The Woman in Back: Lily Tomlin in Nashville

Today, the idea that comedian-actor-writer Lily Tomlin possesses dramatic versatility is so received that one might not realize how unexpected it was for audiences to see her in a serious role in Robert Altman’s Nashville in 1975. At that point, she was known mostly for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the TV sketch comedy series on which she honed her talent for creating broad, eccentric characters. Later, she would bring wit and intelligence—and a welcome smidge of impropriety—to mainstream comedy in such clever entertainments as Nine to Five (1980) and All of Me (1984). And Tomlin’s extraordinary talent for inhabiting an assortment of American oddballs, who are usually antagonistic and strangely loveable at once, perhaps reached its zenith with her Tony-winning one-woman-show The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1985), in which she portrayed no fewer than a dozen characters, from a philosopher bag lady to an aging feminist activist to a lonely upper-cruster. (Thankfully for posterity, a film version directed by John Bailey was released in 1991.)

Nashville has twice as many main characters as that, and “the incredible Lily Tomlin!”—as she is excitedly introduced in voice-over during the film’s whirlwind opening credits—could undoubtedly play them all with aplomb. But not only does she play just one, her Linnea Reese may be the least eccentric, most subdued major character in Altman’s panoramic satire of the country-music capital. Tomlin is an emotional anchor in a film full of wayward souls and pompous pills. A gospel singer and patient mother of two deaf children (Louise Fletcher, whose parents are deaf, was originally cast in the role but had to bow out), Linnea exudes moral centeredness. While most of Nashville’s myopic characters are caught in cycles of unchecked bad behavior and pathetic self-delusion, Linnea is the only one whose story arc pivots on a single transgressive act, and the only one who changes during the course of the film—which makes her seem less of a fool or pawn than the others. Some of Linnea’s decisions are questionable, but Tomlin expresses her character’s interiority with such breathtaking subtlety and grace that it’s impossible for the audience—or the film—to judge her.

In this, her first big-screen role, Tomlin was asked not only to provide a great deal of the film’s dramatic gravity but to sing gospel music, hardly her forte. In the film’sfirst few minutes, we see a robed Tomlin in a recording booth, a white face in front of an all-black choir. Her voice is reedy and perhaps a bit unpersuasive as belonging to a professional singer, and when she lets out a spontaneous laugh during the number, you wonder if it’s Tomlin expressing disbelief at what she’s being asked to do. Yet as we watch, we see that the spirit really does move her. It becomes invigorating, and the earnestness of her singing expresses much about her entire performance. In a film drenched with irony, Linnea always means what she says and does. The character’s uprightness becomes fully apparent in her next scene, when she’s stuck in a traffic jam alongside the awful Opal (Geraldine Chaplin). After Linnea reveals that her children are deaf, the reporter flinches with performative disgust: “Oh my God, how awful!” Tomlin remains as cool as the Popsicle she’s eating, however, extolling her children’s qualities and refusing to indulge Opal’s hilariously tone-deaf attempt at sympathy.

Linnea’s unflagging adoration of her kids, and Tomlin’s evident patient affection for the young actors who play them, makes it all the more jarring when the family’s domestic serenity is interrupted by the first of several phone calls from Keith Carradine’s narcissistic musician, Tom. He unsubtly propositions her, although they’ve only barely met, in the recording studio’s control room some months back. Linnea frustratedly rebuffs his advances, twice—but this ladies’ man is not used to rejection. During the third call, Altman’s camera slowly zooms in on her face. The only thing she utters this time is a tentative “um”—she seems to be finally giving in.

It’s unclear whether Linnea is happy in her marriage. Her husband, the unscrupulous lawyer Delbert (Ned Beatty), is a lecherous, drunken lout, yet the couple are not shown arguing or acting particularly unhappy together. Altman leaves Linnea’s motivations for taking Tom up on his invitation and going to see him perform opaque. Her choice results in an act of adultery that other films might see fit to punish her for, but here it’s just another moment of human connection, and we can infer what we want from it. Tom is undoubtedly a cad, and Linnea is barely dressed and out of his hotel room before he’s already calling up another woman, but this is not a scene of mortification (in a film rife with humiliations for women, from Sueleen’s reluctant striptease to Barbara Jean’s epic midsong breakdown). She couldn’t have expected anything less—or more—of Tom. In this sense, despite Tom’s manipulative, womanizing behavior, Linnea remains in control.

The justly famous scene preceding their sexual encounter, in which Tom breaks down Linnea’s final doubts with the lyrical false modesty of  “I’m Easy” (which won the Oscar for best song), is perhaps, then, a mutual seduction. Linnea is seated bashfully at a table in the bar’s back row, drinking cider from a wineglass. Scattered about the room are three women Tom has already slept with (Opal; Shelley Duvall’s hanger-on, L.A. Joan; and Cristina Raines’s Mary, from his folk trio), each of whom thinks he’s singing to her. But they’re so vain. A gradual zoom in to Tomlin’s face, lips slightly parted, tells us that this song is for her. Is she communicating guilt? Long dormant passion? Disbelief? It’s a perfect, succinct example of Tomlin’s craft that it seems to be all three at once. So expressive is her face that this quiet woman in the back of the room neatly steals the scene from the cocky man in the spotlight, without saying a word. Watch the scene below.

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