a depiction of the American Army defending Pearl Harbor against the Japanese attack, Tora! Tora! Tora!.

With the success of M*A*S*H, Altman earned several years of goodwill in Hollywood and the financing for such idiosyncratic, nonmainstream films as Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us (1974), The Long Goodbye, and California Split, establishing a template for the messy, layered, detail-packed, malaise-ridden aesthetic that became his trademark. Plot was sacrificed for atmosphere; if the “system,” the “establishment,” was inherently capitalistic, these films were anticapitalistic: they engaged with the fringe, and the fringe was slackers or eccentrics or antiheroes who didn’t undergo redemptive epiphanies, didn’t participate in a “narrative arc.” His sympathy with the lost, the confused, the off-kilter, led reviewers to overstate the role of ideology, seeing the films as parables of capitalism gone sour or the demise of the “American dream.” But the films are far less portentous and doom-laden than such epithets suggest, less political than anarchic. At least in Nashville, the need to go on (“Keep a’ Goin’,” says the song) triumphs over death, buoyancy over despair.

In a fittingly clamorous debut, Nashville opened to a barrage of wild enthusiasm and an acerbic—if less intense—push-back, most of which revolved around Pauline Kael’s “prereview” in the New Yorker. After David Picker’s withdrawal, Jerry Weintraub had come in as producer and Paramount as distributor, but Paramount was dawdling. In a shrewd maneuver, Altman invited Kael, his most impassioned critical ally, to an early screening. The film wasn’t even in its final cut when Kael jumped the gun with a dithyramb (“Coming: Nashville”) intended to drum up media excitement and pressure its hesitant distributor into setting an opening date. The critic was at her most deliriously oxymoronic: “Is there such a thing as an orgy for movie lovers—but an orgy without excess?” she asked rhetorically, before telling us how we should expect to feel: “You don’t get drunk on images, you’re not overpowered—you get elated.” (It was Kael who said, apocryphally, that the movie would change the nature of filmmaking.)

Inevitably, there was grumbling and resentment from the critical fraternity: Pauline had inserted herself into the marketing of the film in such a way that it became almost impossible to respond to the movie without responding to her review. Most reactions were positive, some ecstatic: Newsweek gave it a cover spread and, quoting “I Hear America Singing,” from Leaves of Grass, called it Whitmanesque. I myself likened it to “a Chaucerian musical pilgrimage whose Canterbury is Nashville.” And when names like Joyce, Chekhov, and Fellini were tossed around, the backlash was inevitable.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote a parody of the exciting new possibilities of the early review (one could do it from the rushes, or how about the screenplay?). The most damning pan—because the most detailed and eloquent—came from William Pechter in Commentary. He reacted to the “barrage of media hype” and took issue with the much ballyhooed virtuoso accomplishment of juggling the lives of twenty-four main characters. His more pertinent complaint, because it echoed a persistent criticism of Altman by his naysayers, had to do with the treatment of country music and musicians, and Altman’s supposed condescension to both. While most people outside of Nashville understood why Altman had chosen not to use real musicians and their songs (the cost would have been prohibitive and, more important, it would have seriously limited the imaginative ends of the film), his detractors reacted against what they thought was Altman’s hipper-than-thou, morally superior tone toward the denizens of the city.

But the tone is too varied, the mosaic too rich, to support such an argument. Along with works by Ronee Blakley, the only actual singer-songwriter in the company, were ones written by various cast members, ranging from the silly, the simpleminded, and the deliberately risible to the charming and the moving, sometimes all at once—in sum, a pretty good facsimile of the dirges and ballads to which they pay playful homage. There is, to my Southern ear, something appealingly raw and primal in country music that Nashville captures, along with the transparency of its archetypes of love-’em-and-leave-’em cowboys, philandering husbands, been-everywhere-but-wanna-stay-in-Dixie chauvinists, divas yearning for a lost paradise.

Take the brilliant opening scene, where Haven Hamilton is recording a swelling hymn to the bicentennial, written by Henry Gibson himself. Decked out in a gold-spangled costume and a toupee, he is sitting on his throne, encased in glass, his emasculated Ivy League son and his mistress sitting in attendance, and twice he interrupts the spell he has so carefully cast: first to banish from the studio the BBC reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin, then to brutally lash out at the pianist “Frog” (Richard Baskin, who arranged and supervised the music for the entire film). It’s a funny and terrifying scene, establishing the whole pecking order of the film and the steely grip of this little tyrant who presides over the kingdom of country music. “We must be doin’ somethin’ right to last two hundred years,” he sings, and the song exerts a mixed fascination: it’s jingoistic (we sophisticates could never admit to such patriotic fervor), yet something in us—the child saluting the flag, the solitary yearning for community—is moved.

As for his supposed condescension, it’s true that Altman often makes us feel that he and his cast occupy a privileged world from which we—the uncool—have been excluded, but Nashville actually offers one of his most democratic communities, its “inner circle” infinitely elastic. In fact, the wide range of behavior on display from the movie’s assortment of soldiers and hippies, kooks and nuts, bigots, losers, exhibitionists, con men, and naïfs allows no such easy conclusions. The genius is in the casting and in Altman’s passion for actors themselves. The advantage of using nonstars, and of encouraging them to work up their own material, is that there are no well-worn grooves for them to fall into, no Good Person with whom we can easily identify, no fixed moral perch from which to look down.

A surly, counterculture Keith Carradine looks at Scott Glenn’s soldier and says, “Kill anybody this week?” But the sweet-faced Army man will emerge as far more sympathetic than the narcissistic singer. The most offensive in terms of easy audience targets are Geraldine Chaplin’s BBC reporter, obnoxious but useful as she pushes her way into every group, and, more subtly, Michael Murphy’s supercilious PR man. But both represent variations of Altman himself. Two prominent black characters—the outspoken jailbird from Detroit played by Robert DoQui and Timothy Brown’s church-bred conservative—make an intriguing study in contrasts. Even religion is respected and honored in all its variety, as in the lovely Sunday scene with the four churches, to which various characters go according to their faith.

To the charge voiced by some critics that there are “no main characters,” the film would offer a defiant and triumphant “Definitely not!” The drama is cumulative and collective, yet the characters are never less than distinctive. They come from all over the country, freewheeling and autonomous, unlike the puppets in Fellini’s 8½, always hopping to the director’s dance.

Referring in particular to the song-driven Opry House sequence, Jan Stuart points out that Hollywood musicals of the wartime decade were a major influence. Altman and Tewkesbury both felt that the Nashville of the seventies was like the Hollywood of the forties, a place, in Stuart’s words, “where young people of talent got off the bus with little but a month’s rent and dreams of stardom.” Real stars intermingle with bit players sometimes, as in The Player (1992), with no more apparent purpose than to dance the Hollywood hustle. But at other times—as in Nashville—their presence helps illuminate a sharply etched but shifting class system.

The “real” Elliott Gould and Julie Christie are the drop-ins in Nashville—but they’re the outsiders in this particular world. Here, the social hierarchy begins with the singers, then those who can get passes to sit on the stage, and so on down the line. The music in the film is almost continuous, while characters on the sidelines or in the penumbra of the spotlight act out their own vignettes of drama in counterpoint. But there are moments when the emotional merry-go-round pauses, and your heart stops as well, as the film enters a deeper register, of loss, regret, yearning, ambivalence. I’m thinking of the great scene at the Exit/In when Carradine is singing “I’m Easy” and we watch, in turn, the three women who are attracted to him, the camera gradually settling on Lily Tomlin. An odd couple, this exquisitely sane middle-class housewife and the bad-boy troubadour, but the sense of desire is palpable, as Tomlin’s lips part ever so slightly. No less delicate is the following scene of postcoital intimacy. The charming rapport of Tomlin teaching Carradine sign language is disrupted when, at her parting, he must switch to indifference, yet she manages to come out of it with her self-respect intact. Or the complicated counterpoint between Keenan Wynn, a constant shadow of sorrow on his face as his wife dies of cancer, and his flake of a niece, the groupie played by Duvall.

Even the revelations are kept under wraps until they have their moment: Karen Black as the sultry singer who replaces the ailing Barbara Jean; Barbara Harris as Albuquerque, the rag doll who ducks and flops her way through the whole movie only to fire on all cylinders in the majestic finale.

They, too, are but an expression of the music that undergirds the whole film. Individuals may fall by the wayside, but the music continues. I think Altman is, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the great poets of failure. His real attraction is to that secret underside of the American dream: humiliation, embarrassment, loss of status, and the abiding anxiety the fear of these produces. There’s also, as critic Andrew Sarris pointed out, a religious pattern of sacrifice, the ritualized deaths to be found not just in Nashville but in most of Altman’s preceding films. And yet the life force expressed in the music provides the final sense of triumph, and it’s this communal resilience that makes the ending so powerful. One star is felled, shot by an assassin, and another emerges. The queen is dead; long live the queen!

The movie proved too unconventional to earn an Academy Award itself, but it was at least nominated, along with Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the last winning. Its only Oscar went to Keith Carradine, for best original song, “I’m Easy” (it was Carradine’s two songs, sung on the set of Thieves Like Us, that inspired Altman to build his next film’s soundtrack around the cast’s own songs). But both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics voted Nashville best film and Altman best director. Both also picked Lily Tomlin as best supporting actress, and the National Society chose Henry Gibson for support.

With an unflagging determination to “keep a’ goin’,” Altman went on to make roughly a film a year, surviving many a dud, managing to find some project or other in the leanest years, until slowing up slightly in his seventies. Astonishingly, his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, opened in 2006, when he was eighty-one. He died that November. There were ups and downs, a political satire miniseries (Tanner ’88) that was followed up sixteen years later, and some skillful adaptations of plays, of which the most remarkable may be the Nixon monologue Secret Honor (1984). Countering the traditional arc of promising, then cresting, then sliding into decline, Altman’s later upswings may be, along with Nashville, the finest films he ever made: Short Cuts (1993), his brilliant, emotionally varied adaptation of some Raymond Carver short stories, and Gosford Park (2001), Altman’s (and screenwriter Julian Fellowes’s) unique take on the upstairs-downstairs Agatha Christie mansion murder mystery.

Altman was larger-than-life, a man whose many parts required the expression that a giant canvas provided. He was a world-class seducer, wooing anyone who entered the swinging precincts of his Lion’s Gate studio on Westwood Boulevard into the fold as an Altmanite. He was also an ornery, difficult man, taking most of the credit for himself (though the fluidity and spontaneity of the filmmaking made apportioning credit difficult), getting others to do the dirty work of letting people go. But let it be said that he was a director who loved women, on and off the set, and women were the continuing beneficiaries of his creative interest. Over the course of his long career, many of the women in his films were nominated for Academy Awards—Sally Kellerman, Julie Christie, Ronee Blakley, Lily Tomlin, Helen Mirren, and Maggie Smith. If there were fewer prizes than there should have been, it’s because Altman’s style of filmmaking, the ensemble, militates against the awards he and his cast so richly deserved. Yet to fail to acknowledge the brilliance on display by his groups would be an equal lapse in judgment. Just think of the uniformly dazzling ensemble of Short Cuts, which includes Tomlin, Andie MacDowell, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh. And what about the women who, had it not been for Altman’s eye, would never have been captured by a camera at all: Duvall, Annie Ross (the torch singer in Short Cuts), and the marvelous Blakley? Karen Black, superb as a transsexual in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), struck many as the highlight of Nashville. For others, it was Barbara Harris. For me, it’s the gorgeous, mysterious, ever-shifting dynamic of the ensemble that is the star of the film, and every actress (and actor) in this American masterpiece deserves a special place in ensemble heaven.

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