News and Commentary – A Semester of Seventies Films (5): Nashville
How fresh is Nashville (1975), more than forty years after its release? Tom Wicker, political columnist for the New York Times, described the film as a “cascade of minutely detailed vulgarity, greed, deceit, cruelty, barely contained hysteria, and the frantic lack of root and grace into which American life has been driven.”
Robert Altman’s mid-career masterpiece, Nashville is the jewel in the crown of eight films he directed from 1970-1975, which included the gems McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, and the enormously popular and influential M*A*S*H. The quintessential Altman film, Nashville features twenty-four characters with interweaving narratives who come together and wander apart in various combinations—ultimately, and allegorically, each stars in the story of their own lives while playing supporting (or even fleeting cameo roles) in the lives of others. Also typical of many Altman films, improvisations were central in shaping the final cut. Barbara Baxley wrote out Lady Pearl’s long, heartfelt speech about the “Kennedy Boys” (drawn from her own experiences); the final confrontation between Barnett and Triplette (Allen Garfield and Michael Murphy) took on a life of its own, mirroring on-set hostilities; Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin fought successfully with Altman over the behavior of their characters (Barbara Jean and Linnea). And most notoriously, assisted by musical director Richard Baskin (who appears as Frog), the actors wrote the songs that they performed in the film.
Nashville is brimming with ideas in many directions: it has something to say about status and celebrity—Haven Hamilton (Altman regular Henry Gibson) in particular knows his place as the guardian of the social order; about politics in a dispirited American on the eve of its bicentennial; and the film also offers thoughtful, understated commentary on race and gender relations in the mid-seventies. Barbara Jean is dominated by her manager-husband Barnett—a suggestion that becomes explicit in the movie’s most frightening scene; a second sequence, more intimate, centers on the performance of two songs. During “I’m Easy,” Altman’s camera moves in slowly on Linnea; deeply affected by the performance, the look on her face in a few wordless frames summarizes the sacrifices she has made. That same venue features Nashville’s most affecting moment, as Mary (Christina Raines), humiliated and heartbroken, realizes her furtive and forbidden love for Tom (Keith Carradine) is not reciprocated in the way she had allowed herself to believe. Not only must Mary bear this news privately, in a very public place, she is immediately called on stage to assume her role in the disintegrating trio of Tom, Bill and Mary, look into Tom’s eyes, and sing “Since You’ve Gone, My Heart is Broken.” She, devastated; he, performing a number they’ve done a hundred times.
Celebrity Sighting: Haven (Henry Gibson) is Polite; Connie White (Karen Black) is Unimpressed
Nashville's Darkest Moment: Barnett (Allen Garfield) manipulates Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley)
Linnea (Lily Tomlin), Moved by the Music