Nashville is the story of twenty-four characters in the country music capital over four days during a presidential campaign. Most of the characters are involved with the music business in one way or another, and those run the gamut from Winifred, who impulsively leaves her music-hating husband to try to reinvent herself as "a country music singer, or a star," to the king and queen of country music, Haven Hamilton and Barbara Jean.
The characters are all in the same place only at the beginning and the end of the film. In between, they come and go and run into each other in all different combinations.
The movie opens (after a couple of preliminary vignettes, including introducing the sound trucks of independent Presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker, which thread through the film like the PA announcements in M*A*S*H) in a recording studio where Haven Hamilton is recording his ponderous Bicentennial anthem, "200 Years" (the stirring chorus is "we must be doing something right to last two hundred years"). In the smaller studio next door, Linnea Reese records with a Black gospel choir.
Pretty much all the rest of the characters are at the airport soon after that, and from there all the characters head off in their various directions, coming together again only at the end, at the huge Hal Philip Walker rally.
Nashville and Washington
Politics and music are the movie's two most obvious concerns, as Walker's advance man John Triplette moves to sign up talent both for a late-night smoker with local businessmen, and for the rally at Nashville's Parthenon. Robert Altman took a lot of flack after the movie was released, for making fun of country music and country musicians, and his response was that the movie wasn't about Nashville, it was about Washington.
I see the point he was trying to make, but I don't think this is true, nor is it the answer to the question.
The answer to the question of whether he's mocking the music or not is right there in the soundtrack. On one hand, there's Haven Hamilton, with his garish white outfits, his unctuous manner, his fatuous and self-revealing songs, and his croaking voice. As a character, he's almost more of a politician than an entertainer.
But on the other hand, there's Barbara Jean. Her songs are wonderful and Ronee Blakley, the actress who plays her, sings the hell out of them. I don't think anybody could see how Barbara Jean is treated by her husband and manager, Barnett, and then hear her sing "Careless Disrespect" and think the movie or Altman is mocking her. And, it's immediately after she sings that song at Opryland that she breaks down on stage.
The truth is, Nashville is no major statement on politics and government. It is very much concerned with power, but mostly with other kinds of power. I saw Nashville when it was released, and I saw it again a month ago (and many times in between) and in a quarter century my opinion has remained the same. What this movie is about, more than anything else, is the women.
Mr. A. and the Women
Every time I see it, there are three parts which hit me the hardest. The first takes place in Barbara Jean's hospital room. Her public appearance earlier that day at the airport, planned to celebrate her return to Nashville after treatment at a center for burns (this is never explained) ended with her collapsing. All day the hospital room was full of family, friends, well-wishers and hangers-on, but now it's just her and Barnett. Barbara Jean had been supposed to sing at the Grand Old Opry that night, but instead she and Barnett listen on the radio as Connie White, her hated rival, fills in for her.
Barbara Jean throws a tantrum when Barnett won't turn the radio off, and it escalates when he tells her he needs to go to see Connie and Haven and the rest later on, so he can thank Connie personally from Barbara Jean.
When she subsides into tears, Barnett demands to know if she's going to have another nervous breakdown, and then tells her that she'd better shape up, because he won't stand for her having another breakdown.
Have I ever told you how to sing a song?
Barbara Jean (quietly): no.
Barnett: Then don't you tell me how to run your life. I've been doing pretty good with it.
He then pressures her into wishing him a cheerful goodbye, and after he's gone, she calls after him plaintively.
It's a harrowing scene, all the more so because there's no physical violence, and in fact she yells much more than he does and is more physically aggressive. But Barnett can afford to be quiet and wait for her to blow off her anger, because he's in charge and they both know it.
Barnett does get a little bit of a comeuppance at the club, where both Haven Hamilton and Connie White completely ignore him. Without Barbara Jean at his side, he's just another functionary, no more important than Delbert Reese, Haven's lawyer. Nobody pays much attention to Del except to make fun of his obtuseness.
The scene in the hospital room is incredible, and we feel Barbara Jean's desire to have the radio turned off, because we've seen the show at the Grand Old Opry, which ran the gamut from bland (Tommy Brown) to phony (Haven Hamilton, singing a song about marital fidelity as his mistress watches from a bench on the rear of the stage) to completely plastic (Connie White).
The next killer scene is Barbara Jean's breakdown on stage at Opryland. Rushed into doing a performance pretty much the minute she was released from the hospital (you don't have to read very far between the lines to see how much of a pattern this is), she sings a couple of songs, then becomes disoriented, telling a long and increasingly pointless anecdote (though the subtext of the anecdote is that she's been "singing for her supper" since she was a pretty young girl) until Barnett comes out and leads her off the stage.
The film was made with a script, by Joan Tewkesbury, but the actors brought a lot to it. There's quite a bit of improvisation, and several key scenes were written by the actors. Barbara Jean's breakdown is one of those, and (as in many of the scenes) Altman set up a few different cameras, started them rolling and told Ronee Blakley to begin. The first time he (or the other actors) ever heard or saw the scene was when she was performing it for the cameras.
In addition, most of the songs were written or co-written by the actors. And, to the delight of all the musicians in the audience, there is no dubbing or lip-syncing. All the music was recorded live.
The real climax of the movie is two scenes which cut back and forth near the end. One is at the smoker that John Triplette and Del Reese have set up. A group of local Nashville businessmen have got together to donate money to Hal Philip Walker, and for their entertainment they'll get to see a stripper. The only problem is that nobody has bothered to tell the "stripper" exactly what she's being paid to do. She's Sueleen Gay, a majestically untalented singer who has absolutely no idea that she's no good (she's sort of the Ed Wood of country music).
When Sueleen begins to realize that these men want more from her than her terrible original songs and her off-key Barbara Jean covers, she initially refuses to strip, but then Triplette, who will say anything to anybody to get what he wants, takes her aside, praises her talent, and says that if she goes ahead with the striptease, he'll give her her big break and let her sing at the Parthenon rally the next day with her idol Barbara Jean.
Altman doesn't throw any winks to the audience about what a lie this is. By this point he doesn't have to. And so, Sueleen goes through with the striptease, even making a sad little flourish out of pulling out the sweat socks she'd stuffed into her bra and tossing them into the crowd.
The scene ends with Del Reese driving her home and clumsily propositioning her on her doorstep, until he's driven off by the arrival of Sueleen's somewhat-boyfriend Wade. Sueleen tells Wade what she had to do, but then she fervently reasserts her belief in her talent, and in the inevitability of her triumph. Nobody learns any big life lessons in this film.
Yes, I do
Meanwhile, while Delbert is being rebuffed, his wife is being seduced. Throughout the film, folk/rock singer Tom Frank (who is in Nashville secretly recording a solo album that the rest of his group knows nothing about) has been seducing every woman he can get his hands on. Most of the liaisons are casual, including groupie LA Joan and "Opal from the BBC," but one is more intense, since the woman is his bandmate Mary, and she's actually in love with him (and not with the third member of their trio, her husband Bill).
But Mary only says "I love you" to Tom when he's safely asleep, and in any case his attention isn't on her, it's on Linnea Reese, who he met at a recording studio. We've seen him call her a couple of times, obviously trying to set up an assignation with her, and at first she rebuffed him, but then the third time she has indicated that she's willing to come see him perform.
The scene at the club is one of those situations where the intensity is only apparent to the musicians and those around them, and is only obliquely seen by the audience. Bill and Mary are there, along with their limo driver and Opal, who is supposed to be interviewing them but is mostly talking about herself. LA Joan is there also, as is Wade.
A lot of things are going on at once. Linnea is attempting to be inconspicuous at a rear table, but Wade immediately starts to make friendly overtures. Meanwhile, Opal is attempting to drop casual hints that she's been having an affair with Tom (or, really, a one-night stand), oblivious to the fact that (for different reasons) Bill and Mary aren't really fascinated (or surprised) by this information.
Meanwhile, Tom is called up to the stage to do a number, and (after doing a song with Bill and Mary) he sings "I'm Easy," which is, in its way, as unintentionally self-revealing as Haven Hamilton's songs. As Mary could tell you, he's anything but easy.
But he's not singing to her, he's singing to Linnea, though both Opal and LA Joan seem willing to think he's singing to or about them. Mary is wise to him, though. She looks around the club, knowing that he's working on somebody, trying to figure out who it is.
And the seduction works, the next thing we see is Tom and Linnea in bed together. Tom is obviously somewhat taken with her, for the first time we see him actually talk to a woman he's in bed with. She teaches him the sign language for "I love you" and for "I'm glad I met you," and he's actually honest enough to use the latter rather than the former.
But then he wants her to stay, and she gets up to leave anyway, and suddenly it's pretty obvious that she's been doing this on her terms, and that for once Tom isn't in charge. He picks up the phone to call his girlfriend in New York, before Linnea has even left the room, but he doesn't succeed in convincing her to come down to Nashville to visit him, and suddenly it seems like Tom Frank is surrounded by women who have figured him out. For someone like him, that's probably the final circle of hell.
So, in each scene, the power has not been quite where the characters thought it was. The men organizing the smoker thought they were getting a stripper, a professional, and instead they got an aspiring singer who they had to lie to in order to get her to humiliate herself. In the other scene, the nearly saintly Linnea (wife of a no-good husband, gospel singer with a Black choir, mother of two deaf children who will never hear their mother sing) has turned out to be quite an efficient adulterer, nothing like the pigeon that Tom Frank thought he was pursuing. The shift in each case is subtle, but the combined effect of the two scenes is tremendous, and each involves a women being exploited (or, for a moment, not being exploited) by men.
After these two scenes, and the two with Barbara Jean that I talked about before, the actual "climax" of the film almost comes as a little bit of a letdown.
Let me be the 1 (one)
The movie is full of wonderful women who have ended up with men who clearly don't deserve them. Barbara Jean and Barnett, Linnea and Delbert Reese, and poor Mary, who's got two of them (Bill and Tom). And the dynamics in each case are very different, and each is also very typical. Linnea is the wife of a pretty successful lawyer, so she can occupy herself with her disabled children (significantly, she understands sign language, but her husband doesn't), her music, and religion. In fact, I suspect that's pretty much what's possible for her to occupy her time with.
Barbara Jean's story is the opposite, on the surface, because she's the breadwinner, the (one assumes) sole asset of "Barnett Enterprises," but of course it's Barnett who runs everything. In point of fact, Barbara Jean has fewer options than Linnea does, and it doesn't take much to imagine that various kinds of breakdowns are (consciously or not) the only way she has of asserting any control over her own life.
Mary is younger and obviously has more options. She sees her husband and her lover pretty clearly, but we're not shown what decisions she's going to make. At the Parthenon rally, she's with Tom (and Bill, amusingly, is with LA Joan), but when the trouble starts, Bill grabs Mary to get her to safety.
But, fortunately, the movie is not all good women and not-so-good men. LA Joan is a shallow groupie, Opal is a nut, Lady Pearl (Haven Hamilton's mistress) is a harridan, and Connie White is a complete phony.
As for the men, Wade's patience with Sueleen is amazing, Mr. Green's entire life seems to revolve around caring for his dying wife, and even Haven Hamilton comes off better than you'd expect at the end. When the crisis comes, he thinks about everybody else, about keeping the situation from getting worse, before he thinks about himself.
Nashville haunts Altman a bit, I think, because it did represent his peak, not only creatively, but in terms of his clout and respect in Hollywood. It was right after Nashville that he was scheduled to direct Ragtime, before being booted off the project in favor of Milos Forman after the producers got a look at Buffalo Bill and the Indians (but that's another story). For years he wanted to make a sequel to Nashville, the only time he has ever wanted to direct a sequel to one of his pictures, as far as I know. And what was Short Cuts but an attempt to do another Nashville, only (for most of it) less satisfying and much more mean-spirited.
I can think of a few movies in recent years that were obviously strongly influenced by Nashville (Lone Star, for one) and I think we have to regard Magnolia as a deliberate homage, since not only is it very similar in structure, but it shares not one but two cast members: Henry Gibson and Michael Murphy.
The July 2000 issue of Premiere Magazine contained a wonderful article about Nashville in honor of its 25th anniversary, including interviews with almost all of the surviving cast members, Joan Tewkesbury and Robert Altman. They reminisce about the making of the film, telling some wonderful stories, including confirming a belief that I've held for a long time, which is that "Opal from the BBC" is a complete phony, and that the reason she can never locate her cameraman is that she doesn't have one. She's not making a documentary for anybody, let alone for the BBC.
So, overall, it's a fascinating slice of twenty-four individual lives over three days. Two people die, but nobody else (as far as we can tell) has been changed in any major way. But we've seen a lot, both big and small, about how life was in the United States in 1975, and now, as well.
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Joan Tewkesbury
Norman : David Arkin
Lady Pearl : Barbara Baxley
Delbert Reese : Ned Beatty
Connie White : Karen Black
Barbara Jean : Ronee Blakley
Tommy Brown : Timothy Brown
Tom Frank : Keith Carradine
Opal : Geraldine Chaplin
Wade Cooley : Robert DoQui
LA Joan (Martha) : Shelley Duvall
Barnett : Alan Garfield
Haven Hamilton : Henry Gibson
PFC Glenn Kelly : Scott Glenn
Tricycle Man : Jeff Goldblum
Winifred (Albuquerque) : Barbara Harris
Kenny Fraiser : David Hayward
John Triplette : Michael Murphy
Bill : Allan Nicholls
Bud Hamilton : Dave Peel
Mary : Christina Raines
Star : Bert Remsen
Linnea Reese : Lily Tomlin
Sueleen Gay : Gwen Welles
Mr. Green : Keenan Wynn