The word “genius” is showered on people in Hollywood with reckless abandon. In my opinion, director Robert Altman, who died last week at the age of 81, is one of the few people in this town who really deserved the label. Maybe that’s because he wasn’t exactly “in this town” but always something of an outsider and a maverick, even during the sporadic periods when he was achieving (but not dependent on) great commercial success.
I’ve always been reluctant to list my favorite films in order of preference. There are so many styles and genres of films that I love, why force an apples-and oranges-comparison? What sense does it make to rate films such as “The Philadelphia Story,” “All About Eve,” and “Brief Encounter” against the likes of “The Graduate,” “Sophie’s Choice,” and “The Deer Hunter?” Can’t I appreciate the works of Cukor, Minnelli, Bergmann, Scorsese, Fellini, and others without saying that certain films are better than others? It’s why I despise awards shows or any conceit that would have us believe that pitting wildly different works of art against each other is a valid and helpful exercise, like comparing two brands of laundry detergent. So while I’d be very interested in drawing up a list of 100 movies that have had an impact on me, I would be loathe to organize them in some kind of ascending order. Except for one. My favorite film of all-time is Robert Altman’s “Nashville.”
I remember walking into Chicago’s Esquire Theatre in June 1975 to see the film during its opening week. It would be the first of more than a dozen screenings in theatres as well as countless viewings on video and DVD. Altman had already made films using large ensembles and overlapping dialogue (most famously in “M*A*S*H” five years earlier), but he perfected this style in “Nashville” as he showed the interweaving stories of 24 characters over the course of five days in the country music capital. “Nashville” was not really about Nashville or the country music industry just like the new film “Bobby” is not about Bobby Kennedy. “Nashville” was about America, it was about us.
Endless articles have been written about this film. Reviewers around the world have dissected “Nashville” and taken a firm stand one way or the other. Pauline Kael got reamed by many (jealous) directors for her unmitigated raves that were published in “The New Yorker” a full four months before the film was released, Critics tended to hail the polarizing film as grand masterpiece and incisive look at the post-Watergate American zeitgeist or as a hopelessly scattered example of Robert Altman’s ego run amuck. A few years ago a whole book came out about the making of the film that is required reading for all Altman fans and “Nashville” fanatics like myself.
I don’t know what it was like to actually work for Robert Altman although I’m willing to take Meryl Streep’s word that it was creative paradise for an actor. Streep and Lily Tomlin, who co-starred in his final film “Prairie Home Companion,” presented Altman with a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Oscars. In the nick of time, it turns out. Streep and Tomlin’s work was by far the best thing about “Prairie Home Companion” and a perfect display of Altman’s deft ability to trust the process and get the most out of his talented actors (provided they come to the table with plenty to give).
Altman gave Tomlin her first regular acting role in “Nashville.” She herself questioned why she was cast as Linnea Reese, the white lead singer in an all-black gospel choir and wife to creepy lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), who was working on the presidential campaign of Replacement Party candidate Hal Philip Walker. In truth, the part of Linnea had been written for Louise Fletcher who had to back out at the last minute. It was Fletcher’s experience with her own deaf family members and her knowledge of sign language that prompted screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury to give the Reeses two deaf children. Tomlin gamely learned how to sign for the role and quickly proved that the gamble on her dramatic talents (until then she was mostly known for her comedy bits on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”) was very well placed.
Oy, I know I could happily write paragraph after paragraph about all 24 major characters so I need to restrain myself or start my own “Nashville” website. But I have to say that the casting of “Nashville” was truly inspired, even if several people got there in a circuitous or accidental way. At left are just a third of the brilliant actors in the film: Ronee Blakley and Henry Gibson, Barbara Baxley and Barbara Harris, Geraldine Chaplin and Keenan Wynn, and Karen Black and Lily Tomlin. Each of them brought their own skills and back stories to the roles, making for one of the richest ensembles in the history of American film. Rounding out the cast were Altman veterans Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Timothy Brown, and Gwen Welles; stalwarts like Michael Murphy, Allen Garfield, and Bert Remsen; and newcomers Cristina Raines, Scott Glenn, and 21-year-old Jeff Goldblum.
Susan Anspach was originally cast as the emotionally fragile superstar Barbara Jean. Rumors why she dropped out ranged from her demanding more money than the rest of the cast (Altman used a two-tiered salary range that was paltry even by 1970s standards) to the fact that she just couldn’t cut it vocally. Although I think that Anspach is a talented actress, I’m grateful that she dropped out. She went right into one of Kendall’s dad’s plays (“For the Use of the Hall”) and opened the door for Ronee Blakley’s luminous, tragic portrayal of Barbara Jean that holds the film together. Blakley was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who was touring with Hoyt Axton in the mid-1970s. She went up to Altman’s office to try to sell him some songs for the film and ended up with a lead role even though she had very little acting experience and had never made a film. Details of her own life were written into the script and her improvised dialogue in the two big breakdown scenes made me think she was no stranger to the complexities of mental illness.
Keith Carradine was first signed to play Bill, the most timid member of the folksinging trio Tom, Bill, and Mary. When Gary Busey dropped out of the film, Carradine was asked to take on his role of womanizing Tom who is not only sleeping with Bill’s wife Mary but also carrying on affairs with three other characters in the film including Tomlin’s suburban housewife Linnea Reese. Carradine played the role to perfection (and won the film’s only Oscar for his song “I’m Easy”) but apparently had a hard time playing such an arrogant jerk.
The late Gwen Welles was particularly moving as waitress and wannabe country star Sueleen Gay. Sueleen idolizes Barbara Jean and, with the promise of getting to sing with the star at an upcoming concert, agrees to strip at a sleazy good ol’ boy fundraiser for the Hal Philip Walker campaign organized by Delbert Reese. Sueleen’s desperate backroom striptease is one of the most poignant and painful scenes in the film. Finally, her friend Wade (Robert DoQui) is forced to tell her the truth in an attempt to help Gay avoid demeaning herself further. “Girl! You can’t sing! You got no talent!” but Sueleen, always the delusional optimist, is not deterred from her dream.
Geraldine Chaplin descends upon the characters in the guise of Opal, a pretentious British journalist who claims she is doing a documentary about Nashville for the BBC. Though she fancies herself a true intellectual, her biases and ignorance are on display whenever she turns on her portable tape recorder (following her deliciously obnoxious “Testing! Testing! Un, deux, trois, quatre.”). I’m only now realizing how many lines from “Nashville” are embedded in my brain to the point where I tend to spout them several times a month without warning. When I think of Opal, what immediately comes to mind is her foray through a lot of deserted yellow school buses as she intones, “Yellow is the color of sunshine, yet I see very little sunshine in the lives of the little black children and the little white children…” or when a local driver asks if he can show her around Nashville and she interrupts him in mid-sentence with, “I’m sorry, I make it a point never to socialize with the servants.” Chaplin’s character is clueless and constantly misinterpreting the reactions of her subjects. When she tries to interview the young soldier played by Scott Glenn during a concert at Opryland, he only has eyes for Barbara Jean who he’s had a deep crush on for years. She asks him if he’s just back from Vietnam. Glenn is staring rapturously at Barbara Jean and seeing this look on his face, Chaplin says very seriously, “Oh, I see that you have.”
Altman had most of the actors write their own songs for the film. Karen Black sings two of her own (pretty damn well), Carradine sings “I’m Easy” which he wrote years earlier (aren’t songs nominated for Oscars supposed to be written specifically for the film?), and the folksinging trio sings a Gary Busey leftover from his days on the set. Ronee Blakley contributed four songs—two for Barbara Jean and two for other characters who lacked the songwriting chops. Henry Gibson’s milk-drinking country icon Haven Hamilton sings three songs that perfectly complement his narcissistic self-image and his anxiety over the world that is beginning to pass him by. But Haven’s ego is mollified by some vague promise that Hal Philip Walker thinks he’d make “a mighty fine governor for this state.” Gibson’s first song in the film sets the appropriate grandiose tone for his character. With the country about to head whole hog into the yearlong bicentennial frenzy, Gibson’s song “200 Years” could have been its rallying cry.
I've lived through two Depressions
And seven Dust Bowl droughts
Floods, locusts, and tornadoes
But I don't have any doubts.
We're all a part of history
Why Old Glory waves to show
How far along we've come 'til now
How far we've got to go.
At the Grand Ole Opry, Haven Hamilton sets a familiar poem to music to wild applause. It’s familiar because we’d heard Henry Gibson recite the poem a few years earlier on “Laugh-In.” The poem, another personal motto for his evangelical character, is called “Keep-a-Goin’” and later in the film, following the shocking assassination of one of the major characters that also injures Haven, we see the extent to which he truly does live by these simplistic words.
If you strike a thorn or rose,
If it hails or if it snows,
'Taint no use to sit an' whine
When the fish ain't on your line;
Bait your hook an' keep a-tryin'--
Could these lyrics also represent Robert Altman’s approach to Hollywood?
The campaign of Hal Philip Walker that is heard throughout the film (although we never see the third-party candidate who had already won three primaries and was poised to take Tennessee) was a prescient glimpse at the future of American politics. Just as we laughed at TV executive Faye Dunaway’s insane programming ideas in that year’s great film “Network,” we howled in 1975 at Hal Philip Walker’s words which blared from loudspeakers on roving campaign vans. Who knew that Faye’s ideas would seem tame in 2006 and that that there would be candidates who sounded an awful lot like Hal Philip Walker. Ross Perot even had the same vocal intonations. Here’s a blurb from the endless Hal Philip Walker tirade that blankets the city of Nashville throughout the film.
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. He does whichever is to his client's advantage. Did you ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn't he? Ever ask a lawyer how to get to Mr. Jones' house in the country? You got lost, didn't you? Congress is composed of five hundred and thirty-five individuals. Two hundred and eighty-eight are lawyers. And you wonder what's wrong in Congress. No wonder we often know how to make a watch, but we don't know the time of day.
Walker also advocated abolishing the electoral college, changing the national anthem, battling oil companies, and taxing churches. Sounds good to me. Jimmy Carter may not have shared those off-the-chart views, but his sudden dominance on the national scene that summer was a bit Hal Philip Walker-like in the way he captured the interest of a public desperate for change including many people who would have dismissed him as a country bumpkin a year earlier.
The shocking ending of the film (which I’m trying not to give away for those of you who are lucky enough to have a first viewing of the film in your future) is a perfect statement on where American was at in the mid-1970s following years of an unpopular war and an out-of-control government that was running roughshod over the U.S. Constitution (hey, that sounds familiar!).
Jesus, I’ve gone on for much too long about this film as I feared I might (thanks to the two of you who are still reading!) and I probably still haven’t conveyed why it is so meaningful to me. Do we love certain movies because of how we personally relate to the characters? Is “Nashville” my favorite film because I treat it like a dream with all the characters representing different aspects of myself? God knows I can relate to Henry Gibson’s blustery bravado, Geraldine Chaplin’s pretentious babbling, Gwen Welles’ desperate dreams, and Keith Carradine’s injured arrogance. But mostly I think I identify with Ronee Blakley’s sad ricochets between her purely innocent intentions and the tortured realities of her life that keep cutting her down.
I admit I became a little obsessed with Ronee Blakley after seeing “Nashville.” I listened to her two albums constantly (to this day I know every song by heart) and even went to New York that summer just to hear her sing at the Greenwich Village nightclub The Bitter End. At the age of 15 I couldn’t get in, but I stood in the doorway and listened. Yikes, I sound as scary as the people who were stalking Barbara Jean in the film! Ronee Blakley was nothing like Barbara Jean back then but it almost seemed like she merged with her character over time. Though she was deservedly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (along with Lily Tomlin), her film career never took off. Today she is best known, besides “Nashville,” for her role as the mother in the original “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Oh, Ronee. She toured with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez for a while and appeared as Dylan’s wife in the ill-fated “Renaldo and Clara” but her music career stalled and she never made another record. It was only this summer that her two albums were finally released on CD. She directed an autobiographical documentary in 1985 called “I Played it for You” about her stormy six-year marriage to German director Wim Wenders but I've never been able to locate a copy.
I finally had a personal encounter with Blakley when I went to the premiere of the Henry Jaglom film in which she made a brief appearance, “Someone to Love,” at the Los Feliz Theatre in 1987. I accosted her in front of the theatre and asked her about the rumor I’d heard that Altman was preparing a sequel to “Nashville.” It was true, she told me, she had seen an early version of the script and had agreed to be in the film but wasn’t sure how they’d use her. The story was to revolve around Lily Tomlin’s Linnea Reese running for governor of Tennessee and we’d see many of the old characters from the film. I salivated at the thought and was sick when I heard a few months later that the deal fell through and Altman had decided to abandon the project. I also heard that Altman had so much footage from the original shoot that he considered releasing a six hour TV version divided into two parts: “Nashville Blue” and “Nashville Red.” But this footage has never appeared on TV or on a DVD.
In the summer of 2000 I went to the 25th anniversary presentation of “Nashville” at the Motion Picture Academy with Altman and most of the cast members present including Ronee Blakley. Heaven. A few years ago singer Carolyn Mark and her friends including Neko Case, Dave Lang, and Kelly Hogan released a fantastic tribute CD to “Nashville” in which they recreated all of the songs and even a lot of the dialogue.
I think that Robert Altman’s body of work was extraordinary even though I didn’t care for all of his films. Apart from “Nashville” and “M*A*S*H,” my favorites included “A Wedding,” “Three Women,” “The Player,” “Short Cuts,” and “Gosford Park.” Less successful, I thought, were “Quintet,” “Health,” “Popeye,” and “Prêt-à-Porter.” But his is a voice that will be sorely missed in this age of unoriginal and regurgitated fare. Good-bye, Robert Altman, and wherever you are: