Nashville: The Most Robert Altman of Robert Altman Films

Nashville was one of the most enduring movies from the 1970s. Telling a story with an ensemble cast that interacts, this movie became a fiercely debated cultural icon. It wasn’t as popular as Jaws or Star Wars; however, it was probably more enduring. “The New York Times ran at least eight pieces about the movie, and editorial writers and critics weighed in with opinions and interpretations for months after the film opened.” (Sawhill) With the possible exception of MASH, Nashville was the first ensemble movie by Altman in which he takes many different characters in one setting and follows them through their individual stories in one location throughout a few days. He would repeat these ensemble movies, most notably with Short Cuts (based on several Robert Carver stories in the city of Los Angeles) and Gosford Park (in which nobles and their servants make up two separate worlds that comment on each other but interact only officially).

Robert Altman is a film director known for a naturalistic tone. His characters speak over each other. The audience hears scraps of dialogue and often he worked with the actors in order to create naturalistic characters. For example, Keith Carradine wrote two songs for the movie Nashville. There are two stages to Altman’s film career after his television work. The first stage is characterized by movies that skew the genres from which they spring. MASH is a movie about the Korean War which concentrates on the antics of the doctors including a long football game. Mrs McCabe and Mr Miller is a Western in which the main character turns out to be coward. In The Long Goodbye, he casts Eliot Gould in the Philip Marlowe role and makes the character as far away from the Humphrey Bogart tough guy portrayal as possible. The second part of Robert Altman’s career is characterized by his resurgence in popularity with The Player, a movie that eschews the Hollywood system of movie making. In this later stage, the movies are more polished and he is much more enthusiastic about self-referential dialogue.

Joan Tewkesbury collaborated with Robert Altman on this movie by gong to Nashville and keeping a diary from which he drew the main scenes. (Altman) From there, he used a collaborative process with the actors by having them write their own songs and spend a great deal of time on their actors. (IMDB) The politician that goes through the movie is basically saying the kind of things that Altman would have liked to hear from a politician in 1975. (Altman) Role of Women

In 1975, feminism was a very popular topic as women were moving into the work force and the Equal Rights Amendment was being fiercely debated. Aspects of gender inequality such as the glass ceiling and less money of the same work were debated side by side with media representations of women and whether a man should hold a door open for a woman and what that represents. Gloria Steinem and Betty Frieden were media celebrities. I am often amazed by how often 1970s movies confronted gender topics. The movie 9 to 5 takes on the institutional sexism of the workplace and even includes a subplot about how women are set off against each other by their male co-workers in order to bring each other down. I also contrast the ways that the 1970s movies treated gender issues with the disposable movies of today. Perhaps invoking the Bechdel Test is a cliché, but when most of the Academy Award nominated movies that are singled out for praise can’t pass the Bechdel Test, something is seriously wrong with the way that Hollywood depicts women.

Briefly, the Bechdel Test was made up by Allison Bechdel as a joke in her comic strip. To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must have two distinct female characters. They must have a conversation. It cannot be about men. I see many movies in a year and many of those movies don’t even pass the first part of the test. Even movies with several distinct female characters are romantic comedies so the women are almost exclusively talking about men. Nashville. The movie sets out to depict Nashville through a series of vignettes and short stories based on these characters. “The film is like a series of overlapping variety shows set in parking lots, airport lobbies, hotel rooms, commercial strips and hospitals, and seen through plate glass and past billboards. It’s a jerry-built world of the disposable and the efficient. Altman gets the look of small-city mid-America: the knee-high socks, the businessmen in their tan suits — a Chamber of Commerce, high-school-athletic-team look.” (Sawhill)

Nashville did not please the denizens of Nashville who thought that it was a sarcastic commentary on the city. However, Robert Altman claims that many of them were angry because he wasn’t using their music. (Altman) Altman depicts Nashville as a city in which several people are getting off the bus looking to become great stars and he depicts Nashville musicians and citizens from all aspects including the established singer who is trying to live off of old hits as his new songs are rather mediocre, the fragile superstar Barbra Jean who collapses from heat exhaustion in the first scene and hears her rival take her place on the Grand Ol’ Opry Radio Show. As she listens to the radio show in the darkened room, she yells at her husband to turn it off even as she knows that he can’t. No matter how big she is as a star, she is still insecure. Some characters are groupies while other characters are terrible singers who believe that they will be big stars.

Almost all of the characters are fascinating in their own right. Robert Altman’s collaboration with the actors creates a way in which you can understand these people and their concerns in just a few key scenes and lines. Altman can do more with a few minutes in terms of characterization than most directors can do with an entire movie. I would love to talk about every character and their journey, but I will focus on a few. The Keith Carradine character is a member of a country music trio who is trying to go solo. He is the quintessential rock star in that he sleeps with as many women as possible and yet never really connects with any of them. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when he sings “I’m Easy” and dedicates it to Lily Tomlin. Only he doesn’t name her so three separate women in the bar think that he’s dedicated it to them and as he sings it, they slowly realize that he has moved on. Barbra Jean is the star who is very nervous throughout the movie. “In her first film, Blakley gives a performance that’s ridged with emotion. When she isn’t performing, her Barbara Jean, a reigning country queen, is just psychic flotsam and jetsam. When she does perform, all the bits and pieces come into sync. There may not be a real personality in Barbara Jean, but at least it all sometimes moves to the same rhythm.” (Sawhill) Often Barbra Jean is seen skulking in her hospital room or spoken of as having a fire baton accident. Throughout the movie, she is fragile and nervous. Yet, when she sings, she is the master of the stage – regardless of whether she is singing in a church or the Proscenium open outdoor concert. When she is shot and possibly killed, the movie culminates in the actual singing of Jill Brown, the Barbara Harris character who has been getting cut out of the roster for concerts and forced to sing near a race track where no one can hear her. Barbra Jean’s body is not even off the stage before someone else takes her place. Perhaps that final scene is really the best theme of Nashville and the music business in general. No matter how talented you may be, someone is always waiting to go on and take over.

Nashville is still just as innovative today as it was in 1975. In some ways it is more innovative since Robert Altman created a vast diorama of intersecting characters that including some of the most interesting female characters committed to film. It’s not that there aren’t interesting characters in today’s films. More accurately, most directors don’t seem to be trying to depict women with any degree of awareness or characterization.

References

Altman, Robert. “Interview.” Nashville dvd. 2000.

IMDB. “Did You Know?”. Nashville. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073440/trivia

Sawhill, Ray. “A Movie Called ‘Nashville.’” Slate Magazine. June 27, 2000. http://www.salon.com/2000/06/27/nashville_2/