Let’s Talk About… ‘Nashville’ (1975)

Barbara Harris in Nashville.

Film #68 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

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Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) examines American life and all its messy problems. It’s about race relations, sexual politics, the generation gap, entertainment becoming politics, and so many other issues that face Americans every day. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert said it might be about how “we’re all in this together.” Like Network (1976), it predicted much of the modern world by writing about the then present. Unlike Network, it predicted a greater number of events, from the rise of third party candidates to the political candidacy of multiple entertainers.

Premise and Style

Summarizing this movie is legitimately difficult due to its sheer size and scope. It follows 24 people over the course of 5 days. Screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury said, “It tells a single story, without telling a single story.” Even the trailer cycles through the plot pretty quickly, mentioning a little something about every character before concluding with a scene from the movie. It centers around the many people surrounding country singer Barbara Jean (Ronnee Blakely, who would go on to play Nancy Thompson’s mother in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)), the closest thing to a main character in this story. The movie’s initial incident is her fainting at the airport and having to be taken to the hospital. Almost every major sequence involving all the characters is built around her or her absence. Her husband (Allen Garfield) worries about her. An earnest soldier (Scott Glenn) stalks her. Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) and Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) want to emulate her. An elderly man (Keenan Wynn) visits his ill wife down the hall from Barbara Jean’s hospital room.  Connie White (Karen Black) replaces her at an event. Throughout the story, the campaign van for Replacement party candidate Hal Phillip Walker drives around town, blaring his political ideologies. All of these threads lead to the Barbara Jean’s concert at the Parthenon.

Similarly, the tone shifts around in this movie. A lot of times it is cynical and satirical. Sometimes it feels tender and sad. Sometimes it features slapstick. Like Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Carver stories (Short Cuts (1993)), this film feels like a collection of short stories rather than a novel or novella. Oftentimes, the film will feature one story in the foreground and one in the background. Screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury travelled to Nashville and kept a diary which became the loose spine for the movie. All of this works in the film’s favor as it makes it freewheeling and unpredictable as well as narratively satisfying.

Overview

One cannot discuss Nashville without discussing director Robert Altman. Concerned with behavior more than plot, Altman filled his films with lots of eccentric people and stories. He also tended to discover his films more than meticulously planning them out. Altman was known to be a brilliant if uncompromising man. He refused to compromise his artistic vision for a producer. One story involves Altman punching a producer in the pool after he asked him to cut part of California Split (1974) (Altman denied this happened). For Nashville, he screamed at the sky not to rain and it somehow worked. Right after the crew packed up, it started to pour.

Unlike many movies, Nashville does not have many big stars in the main cast. Karen Black probably had the biggest name at the time. Black and co-star Barbara Harris would star in Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1978), a movie famous for its limited star appeal. Black would also star as a transsexual in Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982). Jeff Goldblum appears in a silent role as a biker and magician known as the “tricycle man,” but even his career has been defined as both a character actor and a leading man. Many cast members (Cristina Raines, David Hayward) got involved by knowing somebody working on the film, rather than by audition. Henry Gibson stars as Haven Hamilton, a nudie suit wearing patriotic singer. Lily Tomlin plays Linnea, a Gospel singer and mother of two deaf children (a role originally written for that year’s best actress winner Louise Fletcher, who actually had deaf parents and gave part of her speech in Sign Language). Ned Beatty plays her oblivious and emotionally distant husband. Keith Carradine plays petulant singer Tom, who sleeps with many women across Nashville and his eyes on Linnea. Shelley Duvall plays L.A. Joan, a scatterbrained woman sent to Nashville to visit her uncle (Kenan Wynn) and his dying wife, only to ditch him for a hipper crowd. Outside of some small roles, Duvall became known for her role in The Shining (1980) and her work with Altman. All of these actors do not represent stars.

On top of that, many of the cast members (Henry Gibson, Ronnee Blakely, Karen Black, Keith Carradine) wrote and performed their own songs. By Altman’s own admission, not all of the songs are great. Some work well and some are hokey. They create an eclectic soundtrack that reflects each character in a different way.

Like all of Altman’s films, sound becomes important, especially with all the overlapping dialogue recorded. After failing to get the desired sound he desired on McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Altman turned to sound designer Jim Webb for California Split (1974). Webb and sound engineer Jac Cashin would help design an 8-track sound system that would prove valuable for the sound design of the film. The system allowed sound mixers to work with seven times the sound information of a normal sound system. Although revolutionary, the multitrack system never quite caught on as a technique for dramatic storytelling. Webb would later win an Oscar for sound design on All the President’s Men (1976).

Released in 1975, Nashville came out the same year as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon and Jaws. Nominated for five Academy awards, Nashville lost most of its awards to Cuckoo’s Nest (including Best Picture and Best Director), but won the Academy Award for Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy.” Lily Tomlin and Ronnee Blakely also received best supporting actress nominations for their role, but lost to Lee Grant in Shampoo.

A modest hit, it made $10 million on a budget of $2.2 million. In comparison, American Graffiti (1973) made $140 million on a budget of under $1 million. Overtime, the film has become more well known among arthouse audiences than with the mainstream public due to its large ensemble, lengthy running time of 161 minutes, and chaotic narrative. The National film registry selected it for preservation in 1992. The Criterion Collection released the film as part of their collection in December of 2013.

Observations

Nashville is an epic of the moment. It follows one episode to the next until it builds to its big climax. Each one of these set pieces is full of detail and life, right down to the extras directed by then assistant director Alan Rudolph (who would become a director in his own right). Full stories play out in small nuances and interactions, whether it be a person sitting silently to somebody serenading an oblivious partner. Every moment seems to mean something and yet it keeps getting better with each viewing due to the level of detail in the film. The film contains characters and commentary both subtle and blunt, complex and simple. A character can seem unrelatable in one viewing and understandable in the next.

Every character in the film is not somebody that the audience is asked to care about. In most political films, the filmmakers frame the younger generation as entitled or the older generation as closed minded in order to emphasize their protagonist’s heroic nature. Network sees younger Network executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) character as a cold ruthless person raised on and emotionally crippled by television. The film is so against her that older journalist Max Schumacher (William Holden) has a monologue about her destructive lifestyle and how she will go insane without him. Nashville includes similar dynamics (Duvall and her uncle Keenan Wynn come to mind), but each character and relationship has more richness and complexity to them, which can make them both charming yet unlikable.

Dave Peel and Geraldine Chaplin in Nashville.

Take Haven Hamilton’s son and business, Bud (Dave Peel). He seems sweet and innocent in a scene where he serenades Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), but also acts in a complicit manner when the untalented Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) is forced to strip in front of a group of men to get a gig at the Parthenon singing with her hero, Barbara Jean. In a normal movie or TV show, a sensitive man would step in and defend this woman from this abuse of power. In fact, the second episode of Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983) has a similar situation involving Shirley (Cindy Williams) jumping out of a cake at a bachelor party. Carmine (Eddie Mekka) and Fonzie (Henry Winkler) step in to save the day. Here, it’s presented as an ugly moment that nobody stops. Nashville often asks the audience to confront the ugliest realities without pulling back.

Similarly, the film never makes a point of introducing anybody in a glamorous way. Almost every character is introduced in the beginning at the airport. It sets up characters without ever moving in on a close-up to establish a star in the movie. Shelley Duvall appears more as more of an extra than as a star when we first see her. Lily Tomlin appears in a Gospel choir. Each of these characters seems important in the narrative in a way that transcends basic plot points.

While the direction is not very obvious or showy (Altman prefers an objective camera), it emphasizes scenes in different ways. Altman covers many scenes in wides as he wants the audience to look around frame. However, he will also cut between many different interactions. When Altman wants the audience to feel uncomfortable, he will often hold on a wide shot without cutting, rather than cutting to another shot. Two scenes perform this. One of these scenes is between Ned Beatty telling Gwen Welles his fantasies about her, while the other involves Allen Garfield and Michael Murphy arguing over how Barbara Jean will perform onstage. Altman will also only use close-ups and mediums in scenes to emphasize a character’s emotional experience. No scene presents this better than a scene where Keith Carradine serenades a room. Carradine won the Academy award for the song “I’m Easy,” a simple love song. In the film, Carradine sings the song to a room that includes four of his sexual conquests: Tomlin, Duvall, Chaplin, and Cristina Raines. Altman uses medium shots and close-ups to emphasize the relationships Carradine has with each of these women, which he rarely does in other scenes. Tomlin shines in a wordless performance in this scene as the camera slowly pushes in on her face. Each of these stylistic choices are small yet noticeable.

Written by a divorced woman, another aspect of Nashville that sticks out is how many of the strongest characters are unhappily married women. Barbara Jean has a tempestuous relationship with her husband Barnett (Allen Garfield). While Barnett acts in a loyal and defensive towards her, he does not seem to know how to fulfill her emotional needs. Tewksbury also wrote Barbara Jean so she would faint when she did not want to deal with life or Barnett. Gospel singer Linnea (Tomlin) lives in a pretty loveless marriage to her husband, Delbert (Beatty). Both of them are tempted by infidelity in the film. Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) runs away from her husband Star (Bert Remsen) at the beginning of film. Screenwriter Joan Tewksbury also has a character named L.A. Joan in the film, who sometimes serves as a connective tissue between multiple storylines. Each of these characters comes across as some of the most complex, conflicted, and sometimes heroic characters in the story.

In terms of politics, the film features an unseen character in Hal Philip Walker, the replacement party candidate. As the third-party candidate in this movie, Walker runs on promises to remove all lawyers from congress, tax the churches, and change the national anthem to something more memorable (the film replaces it with Keith Carradine’s “It Don’t Worry Me”). They also make the point that he claims to be “a man of the people,” but the audience never sees him. On Altman’s direction, Thomas Hal Phillips (who voices Walker) designed him to say what they thought the American people wanted to hear versus what a career politician would say. Candidates such as Ross Perot, Bernie Sanders, and Gary Johnston came out of such beliefs about the American people and the American government system.

Walker’s campaign manager John Triplette (Michael Murphy) also asks famed country singer Haven Hamilton about running for office. Although apolitical, Hamilton becomes intrigued by the offer. While small, this did suggest a new wave of Entertainers becoming politicians. In the years after the film, many people connected to the entertainment industry would run for public office, including Sonny Bono, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Roseanne Barr, and Donald Trump. While an entertainer running for office was not necessarily new (Ronald Reagan had been a film star before becoming a politician), it had never been publicized to the level it had been in the late twentieth century.

All of Nashville’s story threads look to the future. There’s an undercurrent of anger and repressed feelings in all of these characters and stories. Potential violence is always boiling beneath the surface and characters discuss John F. Kennedy’s assassination multiple times throughout the film. Nobody knows if the Scott Glenn character or the David Hayward character are dangerous or not. The questions add an uneasiness to the film, as nobody knows what anybody else will do. All of these questions lead the film’s conclusion, which is both hopeful and cynical. It suggests the sad state of many situations in America and what will be left for future generations. However, it also suggests that America can overcome anything and become a better place. Such an ending does not present easy answers to complex political problems, but it does present the possibility for a better future.

Conclusion

At the beginning of the film, Hal Philip Walker’s voice says over the speakers that “everybody is involved in politics whether they like it or not.” In this film, almost every person is involved in show business whether they like it or not. Fans with cameras mob stages constantly. Various characters dream of being the singers onstage. Others watch entranced from afar. The singers and performers perform their songs and oftentimes hide behind them.

43 years have passed since the release of Nashville and it still remains as prevalent today as it did in 1975. The way that entertainment and politics converge is just as important if not more so. Many different candidates and entertainers vie for the public’s attention, hoping to make a difference. Americans still have problems communicating with each other based on various political divisions. However, what makes Nashville different than other films is that it offers the possibility for hope where other films end on a note of sadness.


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